What can the ECB and European Commission do to help the Euro area economy?

Today our focus switches to the Euro area and the European Central Bank as we await a big set piece event from the ECB. However as is his wont The Donald has rather grabbed the initiative overnight. From the Department of Homeland Security.

(WASHINGTON) Today President Donald J. Trump signed a Presidential Proclamation, which suspends the entry of most foreign nationals who have been in certain European countries at any point during the 14 days prior to their scheduled arrival to the United States. These countries, known as the Schengen Area, include: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.

I have pointed it out in this manner as sadly the mainstream media is misreporting it with Beth Rigby of Sky News for example tweeting it as Europe. Much of it yes but not all of it. Moving on to our regular economics beat this will impact on an area we looked at back on the 27th of February.

Announcing the new findings, ENIT chief Giorgio Palmucci said tourism accounted for 13 percent of Italy’s gross domestic product…… tourism-related spending by both French residents and non-residents, represents around 7.5% of GDP (5% for residents, 2.5% for non-residents)…..This figure represented 11.7% of GDP, 0.4% more than in 2016.  ( Spain)

Numbers must have been hit already in what is as you can see an important economic area. One sector of this is illustrated by the German airline Lufthansa which has a share price dipping below 9 Euros or down 11% today as opposed to over 15 Euros as recently as the 19th of February. There are the beginnings of an official response as you can see from @LiveSquawk below.

Spanish Foreign Minister Gonzalez: Spain To Special Steps To Support Tourism

I presume the minister means the tourism sector here as there is nothing that can be done about current tourism as quarantines and the like move in exactly the opposite direction.

There is also the specific case of Italy where it is easier now I think to say what is open rather than closed. As the economic numbers will be out of date we can try and get a measure from the stock market. We see that the FTSE MIB index is at 17,000 as I type this as opposed to 25,477 on the 19th of last month. It is of course far from a perfect measure but it is at least timely and we get another hint from the bond market. Here we see for all the talk of yield falls elsewhere the ten-year yield has risen to 1.3% as opposed to the 0.9% it had fallen to. That is a signal that there are fears for how much the economy will shrink and how this will affect debt dynamics albeit we also get a sign of the times that an economic contraction that looks large like this only raises bond yields by a small amount.

Meanwhile actual economic data as just realised was better.

In January 2020 compared with December 2019, seasonally adjusted industrial production rose by 2.3% in the euro area (EA19) and by 2.0% in the EU27, according to estimates from Eurostat, the statistical office of the
European Union. In December 2019, industrial production fell by 1.8% in the euro area and by 1.6% in the EU27.

The accompanying chart shows a pick-up in spite of this also being true.

In January 2020 compared with January 2019, industrial production decreased by 1.9% in the euro area and by
1.5% in the EU27.

The problem is that such numbers now feel like they are from a different economic age.

The Euro

This has been strengthening through this phase as we note that the ECB effective or trade weighted index was 94.9 on the 19th of February and was 98.14 yesterday. So if there is a currency war it is losing.

As to causes I think there is a bit of a Germany effect an the interrelated trade surplus. But the main player seems to be the return of the carry trade as Reuters noted this time last year.

On the other hand, the Japanese yen, Swiss franc and euro tend to be carry traders’ funding currencies of choice, as their low yields make them attractive to sell.

Yields in Switzerland on the benchmark bond return -0.35 percent; in Germany barely 0.07 percent. But the euro has been particularly popular this year as the struggling economy has further delayed policy tightening plans in the bloc.

Of course both Euro interest-rates and yields went lower later in the year as the ECB eased policy yet again. But can you spot the current catch as Reuters continues?

Should U.S. growth deteriorate, international trade conflicts escalate or the end of the decade-long bull run crystallise, the resulting volatility spike can send “safe” currencies such as the yen, euro and Swiss franc shooting higher, while inflicting losses on riskier emerging markets.

Comment

There is quite an economic shock being applied to the Euro area right now and it is currently being headlined by Italy. In terms of a response the Euro area has been quiet so far in terms of action although ECB President Christine Lagarde has undertaken some open-mouth operations.

Lagarde, speaking on a conference call late on Tuesday, warned that without concerted action, Europe risks seeing “a scenario that will remind many of us of the 2008 Great Financial Crisis,” according to a person familiar with her comments. With the right response, the shock will likely prove temporary, she added. ( Bloomberg).

 

I have no idea how she thinks monetary action will help much with a virus pandemic but of course in places she goes ( Greece, Argentina) things often get worse and indeed much worse. She has also rather contradicted herself referring to the great financial crisis because she chose not to coordinate her moves with the US Federal Reserve as happened back then. Also all her hot air contrasts rather with her new status as a committed climate change warrior.

