What are the economic prospects for France?

This weekend sees the first stage of the French Presidential elections which seem to be uncertain even for these times. A big issue will be economic prospects which will be my subject of today. But before I do let me send my best wishes to the victims of the terrorist attack which took place in Paris last night. If we move back to the economic situation we can say that the background in terms of the Euro area looks the best it has been for a while. From French Statistics.

In Q1 2017 the Eurozone economy is expected to grow at a similar pace as registered at the end of 2016 (+0.4%), then slightly faster in Q2 (+0.5%) before returning to +0.4% in Q3 2017. The main force behind the expansion in aggregate activity should be private consumption which benefits from the increase in disposable income and favourable labour market conditions and despite the upturn in inflation which is eroding household purchasing power. Moreover investment is forecast to strengthen, driven by improved expectations about near term outlook. Also investment in construction should accelerate. Finally, the positive international environment will likely reinforce external demand growth and exports.

As you can see according to them Goldilocks porridge seems pretty much exactly the right temperature as everything is expected to rise.

What about France itself?

 Some perspective

If we look back 2016 was an erratic year where quarterly economic growth was 0.6%,-0.1%,0.2% and then 0.4%. So whilst it began and ended well there was a near recession in the middle. Overall the growth at 1.1% was in fact less than the 1.2% of 2015 and it does pose a question as that is the level of economic growth which has caused such problems in both Italy and Portugal. Indeed if we look back we see that as 2011 opened quarterly economic output was 509 billion Euros whereas in the last quarter of 2016 it had only risen by 4,4% to 531.6 billion Euros ( 2010 prices).

This lack of economic growth has contributed to what is the major economic problem in France right now.

In Q4 2016, the average ILO unemployment rate in metropolitan France and overseas departments stood at 10.0% of active population, after 10.1% in Q3 2016……Among unemployed, 1.2 million were seeking a job for at least one year. The long-term unemployed rate stood at 4.2% of active population in Q4 2016. It decreased by 0.1 percentage points compared to Q3 2016 and Q4 2015.

The fact so long after the credit crunch hit the unemployment rate is still in double-digits albeit only just echoes here. Also there is the issue of underemployment.

In Q4 2016, 6.2% of the employed persons were underemployed, a ratio decreasing by 0.1 percentage points quarter on quarter, and by 0.4 percentage points over a year. Underemployment mainly concerns people who have a part-time job and wish to work more.

Oh and if we return to the unemployment rate actually 10% is only a reduction because the previous quarter was revised higher. We could improve like that forever and remain at the same level!

The next consequence of slow/low economic growth can be found in the public finances.

At the end of 2016, the Maastricht debt accounted for €2,147.2 billion. It rose by €49.2 billion in 2016 after € +60.2 billion in 2015. It reached 96.0% of GDP at the end of 2016, after 95.6% at the end of 2015.

In essence this has risen from 65% pre credit crunch and the combination of an annual fiscal deficit and slow growth has seen it rise. France seems to have settled on an annual fiscal deficit of around the Maastricht criteria of 3% of GDP so to get the relative debt level down you can see how quickly it would need to grow.

What about prospects?

This morning’s business survey from Markit has been very positive.

The Markit Flash France Composite Output Index, based on around 85% of normal monthly survey replies, registered 57.4, compared to March’s reading of 56.8. The latest figure was indicative of the sharpest rate of growth in almost six years.

The idea that elections and indeed referenda weaken economies via uncertainty may need to be contained in Ivory Towers going forwards.

The numbers provide further evidence that the French private sector remains resilient to political uncertainty around the upcoming presidential election. Indeed, business optimism hit a multi-year high in April, with a number of respondents anticipating favourable business conditions following its conclusion.

Even better there was hope of improvement for the labour market.

Moreover, the rate of job creation quickened to a 68-month peak. Both manufacturers and service providers continued to take on additional staff, with the pace of growth sharper at the former.

However a little caution is required as we were told by this survey that there was manufacturing growth in February as the index was 52.2 but the official data told us this.

In February 2017, output diminished for the third month in a row in the manufacturing industry (−0.6% after −0.9% in January). It decreased sharply in the whole industry (−1.6% after −0.2%). Manufacturing output decreased slightly over the past three months (−0.3%)…..Over a year, manufacturing output also edged down (−0.5%)

Bank of France

In a reversal of the usual relationship the French central bank is more downbeat than the private business surveys as you can see below.

In March, industrial production rose at a less sustained pace than in February.

Whilst it describes the services sector as dynamic I note that its index for manufacturing fell from 104 in February to 103 in March leading to the overall picture described below.

According to the monthly index of business activity (MIBA), GDP is expected to increase by 0,3% in the first quarter of 2017. The slight revision (-0,1 point) of last month estimate does not change the overall perspective for the year.

The cost of housing

This is very different to the situation across La Manche ( the Channel) and a world apart from the Canadian position I looked at yesterday.

In Q4 2016, house prices slightly decreased compared to the previous quarter (−0.3%, not seasonally adjusted data) after two quarters of increase. This slight downturn was due to secondhand dwellings (−0.4%). However, the prices of new dwellings grew again (+0.7%).

Indeed some more perspective is provided by the fact that an annual rate of growth of 1.9% is presented as a rise!

Year on year, house prices accelerated further in Q4 2016 (+1.9% after +1.4% in Q3 and +0.7% in Q2). New dwelling prices grew faster (+2.9% y-o-y) than second-hand dwelling prices (+1.8%).

Not much seems to be happening to rents either.

