Of UK Retail Sales and a 5% cut in real interest-rates

A feature of my career and time working with and analysing finance and economics has been the fall in interest-rates and yields. This of course has ended up with us now facing a period where more than a few interest-rates and bond yields are in fact in negative territory. My subject of yesterday France has a central bank ( ECB) with a deposit and current account of -0.4% and its 2 year bond yield is -0.5%. But let me give you some perspective from the Bank Underground blog of the Bank of England.

Real interest rates have fallen by around 5 percentage points since the 1980s.

Eye-catching is it not? Just to break this down they were 0% in the 1970s, 4.7% in the 1980s, then 1.9% up to the credit crunch and since 2009 have been -1.3%, Oh and that is 6% and not 5% by the way. For clarity this is for the United States one year yield minus how inflation turned out to be in that year.

So in the period since the 1980s we have seen, as I have pointed out quite a few times before quite a stimulus applied to the world economy and of course a fair bit of this has come in the credit crunch era. We then face a rather awkward conundrum because the supposed cure of lower interest-rates and yields is in response at least in part to the problems created by lower interest-rates and yields! A sort of doubling the dose response to an addiction. How does that usually work out?

Of course some want ever more as I note individuals like Kenneth Rogoff who want to ban as much cash as they can as they fear that they will not be able to repeat the “cure” next time around. This plainly means interest-rates going even more negative and more places seeing them. For example the UK now has a Bank Rate of 0.25% after over 3 years of pretty solid economic growth so what happens when the next recession turns up? Such thoughts have the problem of why a cure needs to be repeated so often at ever higher dosages and with ever more side-effects?

As to the causes of this the Bank Underground tries to dismiss fears over secular stagnation by pointing out this.

In the late 1930s, Alvin Hansen developed the term “secular stagnation” to describe his concerns that structural factors such as stagnant technological development and weaker population growth prospects would weigh on growth permanently.  We know now that these concerns over secular trends proved misplaced, and played little role in weaker growth.

Rather ominously that was really only changed by the second world war which is hardly a hopeful precedent! The author hopes that things will get better so lets join him in that but the truth is we are much less sure and there is a sort of unmentioned sword of Damocles hanging all over this which is Japan where the lost decade has become the lost decades.

Although the author would not put it like this there is quite a critique of current Bank of England policy tucked away in the blog.

When agents assign a low probability to the central bank remaining hawkish towards inflation, real rates must rise by a significantly larger amount in response to a given shock to stabilise inflation.  The required response decreases as credibility improves.

So as the credibility of Forward Guidance is only for the credulous now and the Bank of England plans to “look through” rising inflation then the logic applied there suggests real rates will have to rise substantially. Awkward.

Retail Sales

Speaking of rising inflation there was this in the data released this morning.

Average store prices (including fuel) increased by 1.9% on the year, the largest contribution to this increase came from petrol stations, where year-on-year average prices were estimated to have risen by 16.1%.

Regular readers will be aware that I was ahead of the pick-up in retail sales in the UK and quite a few other places by explaining that the lower inflation driven mostly be lower crude oil prices would raise consumption via a boost to real wages. So we are now beginning to see the mirror image of that relationship. It was only on Wednesday that I pointed out the real wage growth was fading and on some inflation measures had now gone negative. The price rise was just not from fuel as this from the food sector shows.

In January 2017, prices increased by 0.5% compared with December 2016, the largest month-on-month rise since April 2013, while the year-on-year increase of 0.2% is the highest since June 2014,

Thus the numbers today are not the surprise they have been presented as.

Month-on-month the quantity bought is estimated to have fallen by 0.3%.

If we look for more perspective we see this.

The underlying pattern as suggested by the 3 month on 3 month movement decreased by 0.4%; the first fall since December 2013.

In annual terms there is still growth but it has faded substantially for the heady days of late 2016.

In January 2017, the quantity bought in the retail industry is estimated to have increased by 1.5% compared with January 2016, the lowest growth since November 2013.

Actually so much of the change can be found in the sector where prices have risen the most.

The year-on-year increase in fuel stores is the largest rise since September 2011, contributing to the strong growth seen in the amount spent in fuel stores on the year. However, the quantity bought has decreased following the rise in fuel prices, suggesting that consumers are more cautious with spending in this sector.

Have readers noticed less traffic on the roads?


There was some good news here albeit with an odd kicker.

Overseas residents made 9.2 million visits to the UK in the 3 months to December 2016. This was 6% higher than the same 3 months in 2015. The amount spent on these visits was unchanged at £5.3 billion.

It is no great surprise that the lower UK Pound £ has led to more visitors but I am curious that they spent no more. For a start how do we know? Does someone follow them into every shop? Also this goes against the argument made by some that past retail sales growth in the UK was added to by foreign purchasers using lower price for them.

Whatever the state of play there we do seem to be seeing more US tourists as we wonder if Trump fears are higher than Brexit ones?

Visits from North America increased by 15% in the 3 months to December 2016, when compared with the same 3 months in 2015.


We see that we have been living our lives in an extraordinarily favourable interest-rate environment. Many reading this will have lived their whole lives in it. The catch is that it has ended up being associated with trouble on two fronts. Firstly it did not avert a credit crunch and in fact ended up contributing to it and secondly if it was a cure we would not be where we are. Although care is needed as there were plenty of economic gains back in the day. As for now well some old fears have reappeared.

More Americans fell behind on their car loan payments in the fourth quarter, bringing auto delinquencies to their highest since the height of the financial crisis, Federal Reserve Bank of New York data released on Thursday showed…….

In the fourth quarter, $142 billion in car loans were generated, giving 2016 the most auto loan originations in the 18-year history of the data, the New York Fed said.

Auto debt hit $1.16 trillion, with a $93 billion rise over the year.

Sub-prime car loans anyone?

If we move to the UK then the consumer surge is fading. The numbers are erratic and influenced by the rise in the price of fuel but even taking that out annual growth fell to 2.6%. It remains a shame that the Bank of England last summer contributed to the inflation rise via the way that their rhetoric and Bank Rate cut and QE pushed the UK Pound £ lower. Before this is over I expect what was badged as a stimulus to turn out to be the reverse via its impact on real wages.