A real problem is the limited room for manoeuvre she has which was deliberate. In my opinion she was given the job and was supposed to have a long honeymoon period because her predecessor Mario Draghi had set policy for the early part of her term. But as so often in life  we are reminded of the Harold MacMillan statement “events, dear boy, events” and now Christine Lagarde has quite a few important decisions to make. Even worse she has limited room. It used to be the case that the two-year yield of Germany was a guide but -1% seems unlikely and instead we may get a frankly ridiculous 0.1% reduction to -0.6% in the Deposit Rate.

The ECB may follow the Bank of England path and go for some credit easing to rev up the housing market, so expect plenty of rhetoric that it will boost smaller businesses. We may see the credit easing TLTRO with a lower interest-rate than the headline to boost the banks ( presented as good for business borrowers).

However the main moves now especially in the Euro area are fiscal even more than elsewhere as the monetary ones have been heavily used. So the ECB could increase its QE purchases to oil that wheel. Eyes may switch to European Commission President Von der Leyen’s statement yesterday.

These will concern in particular how to apply flexibility in the context of the Stability and Growth Pact and on the provision of State Aid.

I expect some action here although it is awkward as again President Von der Leyen had a pretty disastrous term as German Defence Minister. Although not for her, I mean for the German armed forces. So buckle up and let’s cross our fingers.

Also do not forget there may be a knock on effect for interest-rates in Denmark and Switzerland in particular as well as Sweden.

The Investing Channel

Can QE defeat the economic impact of the Corona Virus?

The weekend just passed has seen more than a few bits of evidence of the spread of the Corona Virus especially in Japan, South Korea, Italy and Iran. It has been a curious phase in Japan where on that quarantined cruise ship they have seemed determined to follow as closely as they can to the plot of the film Alien. Even China has been forced to admit things are not going well. This is President Xi Jinping in Xinhua News.

The epidemic situation remains grim and complex and it is now a most crucial moment to curb the spread, he noted.

Yet later in the same speech we are told this.

Stressing orderly resumption of work and production, Xi made specific requirements to that end.

Back on February 3rd we looked at the potential impact on the economy of China but today we can look wider. Let us open by seeing the consequences of some of the rhetoric being deployed.

Bond Markets

UST 30-Year yield falls to an all-time low 1.83 ( @fullcarry )

So we see an all-time low for the long bond in the worlds largest sovereign bond market. Rallies in bond markets are a knee-jerk response to signs of financial turmoil except it is supposed to be for the certainty of yield or if you prefer  interest. The catch is that there is not much to be found even in the US now and if we look wider afield we see that in one of the extreme cases of these times there is none to be found at all. This is because even the thirty-year yield in Germany is now -0.04% so in fact it is being paid to borrow all along its maturity spectrum.

It was only on Friday that I pointed out some were suggesting that the “bond vigilantes” might return to the UK whereas the UK Gilt market has surged also today with the 50 year Gilt at a mere 0.76%.

These are extraordinary numbers which come on the back of all the interest-rate cuts and all the central bank QE bond buying. Of course the latter is ongoing in the Euro area and in Japan. So let us look at them in particular.

The ECB has already hinted in the past that a reduction in its deposit rate to -0.6% could be deployed but frankly their situation is highlighted by talking about a 0.1% move. After all if full percentage points have not helped then how will 0.1%? Even they are tilling the ground on this front as they join the central banking rush to claim lower interest-rates are nothing to do with them at all.

Interest rates in advanced economies have been on a broad downward path for more than three decades
and remain close to historical lows.[5]
As has been highlighted in many studies, the drivers of this long-term pattern largely boil down to
demographics, productivity and the elevated net demand for safe assets. ( ECB Chief Economist Lane on Friday )

Next comes the issue that an extension of QE is limited by that fact that there are not so many bonds to buy on Germany and the Netherlands. But the reality is that under pressure this “rules based organisation” has a habit of changing the rules.

Switching to Japan we see that Governor Kuroda has been speaking too.

RIYADH (Reuters) – The Bank of Japan will be fully prepared to take necessary action to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus on the world’s third-largest economy, its Governor Haruhiko Kuroda said.

Okay what?

He also repeated the view that, while the central bank stands ready to ease monetary policy further “without hesitation”, it saw no immediate need to act.

That reminds me of the time he denied any plans to move to negative interest-rates and a mere eight days later he did. The next bit seems to be from a place far,far,away.

Kuroda said there was no major change to the BOJ’s projection that Japan’s economy would keep recovering moderately thanks to an expected rebound in global growth around mid-year.