In Q1 2017, the Housing Rent Reference Index stood at 125.90. Year on year, it increased by 0.51%, its strongest growth since Q2 2014.

Just for perspective the index was 124.25 when 2013 began so there is little inflation here.

Comment

There is much that is favourable for the French economy right now. For example the European Central Bank continues with very expansionary monetary policy with an official interest-rate of -0.4% and 60 billion Euros a month of QE bond purchases. The Euro as an exchange-rate is below the level at which it started although only by 6%. So France finds that it gets a boost from very low debt costs as the recent rise in them only leaves the ten-year yield at 0.83%.

So 2017 should be a good one although there is the issue of why other countries have out-performed France. We only have to look south to see a Spain where economic growth has been strong. A couple of years of that would help considerably. But as I type that I am reminded of some of the comments to yesterday’s article especially the one saying house prices in Barcelona are on the march again. To get economic growth these days do we need booming house prices? This leads into my argument that we are calling what is really partly inflation as growth. The catch is that the numbers tell people they are better off but then they find housing ever more expensive and increasingly frequently unaffordable. As we stand France does better here but is that at the cost of higher unemployment?

 

 

 

 

The 0% problem of Japan’s economy

Today I intend to look east to the land of the rising sun or Nihon where the ongoing economic struggles have been a forerunner to what is now happening to western economies. Also of course Japan is intimately tied up with the ongoing issue and indeed problem that is North Korea. And its navy or rather maritime self-defence force is being reinforced as this from Reuters only last month points out.

Japan’s second big helicopter carrier, the Kaga, entered service on Wednesday, giving the nation’s military greater ability to deploy beyond its shores………..Japan’s two biggest warships since World War Two are potent symbols of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push to give the military a bigger international role. They are designated as helicopter destroyers to keep within the bounds of a war-renouncing constitution that forbids possession of offensive weapons.

We cannot be to critical of the name misrepresentation as of course the Royal Navy badged its previous aircraft carriers as through deck cruisers! There are of course issues though with Japan possessing such ships as the name alone indicates as the last one was involved in the attack on Pearl Habour before being sunk at Midway.

Demographics

This is a crucial issue as this from Bloomberg today indicates.

Japan Needs More People

The crux of the problem will be familiar to regular readers of my work.

Japanese companies already report they can’t find people to hire, and the future isn’t likely to get better — government researchers expect the country’s population to fall by nearly a third by 2065, at which point nearly 40 percent will be senior citizens. There’ll be 1.3 workers for every person over the age of 65, compared to 2.3 in 2015.

So the population is both ageing and shrinking which of course are interrelated issues. The solution proposed by Bloomberg is rather familiar.

It’s plain, however, that he needs to try harder still, especially when it comes to immigration……..Researchers say that to maintain the current population, Japan would have to let in more than half a million immigrants a year. (It took in 72,000 in 2015.)……..He now needs to persuade Japan that substantially higher immigration is a vital necessity.

There are various issues here as for example the Bloomberg theme that the policies of  Prime Minister Abe are working seems not to be applying to population. But as they admit below such a change is the equivalent of asking fans of Arsenal football club to support Tottenham Hotspur.

In a society as insular and homogeneous as Japan, any such increase would be a very tall order.

The question always begged in this is if the new immigrants boost the Japanese economy surely there must be a negative effect on the countries they leave?

The 0% Problem in Japan

I thought today I would look at the economy in different ways and partly as a reflection of the culture and partly due to the effect above a lot of economic and financial market indicators are near to 0%. This is something which upsets both establishments and central bankers.

Real Wages

Let me start with an issue I have been writing about for some years from Japan Macro Advisers.

The real wage growth, after offsetting the inflation in the consumer price, was 0% YoY in February.

The official real wage data has gone 0%,0%,0.1%, -0.1% and now 0% so in essence 0% and is appears on a road to nowhere. This is very different to what you may have read in places like Bloomberg and the Financial Times which have regularly trumpeted real wage growth in their headlines. There is a reason why this is even more significant than you might think because let me skip to a genuine example of economic success in Japan.

Given the prevalent labor shortage situation in Japan, there should be an economic force encouraging wages to rise. At 2.8%, the current unemployment rate is the lowest since 1993. (Japan Macro Advisers )

Actually in another rebuttal to Ivory Tower economics we see that unemployment is above what was “full employment”.

One could argue it is a matter of time, but it has already been 2.5 years since the unemployment rate reached 3.5%, the level economists considered as full-employment equivalent. (Japan Macro Advisers )

Inflation

The latest official data hammers out an increasingly familiar beat.

The consumer price index for Japan in February 2017 was 99.8 (2015=100), up 0.3% over the year before seasonal adjustment, and down 0.1% from the previous month on a seasonally adjusted basis.

If you compare 99.8 now with 100 in 2015 you see that inflation has been in essence 0%. This is quite a reverse for the policy of Abenomics where the “Three Arrows” were supposed to lead to inflation rising at 2% per annum. An enormous amount of financial market Quantitative Easing has achieved what exactly? Here is an idea of the scale comparing Japan to the US and Euro area.

As we stand this has been a colossal failure in achieving its objective as for example inflation is effectively 0% and the Japanese Yen has been reinforcing this by strengthening recently into the 108s versus the US Dollar. it has however achieved something according to The Japan Times.

Tokyo’s skyline is set to welcome 45 new skyscrapers by the time the city hosts the Olympics in 2020, as a surge of buildings planned in the early years of Abenomics near completion.

Although in something of an irony this seems to cut inflation prospects.

“This could heat up competition for tenants in other areas of the city”

A cultural issue

From The Japan Times.

