Higher bond yields and higher inflation mean higher national debt costs

The last week or so has brought a theme of this blog back to life and reminds me of the many years I spent working in bond markets. They have spent much of the credit crunch era being an economic version of the dog that did not bark. Much of that has been due to the enormous scale of the QE ( Quantitative Easing) sovereign bond buying policies of many of the major central banks. The politicians who came up with the idea of making central banks independent and then staffing them with people who were anything but should be warmly toasted by their successors. The successors would never have got away with a policy which has benefited them enormously in terms of ability to spend because of lower debt costs.

Italy

However the times are now a-changing and this morning has brought more bad news on this front from Italy. The BTP bond future for December has fallen to 120 which means it has lost a bit over 7 points over the last ten or eleven days. Putting that into yield terms it means that the ten-year yield has reached 3.5% which has a degree of symbolism. A factor in this is described by the Financial Times.

The commission issued its warning to the Five Star and League governing coalition after Rome deviated from the EU’s fiscal rules by proposing a budget deficit equivalent to 2.4 per cent of gross domestic product instead of the 1.6 per cent previously mooted by the finance minister Giovanni Tria. Although the new plans keep Italy under the EU’s 3 per cent deficit threshold, the country’s high debt levels — the highest in the eurozone after Greece — means Rome is required to cut spending to bring debt levels gradually lower.

However the chart below tells us that in fact you can look at it from another point of view entirely.

Actually I think that the situation is more pronounced than that as the ECB has bought 356 billion Euros worth. But you get the idea. It is hard not to think that a major factor in the recent falls is the halving of ECB QE purchases since the beginning of this month and to worry about their end in the New Year. In case you were wondering why the share prices of Italian banks have been tumbling again recently? The fact they have been buying in size in 2018 when one of the trades of 2018 has been to sell Italian bonds gives quite a clue.

If we switch to the consequences for debt costs then a rough rule of thumb is to multiply the 3.5% by the national debt to GDP ratio of 1.33 which gives us 4.65%. In practice this takes time as there is a large stock of debt and the impact from new debt takes time. For example Italy issued 2 billion Euros of its ten-year on the 28th of last month at 2.9%. So a fair bit less than now although much more expensive that it had got used too. This below from the Italian Treasury forecasts gives an idea of how the higher yields impact over time.

The redemptions in 2018 are approximately €184 billion (excluding BOTs) including approximately
€3 billion in relation to the international programme……..the average life of the stock of
government securities, which was 6.9 years at the end of 2017.

Oh and the tipping point below has been reached. From the Wall Street Journal.

Harvinder Sian, a bond strategist at Citigroup, thinks a 10-year yield of 3.5%-4% is now the tipping point, after which yields jump toward the 7% reached at the height of the last euro crisis

Personally I am not so sure about tipping point as the “gentlemen of the spread” ( with apologies to female bond traders) have been selling it at quite a rate anyway.

 

The United States

Here bond yields have been rising recently and let us take the advice of President Trump and look at what has happened during his term of office. Whilst back then Newsweek was busy congratulating Madame President Hilary Clinton my attention was elsewhere.

There has been a clear market adjustment to this which is that the 30 year ( long bond) yield has risen by 0.12% to 2.75%.

We see that it has risen in the Trump era to 3.4% although maybe not by as much as might have been expected. However if we look to shorter maturities we see a much stronger impact.For example the two-year now yields some 2.9% and the five-year some 3.07%. So if you read about flat yield curves this is what is meant although it is not (yet) literally true as there is a 0.5% difference. Thus the US now faces a yield of circa 3% or so looking ahead. This does have an impact as the New York Times has pointed out.

The federal government could soon pay more in interest on its debt than it spends on the military, Medicaid or children’s programs.

In terms of numbers this is what they think.