Perhaps he was hoping that people would forget that GDP fell by 1.6% in the last quarter of 2018 meaning that the economy was 0.4% smaller than a year before.Or that Japanese plans for this year involved an Olympics in Tokyo that is now in doubt, after all the Tokyo Marathon has been dramatically downsized. I write that sadly as there are a couple of people who train at Battersea Park running track with hopes of competing in the Olympics.

But the grand master of expectations here was this from the G 20 conference over the weekend.

“I’m not going to comment on monetary policy, but obviously central bankers will look at various different options as this has an impact on the economy,” Mnuchin said.

Gold

There have been various false dawns for the price of gold and of course enough conspiracy theories about this for anyone. But gold bugs will be singing along with Spandau Ballet as they note a price of US $1688 is up over 23% on a year ago.

Gold
(Gold)
Always believe in your soul
You’ve got the power to know
You’re indestructible, always believe in, ‘cos you are ( Spandau Ballet )

Equity Markets

This have faced something of a conundrum as fears of a slowing world economy have been been by the hopium of even more central bank easing. Last week the Dax 30 of Germany hit an all-time high and today it is down 3.6% at 13,070 as I type this. So for all the media panic today it remains close to its highest ever.

Currencies

There are two main trends here I want to mark. The first is that we seem to be again in a period of what might be called King Dollar. Also there is this.

SNB propping up 1.0600 in $EURCHF ( @RANSquawk )

Trying that at 1.20 imploded rather spectacularly in January 2015. For newer readers the Swiss Franc (CHF) has been strong as the reversal of the pre credit crunch carry trade has been added to by the perceived strength of Switzerland. This was exacerbated as its neighbour the Euro area kept cutting interest-rates and went negative. So the Swiss National Bank are presently intervening against a safe haven flow towards the Swissy.

I have suggested for a while now I could see the Swiss National Bank cutting interest-rates to -1% and expect not to be “so lonely” as The Police put it. Also I would remind you that 20% of the intervention will be reinvested in the US equity market.

Comment

Who knew that interest-rate cuts and QE could be effective cures for the Corona Virus? Especially as they have not worked for much else. Although there are also whispers that it can cure climate change too. This highlights the moral and intellectual bankruptcy at play as central bankers try to offer more central planning to fix the problems of past central planning. The Corona Virus is of course not their fault but anything unexpected was always going to be a problem for a group determined not to allow a recession and thus any reform under creative destruction.

Meanwhile the rest of us wait to see the full economic impact as we mull the flickers of knowledge we get. For example Jaguar Land Rover saying it only has 2 weeks supply of some parts or reports that for some US pharmaceuticals 80% of the basic ingredients come from China. So the latter could see large demand they cannot supply and higher prices just as we see lower demand and inflation elsewhere. More conventionally there is this for France which must send a chill down the spine of Italy to its boot.

The drop off in tourist numbers is an “important impact” on France’s economy, Bruno Le Maire, the country’s finance minister, said…….France is one of the most visited countries in the world, and tourism accounts for nearly 8% of its GDP.

Podcast

 

 

 

 

The ECB now considers fiscal policy via QE to be its most effective economic weapon

Yesterday saw ECB President Christine Lagarde give a speech to the European Parliament and it was in some ways quite an extraordinary affair. Let me highlight with her opening salvo on the Euro area economy.

Euro area growth momentum has been slowing down since the start of 2018, largely on account of global uncertainties and weaker international trade. Moderating growth has also weakened pressure on prices, and inflation remains some distance below our medium-term aim.

In the circumstances that is quite an admittal of failure. After all the ECB has deployed negative interest-rates with the Deposit Rate most recently reduced to -0.5% and large quantities of QE bond buying. No amount of blaming Johnny Foreigner as Christine tries to do can cover up the fact that the switch to a more aggressive monetary policy stance around 2015 created what now seems a brief “Euro boom” but now back to slow and perhaps no growth.

But according to Christine the ECB has played a stormer.

 The ECB’s monetary policy since 2014 relies on four elements: a negative policy rate, asset purchases, forward guidance, and targeted lending operations. These measures have helped to preserve favourable lending conditions, support the resilience of the domestic economy and – most importantly in the recent period – shield the euro area economy from global headwinds.

It is hard not to laugh at the inclusion of forward guidance as a factor as let’s face it most will be unaware of it. Indeed some of those who do follow it ( mainstream economists) started last year suggesting there would be interest-rate increases in the Euro area before diving below the parapet. There seems to be something about them and the New Year because we saw optimistic forecasts this year too which have already crumbled in the face of an inconvenient reality. Moving on you may note the language of of “support” and “helped” has taken a bit of a step backwards.

Also as Christine has guided us to 2018 we get a slightly different message now to what her predecessor told us as this example from the June press conference highlights.

