The inflation problem is only in the minds of central bankers

Yesterday we looked at the trend towards negative interest-rates and today we can link this into the issue of inflation. So let me open with this morning’s release from Swiss Statistics.

The consumer price index (CPI) remained stable in December 2019 compared with the previous month, remaining at 101.7 points (December 2015 = 100). Inflation was +0.2% compared with the same month of the previous year. The average annual inflation reached +0.4% in 2019.These are the results of the Federal Statistical Office (FSO).

The basic situation is not only that there is little or no inflation but that there has been very little since 2015. Actually if we switch to the Euro area measure called CPI in the UK we see that it picks up even less.

In December 2019, the Swiss Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices (HICP) stood at 101.17 points
(base 2015=100). This corresponds to a rate of change of +0.2% compared with the previous month
and of –0.1% compared with the same month of the previous year.

Negative Interest-Rates

There is a nice bit of timing here in that the situation changed back in 2015 on the 15th to be precise and I am sure many of you still recall it.

The Swiss National Bank (SNB) is discontinuing the minimum exchange rate of CHF 1.20 per euro. At the same time, it is lowering the interest rate on sight deposit account balances that exceed a given exemption threshold by 0.5 percentage points, to −0.75%.

If we look at this in inflation terms then the implied mantra suggested by Ben Bernanke yesterday would be that Switzerland would have seen some whereas it has not. In fact the (nearly) 5 years since then have been remarkable for their lack of inflation.

There is a secondary issue here related to the exchange rate which is that the negative interest-rate was supposed to weaken it. That is a main route as to how it is supposed to raise inflation but we find that we are nearly back where we began. What I mean by that is the exchange-rate referred to above is 1.084 compared to the Euro. So the Swiss tried to import inflation but have not succeeded and awkwardly for fans of negative interest-rates part of the issue is that the ECB ( European Central Bank) joined the party reminding me of a point I made just under 2 years ago on the 9th of January 2018.

For all the fire and fury ( sorry) there remains a simple underlying point which is that if one currency declines falls or devalues then others have to rise. That is especially awkward for central banks as they attempt to explain how trying to manipulate a zero-sum game brings overall benefits.

The Low Inflation Issue

Let me now switch to another Swiss based organisation the Bank for International Settlements  or BIS. This is often known as the central bankers central bank and I think we learn a lot from just the first sentence.

Inflation in advanced economies (AEs) continues to be subdued, remaining below central banks’ target
in spite of aggressive and persistent monetary policy accommodation over a prolonged period.

As we find so often this begs more than a few questions. For a start why is nobody wondering why all this effort is not wprking as intended? The related issue is then why they are persisting with something that is not working? The Eagles had a view on this.

They stab it with their steely knives
But they just can’t kill the beast

We then get quite a swerve.

To escape the low inflation trap, we argue that, as suggested by Jean-Claude Trichet, governments
and social partners put in place “consensus packages” that include a fiscal policy that supports demand
and a series of ad hoc nominal wage increases over several years.

Actually there are two large swerves here. The first is the switch away from the monetary policies which have been applied on an ever larger scale each time with the promise that this time they will work. Next is a pretty breathtaking switch to advocacy of fiscal policy by the very same Jean-Claude Trichet who was involved in the application of exactly the reverse in places like Greece during his tenure at the ECB.

Their plan is to simply add to the control freakery.

As political economy conditions evolve, this role should be progressively substituted by rebalancing the macro
policy mix with a more expansionary fiscal policy. More importantly, social partners and governments
control an extremely powerful lever, ie the setting of wages at least in the public sector and potentially
in the private sector, to re-anchor inflation expectations near 2%.

The theory was that technocratic central bankers would aim for inflation targets set by elected politicians. Now they want to tell the politicians what to so all just to hit an inflation target that was chosen merely because it seemed right at the time. Next they want wages to rise at this arbitrary rate too! The ordinary worker will get a wage rise of 2% in this environment so that prices can rise by 2% as well. It is the economics equivalent of the Orwellian statements of the novel 1984

Indeed they even think that they can tell employers what to do.

Finally, in a full employment context,
employers have an incentive to implement wage increases to keep their best performing employees
and, given that nominal labour costs of all employers would increase in parallel, they would able to raise
prices in line with the increase of their wage bills with limited risk of losing clients

Ah “full employment” the concept which is in practical terms meaningless as we discussed only yesterday.

Also as someone who studied the “social contracts” or what revealingly were called “wage and price spirals” in the UK the BIS presents in its paper a rose tinted version of the past. Some might say misleading. In the meantime as the economy has changed I would say that they would be even less likely to work.

Putting this another way the Euro area inflation numbers from earlier showed something the ordinary person will dislike but central bankers will cheer.

