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

 

 

 

 

Negative interest-rates are on the march yet again

A feature of the modern era is that things which are permanent are described as “temporary”. This has been particularly true in the era of interest-rates as it is easy to forget now that the low interest-rates of 2009/10 were supposed to be so. The reality is that they went even lower and in more than a few places went negative which again was supposed to be temporary. But the list got longer along the lines of the famous Elvis Presley song.

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

I have written before that I think that there are two factors in this being passed onto the ordinary depositor. Firstly how negative interest-rates become and secondly how long they are negative for. The reason why there is any delay in the pass on to depositors and savers is that the banks are afraid they will withdraw their cash and hence break their business model apart.

Germany

On the 19th of last month we noted that some German banks were looking to spread the negativity net wider and according to Bloomberg some smaller ones have broken ranks.

After five years of negative rates imposed by the European Central Bank, German lenders are breaking the last taboo: Charging retail clients for their savings starting with very first euro in the their accounts.

While many banks have been passing on negative rates to retail clients for some time, they have typically only done so for deposits of 100,000 euros ($111,000) or more. That is changing, with one small lender close to Munich planning to impose a rate of minus 0.5% to all savings in certain new accounts. Another bank in the east of the country has introduced a similar policy and a third is considering an even higher charge.

This is the system we have some to expect where a small bank or two is used as a pathfinder to test the water. I wonder if there is some sort of arrangement here although this from Bloomberg is also true.

 While there are some exemptions under the policy, years of sub-par profitability have left especially smaller lenders with few options to offset the cost of the ECB’s charges.

The irony is not lost on me that policies brought in to protect “The Precious” are now damaging it and may yet destroy it. I also find it fascinating to whom Bloomberg went for an opinion as it is straight out of the European equivalent of Yes Prime Minister.

“For now, negative rates are probably a signal to new clients that a bank doesn’t need any additional deposits,” said Isabel Schnabel, a professor at the University of Bonn who was nominated by Germany to join the ECB’s Executive Board. “I would assume that banks are a lot more cautious with existing customers.”

Kylie Minogues “Spinning Around” should be playing in the background to that. Still Isabel should fit in well with the ECB Executive Board as we get some strong hints as to why she was nominated.

Who is it?

The banks are shown below.

Now Volksbank Raiffeisenbank Fuerstenfeldbruck, a regional bank close to Munich, is among the first brushing off such concerns. The bank says it will impose a negative rate of 0.5% on new clients who open a popular form of saving account……….Kreissparkasse Stendal, in the east of the country, has a similar policy for clients who have no other relationship with the bank. Both lenders levy the charges on new customers who open a type of savings account that allows for daily, unlimited withdrawals, a popular instrument among German savers. Existing customers are mostly exempt for now.

The way that this has been such a slow process shows that the banks are afraid of deposit flight or a type of run on the bank. So far we do not know when that would occur although we do know now that some versions of negative interest-rates do not cause it. As the plan below is for an extra -0.05% it seems unlikely to be the trigger.

Frankfurter Volksbank, one of the country’s largest cooperative lenders, is considering going even further and charging some new customers 0.55% for all their deposits, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported, without saying where it got the information. The lender said in a statement it has not made any decisions yet.

Denmark

The Straits Times has picked up on an interview by the Governor of the central bank Lars Rhode and it is rather revealing.

In Denmark, where banks have lived with negative rates since 2012, it’s now clear that life below zero isn’t about to end any time soon. People need to understand that it’s “lower for longer”, Rohde said. And that will “definitely” have negative consequences for lenders, he said.

He also gave a speech yesterday and in it there was this.

Digitalisation and new legislation give more players access to the market for bank products. From the payments market we know that digital solutions have a tendency to create natural monopolies because it costs less to perform one extra transaction once the digital infrastructure is in
place.

That was ominous as banks already have problems with their business model and it got worse as he told them who he had in mind.

In recent years, we have seen tech giants, such as Apple and Amazon, enter the financial market. Experience from both the USA and China shows that these firms are extending their original core business to include payments and subsequently also financial services such as
lending.

Is he telling them they are obsolete and dinosaurs. Still he did manage some humour.

Well-functioning IT systems and a tight rein on costs will be key competitive parameters for banks in the coming years.

As the Straits Times puts it.

But years of negative rates, tougher regulatory requirements and, in some cases, out of date technology, have put some banks on the back foot.

Indeed this may put a chill down bankers spines.