Within a decade, more than $900 billion in interest payments will be due annually, easily outpacing spending on myriad other programs. Already the fastest-growing major government expense, the cost of interest is on track to hit $390 billion next year, nearly 50 percent more than in 2017, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

If we switch to the Congressional Budget Office it breaks down some of the influences at play here.From its September report.

Outlays for net interest on the public debt increased by $62 billion (or 20 percent), partly because of a higher rate of inflation.

The CBO points out a factor the New York Times missed which is that countries with index-linked debt are also hit by higher inflation. As the US has some US $1.38 trillion of these it is a considerable factor.

Also the US is borrowing more.

The federal budget deficit was $782 billion in fiscal year 2018, the Congressional Budget Office estimates,
$116 billion more than the shortfall recorded in fiscal year 2017………The 2018 deficit equaled an estimated 3.9 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), up from 3.5 percent in
2017. (If not for the timing shifts, the 2018 deficit would have equaled 4.1 percent of GDP.)

Higher bond yields combined with higher fiscal deficits mean more worries about this factor.

At 78 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), federal
debt held by the public is now at its highest level since
shortly after World War II. If current laws generally
remained unchanged, the Congressional Budget Office
projects, growing budget deficits would boost that
debt sharply over the next 30 years; it would approach
100 percent of GDP by the end of the next decade and
152 percent by 2048 . That amount would
be the highest in the nation’s history by far.

I counsel a lot of caution with this as 2048 will have all sorts of things we cannot think of right now. But the debt is heading higher in the period we can reasonably project and I note the CBO is omitting the debt held by the US Federal Reserve so that QE would make the figures look better but the current QT makes it look worse.

Comment

Debt costs and the associated concept of the mythical bond vigilantes have been in a QE driven hibernation but they seem to be showing signs of waking up. If we look at today’s two examples we see different roads to the destination. If we look at the road to Rome we see that the longer-term factor has been the lost decades involving a lack of economic growth. This has made it vulnerable to rising bond yields and which means that the straw currently breaking the camel’s back has been what is a very small fiscal shift. It is also a case of bad timing as it has taken place as the ECB departs the bond purchases scene.

The US is different in that it has a much better economic growth trajectory but has a President who has also primed the fiscal pumps. Should it grow strongly then the Donald will win “bigly” as he will no doubt let us know. However should economic growth weaken or the long overdue recession appear then the debt metrics will slip away quite quickly. That is a road to QE4.

Returning back home I note that UK Gilt yields are higher with the ten-year passing 1.7% last week for the first time for a few years.So the collar is a little tighter.The main impact on the UK came from the rise in inflation in 2017 leading to higher index-linked debt costs. This was the main factor in our annual debt costs rising by around £10 billion between 2015/16 and 2017/18.

 

 

 

 

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Where next for US monetary policy?

So much of the economic news in 2018 has related to developments in the US economy. In particular monetary policy as the world has found itself adjusting to what is called these days a “normalisation” of policy in the United States. To my mind that poses the immediate question of what is normal now? I am sure we can all agree that monetary policy has been abnormal over the past decade or so but along that path it has also begun to feel normal. People up to the age of ten will know no different and if we allow some time to be a child maybe even those at university regard what we have now as normal. After all they will have grown up in a world of low and then negative interest-rates. The media mostly copy and paste the official pronouncements that tell us it has been good for us and “saved” the economy.

I am thinking this because the US Federal Reserve last night gave a hint that it thinks something else may be the new normal.

The staff provided a briefing that summarized its analysis
of the extent to which some of the Committee’s monetary
policy tools could provide adequate policy accommodation
if, in future economic downturns, the policy
rate were again to become constrained by the effective
lower bound (ELB)

This begs various questions of which the first is simply as we have just been through the biggest trial ever of such policies surely they know them as well as they ever will? Next comes another troubling thought which is the rather odd theory that you need to raise interest-rates now so that you have room to cut them later. This is something which is not far off bizarre but seems to be believed by some. Personally I think you should raise interest-rates when you think there are good reasons for doing so as otherwise you are emulating the Grand Old Duke of York. Also there are costs to moving interest-rates so if you put them up to bring them down you have made things worse not better.