This moderation reflects a pull-back from the very high levels of growth in 2017, compounded by an increase in uncertainty and some temporary and supply-side factors at both the domestic and the global level, as well as weaker impetus from external trade.

As you can see he was worried about the domestic economy too and mentioned it first before global and trade influences. This distinction matters because as we will come too Christine is suggesting that monetary policy is not far off “maxxed out” as Mark Carney once put it.

For balance whilst there is some cherry picking going on below I welcome the improved labour market situation.

Our policy stimulus has supported economic growth, resulting in more jobs and higher wages for euro area citizens. Euro area unemployment, at 7.4%, is at its lowest level since May 2008. Wages increased at an average rate of 2.5% in the first three quarters of 2019, significantly above their long-term average.

Although it is hard not to note that the level of wages growth is worse than in the US and UK for example and the unemployment rate is much worse. You may note that the rate of wages growth being above average means it is for best that the ECB is not hitting its inflation target. Also we get “supported economic growth” rather than any numbers, can you guess why?

Debt Monetisation

You may recall that one of the original QE fears was that central banks would monetise government debt with the text book example being it buying government bonds when they were/are issued. This expands the money supply ( cash is paid for the bonds) leading to inflation and perhaps hyper-inflation and a lower exchange-rate.

What we have seen has turned out to be rather different as for example QE has led to much more asset price inflation ( bond, equity and house prices) than consumer price inflation. But a sentence in the Christine Lagarde speech hints at a powerful influence from what we have seen.

 Indeed, when interest rates are low, fiscal policy can be highly effective:

Actually she means bond yields and there are various examples of which in the circumstances this is pretty extraordinary.

Another record for Greece: 10 yr government bonds fall below 1% for the first time in history (from almost 4% a year ago)  ( @gusbaratta )

This is in response to this quoted by Amna last week.

 “If the situation continues to improve and based on the criteria we implement for all these purchases, I am relatively convinced that Greek bonds will be eligible as well.” Greek bonds are currently not eligible for purchase by the ECB since they are not yet rated as investment grade, one of the basic criteria of the ECB.

Can anybody think why Greek bonds are not investment grade? There is another contradiction here if we return to yesterday’s speech.

Other policy areas – notably fiscal and structural polices – also have to play their part. These policies can boost productivity growth and lift growth potential, thereby underpinning the effectiveness of our measures.

Because poor old Greece is supposed to be running a fiscal surplus due to its debt burden, so how can it take advantage of this? A similar if milder problem is faced by Italy which you may recall was told last year it could not indulge in fiscal policy.

The main target in President Lagarde’s sights is of course Germany. It has plenty of scope to expand fiscal policy as it has a surplus. It would in fact in many instances actually be paid to do so as it has a ten-year yield of -0.37% as I type this meaning real or inflation adjusted yields are heavily negative. In terms of economics 101 it should be rushing to take advantage of this except we see another example of economic incentives not achieving much at all as Germany seems mostly oblivious to this. There is an undercut as the German economy needs a boost right now. Although there is another issue as it got a lower exchange rate and lower interest-rates via Euro membership now if it uses fiscal policy and that struggles too, what’s left?

Mission Creep

If things are not going well then you need a distraction, preferably a grand one

We also have to gear up on climate change – and not only because we care as citizens of this world. Like digitalisation, climate change affects the context in which central banks operate. So we increasingly need to take these effects into account in central banks’ policies and operations.

Readers will disagree about climate change but one thing everyone should be able to agree on is that central bankers are completely ill equipped to deal with the issue.

Comment

This morning’s release from Eurostat was simultaneously eloquent and disappointing.

In December 2019 compared with November 2019, seasonally adjusted industrial production fell by 2.1% in the
euro area (EA19)……In December 2019 compared with December 2018, industrial production decreased by 4.1% in the euro area……The average industrial production for the year 2019, compared with 2018, fell by 1.7% in the euro area

The index is at 100.6 so we are nearly back to 2015 levels as it was set at 100 and we have the impact of the Corona Virus yet to come. Actually we can go further back is this is where we were in 2011. Another context is that the Euro area GDP growth reading of 0.1% will be put under pressure by this.

In a nutshell this is why the ECB President wants to discuss things other than monetary policy as even central bankers are being forced to discuss this.

 We are fully aware that the low interest rate environment has a bearing on savings income, asset valuation, risk-taking and house prices. And we are closely monitoring possible negative side effects to ensure they do not outweigh the positive impact of our measures on credit conditions, job creation and wage income.

But central bankers are creatures of habit so soon some will be calling for yet another interest-rate cut.

Let me finish with some humour.