According to a report in Borsen on Tuesday, Apple Pay has now established itself as a considerably more popular app among Danish shop owners than a local mobile payment solution offered by Nets A/S, which has so far dominated digital payments within the Nordic region.

So far Danish banks are resisting the trend towards negative interest-rates for all.

For now, lenders have drawn the line at 750,000 kroner (S$152,000), which is the threshold below which deposits are covered by guarantees.

Comment

There is a steady drip drip here and there is some other news which suggests to me that the ECB may be genuinely afraid. In its latest round of monetary easing there was also tiering of deposits for banks at the ECB itself which may reduce the costs there by a third. But in the last week or two there are signs of something more subtle regarding bank capital.

Enter Mr Enria new head of the SSM… And Unicredit’ s new business plan presented this morning. In which they make clear that Pillar 2 would be CET1 AT1 and T2. This means in practice :

A) a big CET1 relief for banks (80bps for Unicredit)

B) a massive need of new AT1/T2

( @jeuasommenulle )

He thinks that today’s announcement from Unicredit of Italy hints that the capital requirements for risk-weighted assets are being trimmed. There has been a change in who is in charge and more flexibility seems to be in the offing. This adds to the hint provided last week in the proposed banking merger between Unicaja and Liberbank as in the past it might have been stymied by a demand for more capital. Oh and SSM is Single Supervisory Mechanism.

This echoes partly because of this if we return to the Governor of the Danish central bank.

This creates an underlying need for consolidation, also within the financial sector.

So it is a complex picture and remember some policymakers at the ECB wanted to turn the screw even harder with a Deposit Rate of -0.6%.

 

 

Australia gets ready for QE but claims to reject negative interest-rates

So far the credit crunch era has been relatively kind to Australia. A major factor in this has simply been one of location as its huge natural resources have been a boon and that has been added to by its proximity to a large source of demand. Or putting it another way that is why we have at times given it the label of the South China Territories. However times are now rather different with the headlines being occupied by the subject of the various trade wars and as we have noted along the way this is particularly impacting on the Pacific region. Thus we find that the Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia has given a speech this morning on unconventional monetary policy as they too fear that the super massive black hole that was the impact of the credit crunch may be pulling them towards an event horizon.

Why?

If we look at the state of play as claimed by Philip Lowe you may be wondering why this speech is necessary at all?

The central scenario for the Australian economy remains for economic growth to pick up from here, to reach around 3 per cent in 2021. This pick-up in growth should see a reduction in the unemployment rate and a lift in inflation. So we are expecting things to be moving in the right direction, although only gradually.

This is straight out of the central banking playbook where you discuss such moves and then imply they will not be necessary. They think it is a way of deflecting blame and speaking of deflecting blame interest-rate cuts are nothing to do with them either.

low interest rates are not a temporary phenomenon. Rather, they are likely to be with us for some time and are the result of some powerful global factors that are affecting interest rates everywhere

If interest-rates are indeed set by “powerful global factors” then we could trim central banks down to a small staff surely?

Banks

As ever it turns out to be all about “The Precious! The Precious!” for any central banker.

At the moment, though, Australia’s financial markets are operating normally and our financial institutions are able to access funding on reasonable terms. In any given currency, the Australian banks can raise funds at the same price as other similarly rated financial institutions around the world, and markets are not stressed.

You might think that plunging into unconventional economic policy might be driven by the real economy but oh no as you can see there is a different driver. In spite of the effort below to say Australia is different this means that it has learnt nothing and will make the same mistakes.

We are not in the same situation that has been faced in Europe and Japan. Our growth prospects are stronger, our banking system is in much better shape, our demographic profile is better and we have not had a period of deflation. So we are in a much stronger position.

Again this is a central banking standard as they claim “this time is different” and then apply exactly the same policies!

QE it is then

We get various denials which I will come to in a bit but the crux of the matter is below.

My fourth point is that if – and it is important to emphasise the word if – the Reserve Bank were to undertake a program of quantitative easing, we would purchase government bonds, and we would do so in the secondary market.

The explanation of why he would choose this option will certainly be popular with Australia’s politician’s.

The first is the direct price impact of buying government bonds, which lowers their yields. And the second is through market expectations or a signalling effect, with the bond purchases reinforcing the credibility of the Reserve Bank’s commitment to keep the cash rate low for an extended period.

You may note that he has contradicted himself with the second point as he has already told us that low interest-rates are “are likely to be with us for some time”.  He then points out again that he has already acted this year.