You may also note that the Zero Lower Bound or ZLB  has become the ELB with Effective replacing zero. Is there a hint here that the US would be prepared to move to negative interest-rates next time around? After all we exist in a world where in spite of the recorded recovery we still have negative interest-rates in parts of Europe and in Japan. Indeed the -0.4% deposit rate at the ECB has survived what the media have called the “Euroboom”.

Effective Lower Bound

There are some odd statements to note about all of this. For example.

Accordingly,in their view, spells at the ELB could become
more frequent and protracted than in the past, consistent
with the staff’s analysis.

Seeing as we have been there precisely once what does “more frequent” actually mean? Also considering how long we were there the concept of it being even more protracted is not a little chilling if we consider what that implies. Also this next bit is not a little breathtaking when we consider the scale of the application of the policy “toolkit”

They also emphasized that there was considerable uncertainty about the economic effects of these tools. Consistent with that view, a few participants noted that economic researchers had not yet reached a consensus about the effectiveness of unconventional policies.

I do not know about you but perhaps they might have given that a bit more thought before they expanded the Federal Reserve balance sheet to above 4 trillion dollars! As to possible consequences let me link two different parts of their analysis which would give me sleepless nights if I had implemented such policies.

A number of participants indicated that there might be significant costs associated with the use of unconventional policies……….. That decline was viewed as likely driven by various factors, including slower trend growth of the labor force and productivity as well as increased demand for safe assets.

Policy Now

This is the state of play for interest-rates.

The Committee expects that further gradual increases in the target range for the federal funds rate will be consistent with sustained expansion of economic activity,

How far? Well Robert Kaplan of the Dallas Fed gave a road map on Tuesday.

With the current fed funds rate at 1.75 to 2 percent, it would take approximately three or four more federal funds rate increases of a quarter of a percent to get into the range of this estimated neutral level.

At this stage, I believe the Federal Reserve should be gradually raising the fed funds rate until we reach this neutral level.

So circa 2.5% is the target and that seems to have been accepted by the bond market as we see the ten-year Treasury Note yield at 2.82% and the thirty-year Treasury Bond yield at 2.98%. When you read about the “yield curve” and in particular reports of it being flattish this is what they mean as we have a difference of a bit over 1% between the official interest-rate and the thirty-year bond.

There has been a lot of discussion about what this means but to my mind it simply means that the bond market has figured out where the US Federal Reserve intends to send interest-rates and has set prices in response. It will have noted the problems abroad that the interest-rate rises have contributed too and the discussions about possible future cuts and adjusted yields downwards. Whether that turns out to be right or wrong is a matter of opinion but to my mind whilst we have QT now ( the Federal Reserve balance sheet is being shrunk albeit relatively slowly) regular readers will be aware I think there are scenarios where interest-rates go up and the QE purchases begin again. Some such thoughts were perhaps on the mind of Robert Kaplan on Tuesday.

Despite the fact that the current economic expansion is the second longest in the postwar period, U.S. government debt held by the public now stands at 75.8 percent of GDP, and the present value of unfunded entitlements is estimated at approximately $54 trillion. The recent tax legislation and bipartisan budget compromise legislation are likely to exacerbate these issues. As a consequence of this level of debt, the U.S. is much less likely to have the fiscal capacity to fight the next recession.

Notice the reference to US debt held by the public which of course omits the holdings by the Fed itself.

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider here and so far I have left out two factors. The first is the Donald who has expressed a dislike for interest-rate rises but so far on a much more minor scale than say President Erdogan in Turkey. Next is the issue of the Dollar which is two-fold as in its exchange-rate and how many of them there are to go around. As to the dollar exchange rate then stormy times for the US President seem to have capped it for the short-term. But as to quantity the era of QT seems unsurprisingly to have reduced the supply around the world and therefore contributed to troubles in places which relied on there being plenty of them.