Naruhito Nogami, a 37-year-old systems engineer in Tokyo, drives to discount stores on weekends to buy cheap groceries in bulk, even though he earns enough to make ends meet and the prospects for Japan’s economic recovery are brighter.

“I do have money, but I’m frugal anyway. Everyone is like that. That’s just the way it is,” he says.

Jaoanese businesses have responded in a way that will be sending shudders through the office of Bank of Japan Governor Kuroda.

Top retailer Aeon Co. is cutting prices for over 250 grocery items this month to lure cost-savvy shoppers, and Seiyu, operated by Wal-Mart Stores, cut prices on more than 200 products in February.

More of the same?

It would seem that some doubling down is about to take place.

The Abe government on Tuesday nominated banker Hitoshi Suzuki and economist Goshi Kataoka to the Bank of Japan Policy Board to replace two members who have frequently dissented against the direction set by Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda. ( Bloomberg)

Also Japan seems ever more committed to a type of centrally planned economic culture.

Japanese government-backed fund eyes Toshiba’s chip unit (Financial Times )

With the Bank of Japan buying so many Japanese shares it has been named the Tokyo Whale there more questions than answers here.

Comment

There is much to consider here but let me propose something regularly ignored. Why does Japan simply not embrace its strengths of for example full employment and relatively good economic growth per capita figures and abandon the collective growth and inflation chasing? After all lower prices can provide better living-standards and as  wages seem unable to rise even with very low unemployment may be a road forwards.

The catch is the fact that Japan continues to not only have a high national debt to GDP (Gross Domestic Product) ratio of 231% according to Bank of Japan data but is borrowing ever more each year. It is in effect reflating but not getting inflation and on a collective level not getting much economic growth either. Let is hope that Japan follows the lead of many of its citizens and avoids what happened last time after a period of economic troubles.

For us however we are left to mull the words of the band The Vapors.

Turning Japanese
I think I’m turning Japanese
I really think so

Let me finish with one clear difference we in the UK have much more of an inflation culture than Japan.

The ongoing UK problem with pensions

Today has brought a piece of news that is another element in an ongoing saga. It also brings into play some economic developments that are interrelated to it. Oh and a past manipulation of the UK public finances. From Reuters.

Royal Mail said on Thursday it would close its defined benefit pension scheme at end-March 2018 after a review found it would need to more than double annual contributions to over 1 billion pounds to keep the plan running.

Royal Mail, the British postal service privatised in 2013, said it was one of only a few major companies that still had employees in a defined benefits scheme, a type of pension that pays out according to final salary and length of service.

The company, which pays around 400 million pounds a year into the scheme, said it was currently in surplus, but it expected the surplus to run out in 2018.

There are various initial consequences such as threats of strike action from the postal union and something to cheer central bankers everywhere. From the Financial Times.

Investors were more positive about the plan, however. Shares in Royal Mail rose 1.6 per cent after the announcement to their highest level since January. JPMorgan Cazenove analysts estimated last month that markets have already priced in a £100m a year step-up in pension charges, and investors have welcomed signs of an end to questions over the scheme’s future.

UK Public Finances

Those who recall my analysis from 2013 will remember that this is another version of the Royal Mail pension scheme that was originally booked in the UK National Accounts for a £28 billion profit! How can you have a profit on acquiring something which is unaffordable? Later the methodology was quietly changed.

This reflects the shortfall between the £28 billion of assets transferred from the RMPP and the £38 billion of future pension liabilities that were consequently assumed by Government…….. Furthermore, the transfer of the assets no longer reduces borrowing as it did under ESA95.

To be fair to our statisticians and indeed Eurostat they did catch up with this manipulation eventually but of course by then the public’s attention had moved elsewhere.

Why are these pension schemes now so unaffordable?

The latest report from HM Parliament describes the problems and issues.

poor investment returns, associated with low underlying interest rates and loose monetary policy following the 2008–09 financial crisis and associated recession;8

 

rises in longevity that have been faster than was widely anticipated;

 

sponsor behaviour, including many employers taking contribution holidays when schemes were in surplus.

Only actuaries and economists can make rising longevity seem a bad thing! But if we move to the effect of low interest-rates there is this evidence from Deputy Governor Ben Broadbent to HM Parliament on this and the emphasis is mine.

First, I don’t think it damages the value of their assets; it pushes up the price of their liabilities. That is what happens when bond yields fall. The price of that bond and the present value of the liabilities go up. But it also pushes up the assets.

Even with such analysis Dr.Ben was forced to admit that schemes in deficit were net losers. But I find the overall idea that they lose on the swings but gain on the roundabouts simply extraordinary! Another example of Ivory Tower thinking. You see they have present gains although of course they will be across many markets but the real issue is that they have to pay for future liabilities and the answer misses of the fact that pension funds have going forwards to buy assets such as bonds which are much more expensive. Indeed in an odd but true development pushing up the price of ordinary UK Gilts via QE has in some ways had more of an effect on index-linked Gilts which are not bought! This matters because most defined benefit schemes have inflation based liabilities to pensioners.

The odd case of index-linked Gilts

Because ordinary Gilts offer so little interest these days and index-linked Gilts offer annual coupons based on the Retail Price Index ( 3.1%) if you need income then linkers look more attractive. Of course the price adjusted to this but this means that the Index-Linked Gilt market is in quite a bubble right now. It also means that it is in a way not fit for purpose as it is being priced on annual cash returns rather than inflation prospects as we see yet another market which has been turned into a false one by the central planners.

I have written before about how you could lose money by being right about UK inflation and this is why. So how do pension funds now hedge inflation risk?