It is important to remember that the economy is benefiting from the already low level of interest rates, recent tax cuts, ongoing spending on infrastructure, the upswing in housing prices in some markets and a brighter outlook for the resources sector.

That also gets awkward because having cut interest-rates by 0.75% already this calendar year Governor Lowe is implying we could get to his QE threshold quite quickly.

Our current thinking is that QE becomes an option to be considered at a cash rate of 0.25 per cent, but not before that. At a cash rate of 0.25 per cent, the interest rate paid on surplus balances at the Reserve Bank would already be at zero given the corridor system we operate. So from that perspective, we would, at that point, be dealing with zero interest rates.

Why QE?

Well he is clearly no fan of negative interest-rates.

More broadly, though, having examined the international evidence, it is not clear that the experience with negative interest rates has been a success.

Indeed he may even have read yesterday’s post on here.

Negative interest rates also create problems for pension funds that need to fund long-term liabilities.

Or perhaps he has been a longer-term follower.

In addition, there is evidence that they can encourage households to save more and spend less, especially when people are concerned about the possibility of lower income in retirement. A move to negative interest rates can also damage confidence in the general economic outlook and make people more cautious.

Although this bit is quite a hostage to fortune and may come back to haunt Governor Lowe.

The second observation is that negative interest rates in Australia are extraordinarily unlikely.

Comment

It is hard not to have a wry smile as central bankers catch up with a point I was making about a decade ago.

Given these considerations, it is not surprising that some analysts now talk about the ‘reversal interest rate’ – that is, the interest rate at which lower rates become contractionary, rather than expansionary

I argued it was in the region of 1.5% and Australia is now well below it so it is I think singing along with Coldplay.

Oh no I see
A spider web and it’s me in the middle
So I twist and turn
Here am I in my little bubble

As to why the RBA is preparing the ground for even more monetary action then let me switch to Deputy Governor Debelle who also spoke today. This starts well.

Over much of the past three years, employment has grown at a healthy annual pace of 2½ per cent. This has been faster than we had expected, particularly so, given economic growth was slower than we had expected.

But in a reversal of the Meatloaf dictum that “two out of three aint bad” we get this.

But the unemployment rate has turned out to be very close to what we had expected and has moved sideways around 5¼ per cent for some time now………Then I will look at wages growth and show that the lower average wage outcomes of the past few years have reflected the increased prevalence of wages growth in the 2s across the economy.

The next issue is that does the mere mention of QE operate in the same manner as The Candyman in the film? If so that is at least 2 mentions in Australia so at the most we have 3 to go before it appears.

Finally with a ten-year bond yield already at 1.06% or about 1.5% lower than a year ago, what extra is there to be gained?

 

 

 

 

Christine Lagarde trolls Germany and asks for more fiscal stimulus

This morning has seen the first set piece speech of the new ECB President Christine Lagarde and it would not be her without some empty rhetoric.

The idea of European renewal may, for some, elicit feelings of cynicism. We have heard it many times before: “Europe is at a crossroads”; “now is Europe’s moment”. Often that has not proven to be the case. But this time does in fact seem different.

To her perhaps, just like the Greek bailout was “shock and awe” which I suppose in the end it was just as a doppelganger of what she meant.

We also got some trolling of Germany.

Ongoing trade tensions and geopolitical uncertainties are contributing to a slowdown in world trade growth, which has more than halved since last year. This has in turn depressed global growth to its lowest level since the great financial crisis.

These uncertainties have proven to be more persistent than expected, and this is clearly impacting on the euro area. Growth is expected to be 1.1% this year, i.e. 0.7 percentage points lower than we projected a year ago

A lot of the reduction and impact has been on Germany but what Christine does not say is that this has become a regular Euro area issue where economic growth has been downgraded or poor or both. Briefly around 2017 we had the Euro boom but that required the monetary taps to be wide open. Missing here in the analysis is the fact that the stimulus was withdrawn into a growth slowdown.

Did I say there was some trolling of Germany?

At the same time, there are also changes of a more structural nature. We are starting to see a global shift – driven mainly by emerging markets – from external demand to domestic demand, from investment to consumption and from manufacturing to services.

Then we move onto rhetoric that is simply misleading.

The answer lies in converting the world’s second largest economy into one that is open to the world but confident in itself – an economy that makes full use of Europe’s potential to unleash higher rates of domestic demand and long-term growth.

She is setting policy for the Euro area and not Europe and the ECB itself tells us this about the Euro area.

Compared with its individual member countries, the euro area is a large and much more closed economy. In terms of its share of global GDP, it is the world’s third-largest economy, after the United States and China.