This brings us to the Jackson Hole symposium which starts today where central bankers gather to discuss what to do next. For example back in 2012 Micheal Woodford gave a speech about Forward Guidance which has now become an accepted part of the “toolkit”. Central bankers seem to inhabit a world where it is not a laughing-stock and instead is avidly received and listened to by an expectant population. This time around the official story is of “normalisation” as even the unreliable boyfriend has raised interest-rates albeit only a nervous once. Also the Swedes are again promising to reduce their negativity although that has become something of a hardy perennial.

But in the backrooms I suspect the conversation will shift to “what do we do next time?” when the next recession hits and for the market aware that may be added to by the recent price behaviour of Dr,Copper. On such a road the normalisation debate may suddenly become an Outkast.

I’m sorry, Ms. Jackson, I am for real
Never meant to make your daughter cry
I apologize a trillion times

What is happening to US house prices?

If you are a believer that the extraordinarily stimulatory monetary policies of the credit crunch era have boosted house prices via their impact on asset prices then the United States currently provides food for thought. This is because of this.

In view of realized and expected labor market conditions and inflation, the Committee decided to raise the target range for the federal funds rate to 1-1/2 to 1-3/4 percent.

For younger readers the US Federal Reserve has raised official interest-rates to extraordinary heights and for older ones it has barely got into the foothills. Either way The Fed-Home as Google now describes us thinks this.

 The stance of monetary policy remains accommodative,

In addition to the series of increases in interest-rates we have seen and continue to expect we are now in what I guess we need to call the QT or Quantitative Tightening era or as Marketwatch described it last month.

Last fall, the Fed announced plans to slowly reduce its balance sheet on auto-pilot, allowing holdings to shrink by $20 billion each month this quarter and moving up to a maximum of $50 billion per month by the end of the year.

From the peak of US $4.5 trillion the balance sheet has shrunk from US $4.5 trillion at its peak to US $.4.4 trillion as of the latest update. So QT has had an impact in terms of a small flow reduction which has led to a small stock reduction. Thus we have gone from small up to small down if we look at it like that although of course in other terms US $100 billion or so was a lot of money.

If we look ahead then Marketwatch point out that we were given a hint of a possible future late last year.

The Fed has not announced how low it wants to shrink its balance sheet. New Fed Chairman Jerome Powell discussed a target range of $2.5 trillion to $2.9 trillion in his confirmation hearing last fall.

Okay what does this impact?

A central bankers heart will gladden when they see these numbers from Money Magnify.

In the second quarter of 2017, real estate values in the United States surpassed their pre- housing crisis levels. The total value of real estate owned by individuals in the United States is $24 trillion, and total mortgages clock in at $9.9 trillion. This means that Americans have $13.9 trillion in homeowners equity.12 This is the highest value of home equity Americans have ever seen.

As they do not let me point out that such value calculations have the flaw of using a marginal price for an average concept which looks great when prices rise but not to great when they fall. If we move on we also see a consequence of the credit crunch era.

Current homeowners have mortgage payments that make up an average of just 16.5% of their annual household income.

That will be changing but not in the way that you think as the US market is mostly one of fixed-rate mortgages. So whilst both the policy changes above may affect it we see that over time QT is likely to have the largest impact. This is because the main player is the 30 year fixed rate mortgage which means that the 30 year Treasury yield is more of a factor that short-term interest-rates. When you look at what it has done you see that in a broad sweep the US Fed helped reduce it by around 1% from 2013 to late 2016 and it then rose by 1% to the current 4.44%. Actually if you look at the chart it is hard not to have a wry smile as for all the rhetoric and talk about QT the main player seems to have been the Donald as most of the rise was around the election of President Trump. Humbling for central bankers and their dreams of ruling the world! If you want to know how this took place I looked at it on the 9th of November 2016.

Before I depart the economic situation let me point out that we may well end up discussing as so often two different markets.