The UK Gilt market

This has been on something of a surge recently or perhaps I should say another surge. Let me put an apology in with that because that has wrong-footed my stated view on here as I expected it to fall as inflation prospects deteriorated.  But  the ten-year Gilt yield is quite near to 1% and the two-year yield is 0.1% which is insane in terms of real yield with inflation heading to 3/4% depending on the measure used. Pension funds look a long way ahead so if we look at the thirty-year yield we see it has fallen to 1.63%.

Thus if we switch to prices we see that any investment now is at an extraordinarily expensive level. What could go wrong?

Actually according to HM Parliament defined benefit schemes tend to value themselves versus the higher quality end of the Corporate Bond market.

scheme funding statistics show that discount rates used by DB pension schemes for calculating liabilities since 2005 have consistently been around 1 per cent above gilt yields.

Can anybody spot a flaw in the Bank of England buying £10 billion of these ( £9.1 billion so far) to raise the price and reduce the yield?

Pre pack problems

Another issue was raised by Josephine Cuombo in the Financial Times.

Companies in the UK have used a controversial insolvency procedure to offload £3.8bn of pension liabilities, often as part of a sale to existing directors or owners, a Financial Times investigation has found…….

The FT investigation found that two in three pre-pack schemes entering the PPF involved sales to existing owners or directors. A string of prominent cases that used pre-pack arrangements, but where companies are still trading, include the turkey producer Bernard Matthews, the bed company Silentnight and the textile group Bonas.

In essence the schemes have found their way into the Pension Protection Fund which is backed by the industry thus raising costs for other schemes and pensioners get reduced benefits.

Comment

When the Bank of England looks at pensions it is hard to avoid the thought that views are influenced by their own more than comfortable position. For example in its latest accounts Ben Broadbent had received pension benefits valued at £104,586 in the preceding year. It is also hard to forget that just as it was telling everyone inflation was going lower back in 2009 the Bank of England piled into index-linked Gilts in its own scheme! But for everyone else involved there are no shortage of sharks in the water.

As to the befuddled and bemused Ben Broadbent he has views which question why we pay him at all!

One thing I want to get across today is not to confuse the low level of interest rates with monetary policy…….

Even though we are that last link and even though it is the MPC that sets interest rates, it is not a realistic question—I do not think it is a realistic premise to say low interest rates are because of monetary policy.

Until of course he can claim gains from his policies….

Let me sign off for a few days by wishing you all a very Happy Easter.

 

 

 

The ethical problems of UK banking continue to pile up

On Friday Bank of England Governor Mark Carney was in full flow at Thomson Reuters headquarters in London. In particular he wanted to lecture us about the improvements in ethical standards at the Bank of England and in banking more generally.

The high road to a responsible, open financial system

Okay so what does that mean?

The financial system is fairer because of reforms that are ending the era of “too big to fail” banks and
addressing the root causes of a torrent of misconduct.

I am sure that many of you will be wondering about how he defines the word “fairer” or how the many mergers that were a feature of the UK response to the credit crunch helped end “too big to fail”? The creation of a mega bank by merger Lloyds with Halifax Bank of Scotland for example surely only made the situation more acute. As to addressing the root cause of misconduct we still actually await this happening in practice.

There was plenty of high-flying rhetoric to be found.

On one path, we can build a more effective,
resilient system on the new pillars of responsible financial globalisation.

The new buzz phrase is “efficient resilence” which if the previous buzz words and phrases are any guide ( temporary…… vigilant etc.) will mean anything but! Here is how Mark describes it.

Finally, efficient resilience is why the Bank of England, working with the Financial Conduct Authority, has
been at the forefront of efforts to increase individual accountability in financial services. While the UK’s
action plan to improve conduct includes stronger deterrents and reduced opportunities for bad behaviour, we
recognise that ex post penalties are only part of the solution.

Events other the weekend have brought the claims and boasts of the section below into focus.

To put greater emphasis on individual accountability, the UK has introduced new compensation rules that go
much further than other jurisdictions in aligning risk and reward. And we have put greater stress on the
importance of better governance and firm culture. …
Since codes are of little use if no one reads, follows or enforces them, the UK has instituted a unique Senior
Managers Regime to embed cultures of risk awareness, openness and ethical behaviour. Based on its early
successes, international authorities are now considering following the UK’s lead.

Barclays

Let us see if this is one of the early successes? It too has the rhetoric with its values of  Respect,  Integrity,  Service,  Excellence,  Stewardship or RISES program. ( https://www.home.barclays/about-barclays/barclays-values.html )

Barclays PLC and Barclays Bank PLC (Barclays) announce that the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and the Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA) have commenced investigations into:

·    Jes Staley, Group Chief Executive Officer of Barclays, as to his individual conduct and senior manager responsibilities relating to Barclays whistleblowing programme and an attempt by Mr Staley in 2016 to identify the author of a letter that was treated by Barclays Bank PLC as a whistleblow; and  

We are expected to believe apparently it was all just a misunderstanding.

The Board has concluded that Jes Staley, Group Chief Executive Officer, honestly, but mistakenly, believed that it was permissible to identify the author of the letter and has accepted his explanation that he was trying to protect a colleague who had experienced personal difficulties in the past from what he believed to be an unfair attack, and has accepted his apology

I would imagine that pretty much everyone reading this is aware of modern whistleblowing procedures so it seems strange that the CEO of Barclays was not. Actually even when he was told he had another go a month later.