Governors had to stop trashing policy decisions once taken and keep internal disputes out of the media, presenting a common external front, 11 sources — both critics and supporters of the ECB’s last, controversial stimulus package — told Reuters.

Yep, the ECB has leaked that there are no leaks….

 

 

 

The ECB Review should put house prices in its inflation measure

Today brings the Euro area and European Central Bank into focus as the latter announces its policy decision. In terms of a change today I am not expecting anything as policy was set for the early part of the tenure of Christine Lagarde as ECB President by her predecessor Mario Draghi when he cut the main interest-rate to -0.5% and restarted QE bond purchases late last year. If you think about it that was quite revelaing as to what Mario thought about the capabilities of his “good friend” Christine. But whilst the surface may be quiet there is quite a bit going on underneath as highlighted by this from the Financial Times.

Lagarde’s legacy building begins at the ECB

I would say that this is an extraordinary level of sycophancy but then this is standard for the FT which of course called Bank of England Governor a “rock star”. Still I guess the media have to compete for priority at the various press conferences. After all the idea was a classic political style tactic of playing for time. But the catch is that it seems likely to end up with actual changes just as the time when the ECB is at its most intellectually lightweight. Also there is something of a swerve in that the ECB is in effect being allowed to set its own exam paper. Most of us wish we could have done that at school, college and university! More seriously central bank mandates are supposed to be set by elected politicians. Now whilst the ECB is headed by politicians these days ( Lagarde and De Guindos) they have been appointed rather than elected.

What is going on?

This is really extraordinary stuff because if you think about it Mario Draghi acquired a legacy by responding to events ( Whatever it takes to save the Euro…) whereas wht we have now is self-chosen as described above,

 Every good central banker needs a legacy. Mario Draghi, the former head of the European Central Bank, is widely credited with rescuing the eurozone from a debt crisis. Today his successor, Christine Lagarde, will kick off the search for a defining cause of her own.

Also this “Every good central banker needs a legacy” provokes the question why? Before we note that this is very damning of a former FT favourite Mark Carney who is leaving without one.

Oh and did I mention buying time?

Ms Lagarde will launch the second strategic review in the 20-year history of the ECB — a process that she has said will last until December as it turns “every stone” in search of ways to fine tune its monetary policy toolkit.

Also just like we have seen in various wars if your main priority is going badly it is time for some mission creep.

One of the most controversial ideas Ms Lagarde has proposed for the review is to make tackling climate change a “mission-critical” priority of the ECB. It is easy to see why this idea appeals to Ms Lagarde, with extreme weather events increasing in frequency and intensity every year — the latest being the wildfires raging across Australia — and pushing green issues to the top of the political agenda.

Indeed it is with the Euro area economy struggling. A diversion is badly needed.

With the Ivory Tower style economic modelling in so much trouble you might think this is really rather cruel and heartless.

For a start, the ECB could integrate climate-related risks into all its modelling and take more account of them when valuing collateral it accepts from financial institutions, as proposed by Banque de France governor François Villeroy de Galhau.

Collateral is a potentially explosive issue as the Bank of England discovered early in the credit crunch when it found that it had received “Phantom Securities” ( the clue is in the name). This is even more likely in a fashionable cause such as climate change.

A problem with this is that it would lead to central bankers choosing which stocks to favour which even the equity loving Tokyo Whale tries to avoid.

Environmental campaigners are calling on the ECB to do even more and repurpose its €2.6tn asset-purchase programme, known as quantitative easing (QE), by divesting “brown” bonds issued by carbon-intensive companies while increasing purchases of green bonds…….Critics say it is up to politicians, not central banks, to decide which companies to favour and which to penalise.

Meanwhile back on the day job.

Growth expectations have been scaled down.

If we switch to CNBC we see something which is quite damning for an ECB which has been so expansionist and interventionist. After negative interest-rates and all the QE this is the result.

Monetary policy action in Frankfurt is not expected by some market watchers for the whole of 2020. With inflation sluggish and no real economic rebound in sight, the majority of economists expect the ECB to adopt a “wait and see” approach.

The International Perspective

This matters on an international perspective as has been revealed by the head of the Swiss National Bank today.

“We know that negative rates also have side effects, that is the reason why we changed the threshold,” Jordan told CNBC, referring to the SNB raising the limit before the charge of -0.75% applied to commercial bank deposits at the central bank.

That is an awkward one for Christine Lagarde to mull as she imposes negative interest-rates but there is more.

ordan’s colleague Andrea Maechler said on Wednesday the SNB would end negative interest rates “as soon as we are able,” when asked about the central bank’s ultra-loose monetary policy aimed at curbing the Swiss franc’s over-valuation.