Today, half of all borrowers put down 5% or less. More than 10% of borrowers put 0% down. As a result, the average loan-to-value ratio at origination has climbed to 87%

Manhattan

Is this a case of a perfect storm? We have the effect of the factors above although of course they affect the 0.1% much less than the rest of us. But the winds of change as we have seen in central London have been blowing against capital city ( in which category New York is unofficially if not officially) property prices after many years of plenty. Also there has been this according to the Financial Times.

Some buyers held off buying real estate as they grappled with the impact of President Donald Trump’s changes to the federal tax code, which introduced a cap on the deduction of state and local taxes, including property taxes, from federal tax bills. It also reduced the size of mortgages eligible for interest deductions. The change is expected to hit high earners in high-tax states including New York, particularly in New York City.

This has led to this.

The number of co-op and condominium sales in Manhattan fell nearly 25 per cent during the first quarter compared to the same period last year………..It was the largest annual decline in sales in nine years, according to the report.

Okay so what about prices?

The average sale price across Manhattan fell by 8.1 per cent from the year-earlier quarter, and the average price per square foot also recorded a sharp decline, falling by 18.5 per cent to $1,697.

Perhaps fearing a lack of sympathy amongst even its readers the FT takes its time to point out what this means.

The average sales price of a luxury apartment fell 15.1 per cent, down from $9.36m in the first quarter of 2017 to $7.94m in the first quarter of this year, and the number of sales was down 24.1 per cent. The number of newly built apartments that went into contract fell 54 per cent.

As to lack of sympathy that was at play in the comments.

So now the average luxury apartment in Manhattan costs only $8 million? Not yet a bargain then? ( Genghis)

As was some perspective.

1600 usd per sqf for prime ? Still a bargain compared to London (JP1)……..I know. And positively a steal compared to Hong Kong !! (observer).

Looking wider

You might from the above expect lower prices but in fact at the end of last week we were told this. From Zillow Research.

The continuing inventory pinch helped boost the U.S. national Case Shiller index 6.2 percent in January from a year earlier, down from a 6.3 percent gain in December. Case-Shiller’s 10-City Composite rose 6 percent, while the 20-City Composite climbed 6.4 percent year-over-year.

Some places are in fact red hot.

Home prices in Seattle, Las Vegas, and San Francisco posted the highest annual gains among the 20 cities, rising 12.9 percent, 11.1 percent and 10.2 percent, respectively.

Zillow remain of the view that house prices will continue to rise as I note that rather like us in the UK there is a perception that too few houses have and indeed are being built. For perspective I note that a different piece of research tells us this.

Home values rose 7.6 percent year-over-year to a median of $210,200, with the San Jose, Calif., metro posting astonishing annual home value growth of 26.4 percent, reaching a median of $1.25 million.

Comment

We find ourselves reflecting on the words of Glenn Frey again.

The heat is on

Except not in the way that economics 101 would have predicted as we continue to see house price rises if we ignore the “international effect”. According to the Brookings Institute there may be a deeper factor as human behaviour returns to what it was.

The Census Bureau’s annual county and metropolitan area estimates through 2017 reveal a revival of suburbanization and movement to rural areas along with Snow Belt-to-Sun Belt population shifts. In addition, the data show a new dispersal to large- and moderate-sized metro areas in the middle of the country—especially in the Northeast and Midwest. If these shifts continue, they could call into question the sharp clustering of the nation’s population—in large metropolitan areas and their cities—that characterized the first half of the 2010s.

So the suburbs are back in favour so let me leave you with the thoughts of Arcade Fire on the subject.

And all of the walls that they built in the seventies finally fall
And all of the houses they built in the seventies finally fall

Maybe they got onto the consumer society as well in a different song.

(Everything now!) I need it
(Everything now!) I want it
(Everything now!) I can’t live without
(Everything now!) I can’t live without
(Everything now!) I can’t live
(Everything now!)