There is a clear example of “back to the future” when we note that rather than being sacked we move into Yes Prime Minister land as he will receive one of the “strongly worded letters” so beloved of the apochryphal civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby! We are told there will be this too “a very significant compensation adjustment will be made to Mr Staley’s variable compensation award.” But as it is “variable” how will we know?

The Bank of England

There is bad news in the offing tonight for the Bank of England as the BBC’s Panorama has looked again at its role in Libor ( London Interbank Offered Rate ) rigging.

A secret recording that implicates the Bank of England in Libor rigging has been uncovered by BBC Panorama.

The 2008 recording adds to evidence the central bank repeatedly pressured commercial banks during the financial crisis to push their Libor rates down.

Well done to Andy Verity for continuing to pursue this issue and along the way we meet some old “friends”

The recording calls into question evidence given in 2012 to the Treasury select committee by former Barclays boss Bob Diamond and Paul Tucker, the man who went on to become the deputy governor of the Bank of England.

It is like a television series with a regular cast isn’t it? Also the BBC does not do Paul Tucker full justice as there was this from 2013.

Paul Tucker, who served as a deputy governor at the Bank of England, has been given a knighthood for services to central banking.

Some might think that a substantial salary and a pension which would current cost around £7 million to buy were rewards enough in themselves. Unless of course you believe that Paul Tucker got his “K” for covering things up.

Comment

There is much to consider here and in the individual case of Governor Carney the Libor or as it became named the Liebor issue predated his arrival. However he has his own problems. The most recent was the resignation of Charlotte Hogg who seemed as uninformed about monetary policy as she was about the consequences of her bother’s job. It was put well by Deborah Orr in the Guardian.

Clearly, people run the risk of feeling over-entitled. They believe strongly in rules, but develop a belief that they are the people who make the rules, not the people who follow them……..….Finally, of course, privileged people assume, often rightly, that no one is going to hold them to account.

Only on Thursday we looked at Gertjan Vlieghe and his problems understanding that once he was at the Bank of England he had to break his financial links with the hedge fund Brevan Howard. Hardly a brave new dawn is it?

Meanwhile if we look back to the effective bailout by the Qataris of Barclays back in the day we wonder how the court case into this will play out? It is all quite a mess is we throw in PPI miss selling and the way that small businesses were miss sold interest-rate swaps as well as those who became “mortgage prisoners”.

Meanwhile though in Mark Carney’s world it is all going rather well.

Being at the heart of the global financial system reinforces the ability of the rest of the UK economy, from
manufacturing to the creative industries, to compete globally. And it broadens the investment opportunities
for UK savers, giving them the potential to earn better risk-adjusted returns.

Do UK savers realise how good they apparently have it? Oh and was the Barclays story released today to help take the pressure off the Bank of England Liebor news?

 

 

Gloomy Gertjan of the Bank of England could easily vote for another Bank Rate cut

Yesterday gave us another opportunity to discover what a Bank of England policy maker is thinking. This was because former hedge fund manager Gertjan Vlieghe gave a speech at the headquarters of Bloomberg in London in . Sadly Gertjan is yet another policy member of the Bank of England who has had trouble with his ethical radar. From the Guardian in July 2015.

“Despite the fact that there would be no conflict of interest between my future role and any continued passive stake in Brevan Howard, we have now come to an agreement whereby I shall be bought out of my remaining interest in the partnership before taking up my position on the MPC. As of 31 August I will have severed all financial and other ties with Brevan Howard. I have taken this step to avoid any mistaken impression of a conflict of interest,” said Vlieghe.

If Gertjan had wanted to avoid the impression that he was focused on the City of London perhaps Bloomberg was not the best place to give his speech.

What did he say?

Forecasting problems

Gertjan is obviously troubled by the fact that the Bank of England got the post EU leave vote economic forecasts wrong.

I will argue that there is an important distinction to be drawn between good monetary policy and making accurate forecasts………..And there have been times, just recently, when forecast errors were small and policy was broadly right.

Ah so he was right by being wrong apparently! If we go back to August we were told this by the Bank of England in the monetary policy minutes.

the outlook for growth in the short to medium term has weakened markedly.

Now the medium term has yet to happen but in the short-term the error was not small as the UK economy mimicked the film “Carry on Regardless” . If you had looked at economic growth without knowing about the referendum vote you would have seen 2016 as a pretty constant year.

Staying with the forecasting problem Gertjan is keen to put in our minds the view that it does not matter.

But the existence of forecast errors per se, whether large or small, is not necessarily a sign of either wrong policy or of using the wrong framework

Also in an increasingly desperate effort he tries to claim that it was unpredictable.

Sometimes forecast errors simply tell you things happened that could not have been foreseen.

All you have to do is look back to last summer on this website when I pointed out the powerful effect of the then lower UK Pound £. Either Gertjan is not aware of that or he chose to ignore it.

Also if we step back for a moment Gertjan also offers a critique of his own policy because this below is one of his own central planning policies.

We only have an imperfect notion of how the economy works, we only have partial information about the state of the economy at any point in time, and the economy is constantly hit by unanticipated shocks.

Yet he charged in with policy easing on August 4th 2016 anyway. Apparently as he splashed around in his speech this policy easing was the equivalent of this from a doctor.

a doctor can perform life-saving procedures, such as administering blood-thinning medication, widening the coronary artery, or performing a coronary artery bypass.

What about policy then?

This is where the forecast errors came in as Gertjan explains his thinking back then.

First and foremost, short-term indicators of the economy, such as business surveys, consumer confidence, housing indicators, had turned down sharply. We always monitor published data that, historically, has given a decent but not perfect signal of where the economy is heading in the near term . And these data were falling rapidly in the immediate aftermath of the referendum. For example, the Composite PMI, an indicator of business activity growth, had fallen to its lowest level since 2009.