In essence it is the ECB that runs Swiss monetary policy as another ECB interest-rate cut seems likely to push the SNB to -1% as an official interest-rate. There is a similar state of play in Denmark. As to Sweden it’s central bank has been something of an unguided missile in the way it has raised interest-rates into an economic slow down so who knows what it will do next?

Comment

The opening issue is how did the ECB end up with its review being headed by someone known for incompetence ( Greece and then Argentina) as well as having a conviction for negligence in a fraud case?

Perhaps the fact above is related to a state of pay where nobody seems to be discussing the actual mandate or what we might call the day job. This is to keep consumer inflation as defined by HICP ( what we call CPI in the UK) below but close to 2% per annum. This was later refined by former President Jean-Claude Trichet to 1.97%, mostly because that is what it averaged in his watch.

There is a warning there because the apparent success on Trichet’s watch was combined with the credit crunch. Ooops! More specifically there were the house price booms and then busts in Spain and Ireland in particular. This allows me to suggest a fix which is to put house prices in the inflation index to help avoid that occurring again. Also it would represent not only a tightening of policy but adding an area that somehow they have managed to mean to include but forget for two decades now. Otherwise they had better keep playing Elvis on their loudspeakers.

We’re caught in a trap
I can’t walk out
Because I love you too much baby

Where next for the Japanese Yen and the Bank of Japan?

As the third most traded currency the Japanese Yen is one of the bedrocks of the world economy. In spite of the size and strength of the Japanese economy the currency tail can wag the economy dog as we saw on the period of the “Carry Trade” and its consequences. For newer readers I looked at the initial impact back on the 19th of September 2016.

 Ironically if done on a large-scale as happened back in the day with the Swiss Franc and the Japanese Yen it lowers the currency and so not only is the interest cheaper but you have a capital gain. What could go wrong? Well we will come to that. But this same effect turned out to make things uncomfortable for both Japan and Switzerland as their currencies were pushed lower and lower.

At that point borrowers were having a party as the got a cheaper borrowing rate and a currency gain but the Japanese ( and Swiss) saw their currency being depressed. However the credit crunch ended that party as currency traders saw the risk and that people might buy Yen to cover the risk. Thus there was a combination of speculative and actual buying which saw the Yen strengthen from over 120 Yen to the US Dollar to below 80.

There were various impacts from this and starting in Japan life became difficult for its exporters and some sent production abroad as the mulled an exchange rate of around 78 to the US Dollar. For example some shifted production to Thailand. Looking wider the investors who remained in the carry trade shifted from profit to loss. On this road in generic terms the typical Japanese investor often described as Mrs. Watanabe was having a rough patch as in Yen terms their investments went being hit. Actually that is something of a generic over my career for Mrs Watanabe as timing of investments in say UK Gilts or Australian property has often been poor. Of course as it turns out property in Oz did work but you would have needed plenty of patience.

Enter the Bank of Japan

The next phase was a type of enter the dragon as the Bank of Japan in 2013 embarked on an extraordinary monetary stimulus programme. Under the banner of Abenomics that was designed to weaken the Yen although it was not officially one of the 3 arrows it was supposed to fire. For a while this worked as the Yen fell towards 125 to the US Dollar. But just as economics 101 felt it could celebrate a rare triumph the Yen then strengthened again and actually rallied to 101 in spite of negative interest-rates being deployed  leading to yet another new effort called QQE and Yield Curve Control in September 2016.

So we see that Japan had some success in weakening the Yen but that then ended and even with negative interest-rates and the purchases by the Bank of Japan below there was a fizzling out of any impact.

The Bank will purchase Japanese government bonds (JGBs) so that their amount outstanding will increase at an annual pace of about 80 trillion yen.

But you see these things have unintended consequences as Brad Setser points out below.

Japanese investors have been big buyers of foreign bonds—and U.S. bonds in particular. The lifers, the Japanese government through the government pension fund (GPIF), the Japanese government through Post Bank (which takes in deposits and cannot make loans so it buys foreign bonds since it cannot make money buying JGBs), and Norinchukin*

So a policy to weaken the Yen has a side-effect of strengthening it and even worse makes the global financial system more risky. Back to Brad.

In broad terms, a number of Japanese financial institutions have become, in part, dollar based intermediaries. They borrow dollars from U.S. money market funds, U.S. banks, and increasingly the world’s large reserve managers (all of whom want to hold short-term dollar claims for liquidity reasons) and invest in longer dated U.S. bonds.

What about now?

Things are rather different to this time last year when we were trying to figure out what had caused this?