Economics

It is revealing that the next section was titled “resilience and rebalancing” words which these days send a bit of a chill down the spine. This chill continues as we see a call for this.

And when global growth falls, stronger internal demand can help protect jobs, too. This is because domestic demand is linked more to services – which are more labour-intensive – while external demand is linked more to manufacturing, which is less labour-intensive.

We are seeing that shield in action in the euro area today: the resilience of services is the key reason why employment has not yet been affected by the global manufacturing slowdown.

The word “yet” may turn out to be rather important. Also there is a catch which is sugar coated..

In the euro area, domestic demand has contributed to the recovery, helping to create 11.4 million new jobs since mid-2013.

But then reality intervenes.

But over the past ten years, domestic demand growth has been almost 2 percentage points lower on average than it was in the decade before the crisis, and it has been slower than that of our main trading partners.

In addition there is a problem.

The ECB’s accommodative policy stance has been a key driver of domestic demand during the recovery, and that stance remains in place.

This is highlighted if we think what Euro area domestic demand would have been without all the ECB stimulus. Her predecessor Mario Draghi suggested that this was in the area of a 2% boost to both GDP and inflation. I guess Christine left that out as it would be too revealing, or it could be that she is simply unaware of it.

A Double Play

The space for monetary policy is limited as Mario Draghi in what I think was a revealing move tied the new ECB President’s hands for a bit by resuming QE ( 20 billion Euros a month) and cutting the deposit rate to -0.5%. So we are left with what some might call interference in politics.

One key element here is euro area fiscal policy, which is not just about the aggregate stance of public spending, but also its composition. Investment is a particularly important part of the response to today’s challenges, because it is both today’s demand and tomorrow’s supply.

The problem is defining what investment is and which bits are  genuinely useful. For example I recall in the Euro area crisis the example of new toll roads in Portugal which were empty because people could not afford them.

However as with some many central bankers these days Christine firmly presses the climate change klaxon.

While investment needs are of course country-specific, there is today a cross-cutting case for investment in a common future that is more productive, more digital and greener.

There is a clear problem below if we look at growth prospects in the light of this speech alone.

But a stronger domestic economy also rests on higher business investment, and for that raising productivity is equally important. Firms need to be confident in future growth if they are to commit long-range capital.

Because as even Christine is forced to admit the US has done better in this area.

Though all advanced economies are facing a growth challenge, the euro area has been slower to embrace innovation and capitalise on the digital age than others such as the United States. This is also reflected in differences in total factor productivity growth, which has risen by only half as much in the euro area as it has in the United States since 2000.

How do we deal with this? Well she is a politician so bring out some large numbers that most will immediately forget.

And the projected gains are significant: new studies find that the full implementation of the Services Directive would lead to gains in the order of €380 billion], while completing the digital single market would yield annual benefits of more than €170 billion.

Comment

The most revealing part of all this is below as you know you are in trouble when politicians start talking about opportunities.

We have a unique possibility to respond to a changing and challenging world by investing in our future, strengthening our common institutions and empowering the world’s second largest economy.

Maybe by the next speech someone will have told her it is the third largest. Also what growth and why has it not be tried over the past 20 years?

In this way, we could tap into new sources of growth that would otherwise be suppressed.

Let me switch tack and welcome a new female head of a central bank but if we look at the other main example we see yet another problem. Here is Janet Yellen on CNBC.

“Some of the most disturbing notes came from people who said, ’I work and I played by the rules and I save for retirement and I have money in the bank, and you know, I’m getting absolutely nothing,” Yellen recalled. “Savers are getting penalized. It’s true.”

This is even more true in the Euro area as we looked at on Tuesday but Lagarde  just skates by.

fewer side effects

The problem has been highlighted this morning by the Markit PMI business surveys.

The eurozone economy remained becalmed for a
third successive month in November, with the
lacklustre PMI indicative of GDP growing at a
quarterly rate of just 0.1%, down from 0.2% in the
third quarter.

Another nuance is that you can read the speech as in essence the French trolling Germany which seems to be a theme these days and a source of Euro area friction.

Also if we look at money markets there may be trouble ahead.

SPIKE IN ECB’S NEW OVERNIGHT RATE ESTR THIS WEEK SPARKED BY REGULAR CONTINGENCY PLANNING BY FRENCH BANKS – TRADERS  ( @PriapusIQ )

Why the 20th of the month?

We end by returning to an all too familiar theme, why do we always need stimulus?

 

 

 

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?