He then makes another step.

actual published data on economic activity  and uncertainty

You see if you look at what he was using yes they were published but in the main they were sentiment indicators rather than actual numbers. Acting on sentiment is of course a feature of a hedge fund manager but a central banker faces many other issues.

If we add into this that Gertjan seems a naturally gloomy chap then an easing was on the cards.

I already saw considerable weakness in nominal growth as we headed into the referendum, and I was starting to think the economy might need more stimulus even in the status quo scenario of a remain vote.

and

We have gone from expecting a short and sharp slowing, to pencilling a much milder and more protracted slowing.

Indeed he is so troubled by accusations that he is gloomy he feels the need to deny it.

My main point regarding our August forecast is that we were not possessed by some innate feeling of gloom,

This gloom led Gertjan to being completely wrong.

we put in place a stimulus package in August, of a 25bp Bank Rate cut, a funding scheme to make sure the rate cut was passed on, additional gilt purchases, and corporate bond purchases……. I thought our August package would be the start, and further stimulus would be needed.

Not only was that completely wrong the Forward Guidance ( to the November meeting) was wrong as well.

We get four explanations of why he was wrong and none of them mention the impact of the UK Pound £ so having given him the benefit of the doubt at the beginning I do not do so now. This is rather poor. Also his claim of a “fiscal reset” is contradicted by the UK fiscal statistics as I have reported on here.

Future policy

Oddly the lower exchange rate now does get a mention! Accordingly we will get higher inflation and there is also a mention which if you blink you will miss of an economic boost too. But of course gloomy Gertjan has a couple of other things to worry about. The first is wage growth.

 Let’s be clear, wage growth has picked up somewhat from the sub-1% pace in 2013 and 2014, but not nearly as much as we had expected, given the fall in the unemployment rate

 

Ah another forecasting error. Anyway this will lead to a consumer slow down.

The consumer slowdown, which initially did not materialise, now appears to be underway…….. I think the slowdown is more likely to intensify than fade away.

Added to this I note that the inflation will be in Gertjan’s words.

Inflation is set to rise, but that seems entirely accounted for by exchange rate pass-through, which, although persistent, will ultimately fade as long as inflation expectations remain well anchored.

Of course we all ultimately fade along the lines of the famous statement by JM Keynes “In the long run we are all dead” but I have no idea how that helps in the intervening period.

Comment

Gloomy Gertjan seems to be in denial here. He placed his faith in the wrong factors last August and made a mistake based on unsurprisingly for him a gloomy forecast. Is it not intriguing to wonder why a financial sector insider ( ex-hedge fund manager) is so gloomy? Of course we can add to that the issue of why the Bank of England needed another representative of the financial sector onboard?

Sooner or later he will be right as of course economic slow downs eventually arrive a like a watch that has stopped gloomy Gertjan will then claim he was right all along. But in his speech was a single sentence which explains in my opinion where he has gone wrong.

Until mid-2016, inflation was close to zero, courtesy of the earlier drop in oil prices and the strength of sterling. That meant that real household labour income growth was close to 3%, despite subdued nominal wage growth.

Lower inflation led to an economic boost via stronger real wage growth so in my opinion the objective is to keep inflation low, as wage growth seems set to be subdued. However whilst claiming he has provided an economic boost the expectation and then arrival of the Bank of England easing last August pushed the Pound £ lower and inflation higher. Thus via the real wage effect the likelihood is that gloomy Gertjan has created his own future gloom by repeating the errors made in 2010/11. If he continues on that road he will probably cut Bank Rate again in spite of his talk of a rise.

Also if we continue his rather bizarre medical analogy the side-effects are growing.

Consumer credit growth has been accelerating over the past few years, and has accelerated further in the second half of last year, suggesting that the resilience of household spending was in part financed by credit,

Chocolate bars

We have been through a phase where prices have risen and chocolate bars have suffered from shrinkflation due to higher costs and a lower £ .Well there is this.

Cocoa futures in London have slumped by about a third since reaching a six-year high in July. ( Bloomberg).

Any chance of an extra Toblerone triangle?

Me on TipTV Finance

http://tiptv.co.uk/look-nova-banco-mess-czech-currency-peg-not-yes-man-economics/

 

 

 

 

The currency peg problems of the Czech National Bank mount

A regular issue in economic  discussions is of course exchange-rates and their impact. There are strengths and weaknesses in both floating and fixed exchange-rates and today I am going to look at a variant of a fixed exchange-rate. The irony here is that it is caused by another fixed exchange-rate as we see yet another country struggling to cope with the consequences of being a near neighbour to the supermassive black hole that is the Euro project. We have at various times looked at Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland but today it is time to return to the Czech Republic. This feeds into another of my themes which is how do the central planners return to free markets? One issue that has arisen overnight is the one of some “being more equal than others” at such times. From Reuters.

Richmond Federal Reserve President Jeffrey Lacker abruptly left the U.S. central bank on Tuesday after admitting that a conversation he had with a Wall Street analyst in 2012 may have disclosed confidential information about Fed policy options.

The 2012 leak had triggered a criminal investigation after research firm Medley Global Advisors told its clients the details of a key Fed meeting a day before the Fed released its own record of the discussion.

At the Fed’s September 2012 policy meeting, officials laid the groundwork for the massive bond-buying stimulus they were to roll out later that year. Early knowledge of that discussion could have given some traders an unfair edge.