The Japanese yen soared in early Asian trading on Thursday as the break of key technical levels triggered massive stop-loss sales of the U.S. and Australian dollars in very thin markets. The dollar collapsed to as low as 105.25 yen on Reuters dealing JPY=D3, a drop of 3.2 percent from the opening 108.76 and the lowest reading since March 2018. It was last trading around 107.50 yen………. ( Reuters )

That was from January 3rd whereas overnight we see this.

The major was trading 0.1 percent up at 110.09, having hit a high of 110.21 earlier, its highest since May 23.  ( EconoTimes )

On its own this may seen the Governor of the Bank of Japan have a quiet smile and a celebratory glass of sake. But falls in the Yen are associated with something else which will please the head of The Tokyo Whale.

TOKYO (Kyodo) — Tokyo stocks rose Tuesday, with the benchmark Nikkei index ending above 24,000 for the first time since mid-December, as investor sentiment improved on expectations for further easing of U.S.-China trade tensions. ( The Mainichi)

The Mainichi seems to have missed the currency connection with this but no doubt Governor Kuroda   will be pointing out both thresholds to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Has something changed?

On Monday JP Morgan thought so. Via Forex Flow.

But because in recent years the yen is no longer being sold off in the first place, it is not acting as much like a safe-haven currency as in the past.

Okay so why?

if interest rates increase in other countries (opening a wider gap with rates in Japan)

Well good luck with that one! Maybe some day but the credit crunch era has seen 733 interest-rate cuts. However the Financial Times has joined in.

First, Japan is running trade deficits, which would imply a weaker currency. Second, domestic asset managers are busy buying higher-yielding foreign assets. Third, Japanese companies, confronting a chronic shortage of decent ways to deploy their capital at home, are increasingly spending it on deals overseas.

The last point is a really rather devastating critique of the six years of Abenomics as one of the stated Arrows was for exactly the opposite. Also there us more trouble for economics 101 as a lower Yen has seen a trade surplus switch to a deficit. Actually I think that responses to exchange rate moves can be very slow and measured in years so with all the ch-ch-changes it is hard to know what move is in play.

Comment

There is much to reflect on here. For example today may be one to raise a smile at the Bank of Japan as it calculates the value of its large equity holdings and sees the Yen weaken across a threshold. But it is also true that exactly the same policies saw the “flash rally” of over a year ago. In addition we see that the enormous effort in play to weaken the Yen has seen compensating side-effects which raise the risk level in the international finance system. Really rather like the Carry Trade did.

A warning is required because in the short-term crossing a threshold like 110 Yen sees a reversal but we could see the Yen weaken for a while. This is problematic with so many others wanting to devalue their currency as well with the Bank of England currently in the van. From a Japanese perspective this will be see as a gain against a nation they have all sorts of issues with.

“China has made enforceable commitments to refrain from competitive devaluation, while promoting transparency and accountability,” US Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, said.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly accused China of allowing the value of the yuan to fall, making Chinese goods cheaper.

But, on Monday, the US said that the value of the yuan had appreciated since August, at the height of the trade war. ( BBC )

How will that play out?

 

 

 

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

 

Sweden has a growing unemployment problem

Today is one for some humility and no I am not referring to the UK election. It relates to Sweden and developments there in economic policy and its measurement which have turned out to be extraordinary even for these times. Let me start by taking you back to the 22nd of August when I noted this.

I am less concerned by the contraction than the annual rate. There had been a good first quarter so the best perspective was shown by an annual rate of 1.4%. You see in recent years Sweden has seen annual economic growth peak at 4.5% and at the opening of 2018 it was 3.6%.

We now know that this broad trend continued into the third quarter.

Calendar adjusted and compared with the third quarter of 2018, GDP grew by 1.6 percent.

What was really odd about the situation is that after years of negative interest-rates the Riksbank raised interest-rates at the end of last year to -0.25% and plans this month to get back to 0%. So it has kept interest-rates negative in a boom and waited for a slow down to raise them. But there is more.

The Unemployment Debacle

If we step forwards to October 24th there was another development.

As economic activity has entered a phase of lower growth in
2019, the labour market has also cooled down. Unemployment is deemed to have increased slightly during the year. ( Riksbank)

Actually it looked a bit more than slightly if we switch to Sweden Statistics.

In September 2019, there were 391 000 unemployed persons aged 15─74, not seasonally adjusted, an increase of 62 000 compared with September 2018.

The Riksbank at this point was suggesting it would raise to 0% but gave Forward Guidance which was lower! Make of that what you will.

But in late October Sweden Statistics dropped something of a bombshell.

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – Recent Swedish jobless figures – which that have shown a sharp rise in unemployment and led to calls for the central bank to postpone planned interest rate hikes – are suspect, the country’s Statistics Office said on Thursday………….The problems also led to the unemployment rate being underestimated at the start of the year and then overestimated in more recent months.