I do like the word “may” because if he did not do it why is he resigning? Also how has this dragged on to as it happens only 6 months before his retirement. Due to the scale of potential gains and losses here there should be a full investigation and maybe a criminal one. Ironically this is one of the few cases of central bank Forward Guidance being accurate which we can file with the foreign exchange dealings of the wife of a past head of the Swiss National Bank and the way the ECB used to privately brief its favourite hedge funds.

The Czech National Bank

Back in 2013 it did this.

The CNB Bank Board decided to use the exchange rate as a monetary policy instrument, and therefore to commence foreign exchange interventions, on 7 November 2013……This means the CNB will not allow the koruna to appreciate to levels it would no longer be possible to interpret as “close to CZK 27/EUR”. The CNB prevents such appreciation by means of automatic and potentially unlimited interventions, i.e. by selling koruna and buying foreign currency.

So a familiar move in that we see another central bank wanting a lower level for its currency. As ever the inflation target is used as cover for what is really yet another version of a competitive devaluation.

A weakening of the exchange rate of the koruna leads to an increase in import prices and thus also in the domestic price level.

Another familiar theme is the promise along the lines of “whatever it takes” or the infinite intervention promise made by the Swiss National Bank.

The CNB can use infinite amounts of koruna to purchase foreign currency, as it itself issues the Czech currency in both paper and electronic form. The CNB is resolved to intervene in such volumes and for such duration as needed to maintain the chosen exchange rate level.

The Czech economy

The labour market is one where the Czech economy has done extremely well according to the latest data. From Czech Statistics.

The general unemployment rate of the aged 15 – 64 years , seasonally adjusted, reached 3.5% in February 2017 and decreased by 0.8 p.p., year-on-year……..The employment rate , seasonally adjusted, reached 73.4% in February 2017 and increased by 1.9 percentage point (p.p.) compared to that in February 2016.

Even rarer was the strong growth in wages seen in 2016.

The continuous demand for labour force exerted pressure on the growth in earnings so the overall average wage increased nominally by 4.2%. The median wage, i.e. the wage of a middle employee determined from a mathematical-statistical model of the wage distribution, increased even more markedly by 6.0%.

They are by far the best labour market figures I have looked at for quite some time so let us continue with the good economic news.

In January 2017, working days adjusted industrial production increased at constant prices by 4.3%, year-on-year (y-o-y). Non-adjusted industrial production was by 9.6% higher. Seasonally adjusted industrial production increased by 3.5%, month-on-month (m-o-m). The value of new orders increased by 7.0%, y-o-y.

The main driver of this was the automobile sector.

manufacture of motor vehicles, trailers and semi-trailers (contribution +3.8 p.p., growth by 18.7%),

With the strong wages and employment data you will not be surprised to see that this morning’s retail sales data was positive as well.

In February 2017, seasonally adjusted sales in retail trade at constant prices increased by 0.9%, month-on-month (m-o-m). Sales adjusted for calendar effects increased by 4.8%, year-on-year (y-o-y).

Actually with all the good news above the total number for economic activity disappoints but is still solid.

According to a refined estimate, the gross domestic product in the fourth quarter of 2016 increased by 0.4%, quarter-on-quarter (q-o-q), and by 1.9%, year-on-year (y-o-y). The GDP growth for the entire year 2016 was 2.3%.

Looking ahead the manufacturing business surveys look strong so far in 2017.

Inflation

Back on the 10 th of January I highlighted this issue.

Consumer prices in December increased compared with November by 0.3%…….. The year-on-year growth of consumer prices amounted to 2.0%, i.e. 0.5 percentage points up on November. It is the highest year-on-year price growth since December 2012.

Well it isn’t the highest for that period anymore.

Consumer prices in February increased compared with January by 0.4%. This development was primarily due to a rise in prices in ‘food and non-alcoholic beverages’, ‘recreation and culture’. The year-on-year growth of consumer prices amounted to 2.5%, i.e. 0.3 percentage points up on January.

It was a grim month for healthy eaters in particular.

the increase in prices of vegetables by 15.2%, of which prices of potatoes rose by 24.1% and prices of vegetables cultivated for their fruit increased by 28.1%.

We are likely to see a fall in the annual rate in March if the experience elsewhere is repeated but none the less the objective has been reached.

Comment

The Czech economy is in good shape in many respects and quite a few countries would switch circumstances. Economic growth with a very healthy looking labour market although past central bankers might be wondering about responding especially with an interest-rate called “technical zero”. Added to this one could use the phrase “mission accomplished” on the inflation front so how do they respond?

sustainable fulfilment of the 2% inflation target in the future. Sustainable fulfilment of the target following the return to the conventional monetary policy regime is crucial for the timing of the exit from the exchange rate commitment.

The central planners fear an uncertain future and have got cold feet. The catch is that they are applying a very strong economic stimulus to an economy which is doing well so the policy is inappropriate also the countries the Czech Republic trades with will have good reason to wonder how much of the economic activity is being poached from them?

What is the exit strategy and will we see a Swiss National Bank style debacle?

House Prices

A familiar tale comes from the Global Property Guide.

Wow!  The average price of apartments in the Czech Republic surged by 11.87% (11.24% inflation-adjusted) during the year to Q3 2016, the country´s eleventh consecutive quarter of strong price hikes, according to the Czech Statistical Office (CZSO),

The Corporate Bond problem at the Bank of England

It is time to once again lift the lid on the engine of Quantitative Easing especially in the UK. As a I pointed out several weeks ago the ordinary version where sovereign bonds are purchased has reached its target of £435 billion ( to be precise £39 million below). However corporate bond purchases are continuing under this from the August 2016 MPC (Monetary Policy Committee ) Minutes.

the purchase of up to £10 billion of UK corporate bonds

This was to achieve the objectives shown below and the emphasis is mine.

Purchases of corporate bonds could provide somewhat more stimulus than the same amount of gilt purchases. In particular, given that corporate bonds are higher-yielding instruments than government bonds, investors selling corporate debt to the Bank could be more likely to invest the money received in other corporate assets than those selling gilts. In addition, by increasing demand in secondary markets, purchases by the Bank could reduce liquidity premia; and such purchases could stimulate issuance in sterling corporate bond markets.

Okay let me open with the generic issue of whether this is a better version of QE? This starts well if we look at the US Federal Reserve.

The FOMC directed the Desk to purchase $1.25 trillion of agency MBS ( Mortgage Backed Securities)……..The goal of the program was to provide support to mortgage and housing markets and to foster improved conditions in financial markets more generally.

Later it bought some more but here we see a case of a central bank buying assets from the market which was in distress which was a combination of housing and banking. We can see how this had a more direct impact than ordinary QE but applying that to the UK in 2016 has the problem of being years too late unless of course the Bank of England wanted to argue the UK economy was in distress whilst growing solidly in August 2016!

This is a clear change of course from Mark Carney as the previous Governor Baron King of Lothbury was not a fan and whilst the Bank of England had a plan for corporate bond QE in theory in practice it just kicked the ball around for a while and gave up. Why? Well as I have pointed out before the market is small because UK businesses are often international and issue in Euros and US Dollars so that the UK Pound market is reduced. This leads to the Bank of England finding itself having to purchase bonds from foreign companies and this week it is back offering to buy the bonds of the Danish shipping company Maersk.  No doubt it and Danish taxpayers are happy about this but I do hope one day we will get a Working Paper explaining how this boosts the UK economy more than ordinary QE.

The technical view

There are some suggested examples in the Financial Times today from Zoso Davies of Barclays.

Initially, this seemed to work. August and September 2016 witnessed a flurry of new deals in the sterling corporate markets despite the uncertainty created by the UK’s vote to leave the EU. Since then, however, companies’ interest in borrowing in sterling has fallen to levels similar to those seen in 2013 and 2014.

As you can see once the “new toy” effect wore off things seem to have returned to something of a status quo. The “new toy” effect was exacerbated because the borrowing was so cheap.

Borrowers have also benefited from somewhat better terms on their bonds. After the initial announcement, sterling credit spreads (the additional yield risk borrowers must pay relative to the UK government to borrow in sterling) came down sharply.

If we look back we see that not only did the UK ten-year Gilt yield drop towards 0.5% but the spread above it corporate bond issuers had to pay fell, so there was a clear incentive to borrow. The catch is that if we recall the “lost decade(s)” experience of Japan the link between that and productivity activity tends to fail. One rather revealing fact is that the article does not mention real economy benefits at all instead we get this.

Our analysis, based on the limited data available for corporate bond markets, suggests that trading activity has not picked up across the sterling market as a whole, implying that the Bank of England has been crowding out other market participants. That said, the evidence is far from convincing in either direction.

The price effect did not last either.

Since then, however, the sterling market has hardly moved, indicating that most of the market impact came from the announcement rather than their execution. And that lack of movement has been a marked underperformance versus dollar and euro credit markets, to the extent that sterling has returned to being a relatively expensive bond market in which to raise financing.

Of course we have a tangled web here because one of the factors at play is the the 208 billion Euro corporate bond purchases of the ECB have allowed some companies to be paid to borrow, or if you prefer issue at negative yields. This is from Bloomberg in January.

Henkel AG’s two-year note issued at a negative yield

Also its activities make us again wonder who benefits? From Credit Market Daily.

A big theme in 2015-16 was the amount US domiciled corporates funded in the euro-denominated debt markets. As shown in the chart above, it was a record 26% of the total volume in 2015 and 22% in 2016. Low rates everywhere, but lower in Europe along with low spreads made it attractive for US corporates to borrow in euros (even when swapped back to dollars)

So the Bank of England is supporting European corporates and the ECB US ones? Time for Kylie.

I’m spinning around
Move out of my way

The article ends with some points that pose all sorts of moral hazards.

If sterling corporate bond issuance collapses and secondary market volumes plummet, it will be clear that the Bank’s newest tool has been propping up this small corner of the fixed-income universe over the past six months. Conversely, the more graceful the exit from corporate bond buying, the less clear it will be that the CBPS has been much more than a placebo for markets.

So if borrowers want to borrow cheaply just go on an issuers strike? Also what if the lower yields have sent other buyers away and crowded them out? That would have created quite a mess.

Comment

There are a lot of issues here. Lets us look at the real economy where are the arguments that it has benefited? Whereas on the other side of the coin we can see that subsidising larger companies both ossifies the economy and would help stop what is called “creative destruction”. Whilst the productivity problem began before this program started is it yet another brick in the wall for it via the routes just described? As the Bank Underground blog puts it.

Since 2008, aggregate productivity performance in the UK has been substantially worse than in the preceding eight years.

Also whilst the Federal Reserve purchases of MBSs seems to have been a relatively successful version of QE we have to add “so far”. This is in the gap between the word “stop” and “end” as whilst it stopped new purchases it maintains its holdings at US $1.75 trillion. How can it sell these and what if there are losses which could easily be large? Will the Bank of England end up in the same quicksand? Frankly I think it is already in it.

Yes equity markets are higher but the one area in the UK that has surged in response to this extra monetary easing has been unsecured rather than business credit.