The smoothed unemployment rate was lowered from 7.3% to 6.8% in response to this and changed the narrative, assuming of course that they had got it right this time. The headline rate went from 7.1% to 6%.

This morning we got the latest update and here it is.

In November 2019, there were 378 000 unemployed persons aged 15─74, not seasonally adjusted, which is an increase of 63 000 persons compared with the same period a year ago. The unemployment rate increased by 1.0 percentage points and amounted to 6.8 percent.

As you can see eyes will have turned to the headline rate having gone from 6% to 6.8% making us wonder if the new methodology has now started to give similar results to the old one. It had been expected to rise but to say 6.3% not 6.8%. We get some more insight from this.

Among persons aged 15–74, smoothed and seasonally adjusted data shows an increase in both the number of unemployed persons and the unemployment rate, compared with nearby months. There were 384 000 unemployed persons in November 2019, which corresponds to an unemployment rate of 6.9 percent.

A much smaller move but again higher and because it is smoothed we also start to think we are back to where we were as this from Danske Bank makes clear.

Ooops! The very unreliable revised new #LFS data showed a significant bounce back up to 7.3 % seasonally adjusted! This is very close to what our model suggested. Ironically, this is just as bad as the old figures suggested. But perhaps these are wrong too? ( Michael Grahn )

So the new supposedly better data is now giving a similar answer to the old. Just for clarity they are taking out the smoothing or averaging effect and looking to give us a spot answer for November unemployment.

The Wider Economy

One way of looking at the work situation is to look at hours worked.

On average, the number of hours worked amounted to 154.3 million per week in November 2019.

But that is lower than under the old system.

On average, the number of hours worked amounted to 156.5 million per week in September 2019…..On average, the number of hours worked amounted to 156.2 million per week in August 2019.

This is really awkward as under the new system Sweden has just under an extra half a million employees but the total number of house worked has fallen. Make of that what you will.

If switch to production we saw a by now familiar beat hammered out earlier this month.

Production in the industry sector decreased by 3.0 percent in October in calendar adjusted figures compared with the same period of the previous year. The industry for machinery and equipment n.e.c. decreased by 6.8 percent in fixed prices and accounted for the largest contribution, -0.2* percentage points, to the development in total private sector production.

Monthly output was up by 0.2% seasonally adjusted but as you can see was well below last year’s. This means Sweden is relying on services for any growth.

Production in the service sector increased by 1.1 percent in October in calendar adjusted figures compared with the same period of the previous year. Trade activities increased by 3.6 percent in fixed prices and contributed the most, 0.5 percentage points, to the development in total private sector production.

So Sweden has maybe some growth which will get a boost from construction.

Production in the construction sector increased by 2.1 percent in October in calendar adjusted figures compared with the same period of the previous year. This sector increased by 2.1 percent in fixed prices, not calendar-adjusted.

If we switch to private-sector surveys then Swedbank tells us this.

The purchasing managers’ index for the private service sector (Services PMI) dropped in November for the third month in a row to 47.9 from 49.4 in October. The
decrease in the index means that service sector activity is continuing to decline in the fourth quarter to levels that have not been seen in six years and that are
contributing to lower hiring needs in service companies,

So maybe the service sector growth has gone as well. The overall measure speaks for itself.

Silf/Swedbank’s PMI Composite index dropped for the third straight month to 47.2 in November from 48.5 in October, reinforcing the view that private sector activity is
slowing in the fourth quarter. Since November of last year the composite index has fallen 7.6 points

Comment

There are two clear issues in this. Of which the first is the insane way in which the Riksbank kept interest-rates negative in a boom and now is raising them in a slowing.

Updated GDP tracker after Nov LFS dropped to a new low since 2012, just 0.26% yoy. ( Michael Grahn of Danske )

Some signals suggest that this may now be a decline or contraction. But whatever the detail the Swedish economy has slowed and will not be helped much by the slower Euro area and UK economies. An interest-rate rise could be at the worst moment and fail the Bananarama critique.

It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it
It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it
It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it
And that’s what gets results

Next is the issue of lies, damned lies and statistics. I am sure Sweden’s statisticians are doing their best but making mistakes like they have about unemployment is a pretty basic fail. It reminds us that these are surveys and not actual counts and adds to the mess Japan made of wages growth. So we know a lot less than we think we do and this poses yet another problem for the central bankers who seem to want to control everything these days.

Let me end with the thought that UK readers should vote and Rest In Peace to Marie Fredriksson of Roxette.

She’s got the look (She’s got the look) She’s got the look (She’s got the look)
What in the world can make a brown-eyed girl turn blue
When everything I’ll ever do I’ll do for you
And I go la la la la la she’s got the look