Looking at the main components of euro area inflation, food, alcohol & tobacco is expected to have the highest
annual rate in December (2.0%, compared with 1.9% in November),

I would send the central bankers out to explain to food shoppers how this is in fact the nirvana of “price stability” as for new readers that is what they call inflation of 2% per annum. We would likely get another ” I cannot eat an I-Pad” moment.

Comment

Let me now bring in some issues which change things substantially and let me open with something that has got FT Alphaville spinning itself into quicksand.

As far as most people are concerned, there is more than enough inflation. Cœuré noted in his speech that most households think the average rate in the eurozone between 2004 and last year has been 9 per cent (in fact it was 1.6 per cent). That’s partly down to higher housing costs (which are not wholly included in central banks’ measurement of inflation).

That last sentence is really rather desperate as it nods to the official FT view of inflation which is in quite a mess on the issue of housing inflation. Actually the things which tend to go up ( house prices) are excluded from the Euro area measure of inflation. There was a plan to include them but that turned out to be an attempt simply to waste time ( about 3 years as it happened). Why? Well they would rather tell you that this is a wealth effect.

House prices, as measured by the House Price Index, rose by 4.2% in both the euro area and the EU in the
second quarter of 2019 compared with the same quarter of the previous year.

Looking at the situation we see that a sort of Holy Grail has developed – the 2% per annum inflation target – with little or no backing. After all its use was then followed by the credit crunch which non central bankers will consider to be a rather devastating critique. One road out of this is to raise the inflation target even higher to 3%, 4% or more, or so we are told.

There are two main issues with this of which the first is that if you cannot hit the 2% target then 3% or 4% seems pointless. But to my mind the bigger one is that in an era of lower numbers why be King Canute when instead one can learn and adapt. I would either lower the inflation target and/or put house prices in it so that they better reflect the ordinary experience. The reason they do not go down this road is explained by a four letter word, debt. Or as the Eagles put it.

Mirrors on the ceiling
The pink champagne on ice
And she said: “We are all just prisoners here
Of our own device”

Inside the world of negative interest-rates

A feature of modern economic life is that interest-rates were first cut as close to zero as central banks thought they could and then in more than few cases they went below zero giving us the acronym NIRP for Negative Interest-Rate Policy. There was the implication that such a state of affairs would be temporary in that the medicine would work and that interest-rates would then be raised. For example I have put on here before the charts that show that the Riksbank of Sweden has been forecasting interest-rate increases for years whereas the reality was that it either cut or did nothing. Ironically it changed tack a little last December just in time for the world economy to turn down!

As to all this being temporary let me hand you over to ECB President Mario Draghi on the day he cut the Deposit Rate to -0.1% back in June 2014.

Draghi: On the first question, I would say that for all the practical purposes, we have reached the lower bound. However, this doesn’t exclude some little technical adjustments and which could lead to some lower interest rates in one or the other or both parts of the corridor. But from all practical purposes, I would consider having reached the lower bound today.

This has been a feature of central banker speak where they discuss a “lower bound” as if this type of economics is a science. The reality is that the nearest the “lower bound” has got to being a status quo has been this.

Get down
Get down deeper and down
Down down deeper and down
Down down deeper and down

If we let him have the move to -0.2% as a technical adjustment we have to face up to the fact that it is now -0.4% and about to go to -0.5/6%. This has consequences as for example over the past month or so the amount deposited at the ECB at such a rate is 1.86 trillion Euros. So this is a drain on the banking system and therefore wider economic life as well as being a nice little earner for the ECB.

The “lower bound” theme has been the same in the UK as Bank of England Governor Carney asserted it was 0.5% but later decided it was 0.1%. Or you could look at the US Federal Reserve defined “normal” interest-rates as being somewhere above 3% then changed its mind and started cutting them. The truth is that the new normal is that when a central bank raises interest-rates it soon turns tail and starts cutting them.

Switzerland

The Swiss are at the cutting edge of negative interest-rates and it was ECB policy which was the supermassive black hole that sucked them into it. In terms of timing the June 2014 move by the ECB was followed by this in January 2015.

The Swiss National Bank (SNB) is discontinuing the minimum exchange rate of CHF 1.20 per euro. At the same time, it is lowering the interest rate on sight deposit account balances that exceed a given exemption threshold by 0.5 percentage points, to −0.75%.

For those who have not followed this saga there was an enormous amount of borrowing in Swiss Francs pre credit crunch because interest-rates were there. When the credit crunch hit institutional investors raced to reverse such positions which made the Swiss Franc soar which had the side-effect of crippling those who in eastern Europe who had taken out such mortgages. The SNB found itself like General Custer at Little Big Horn as the ECB version of Indians arrived and gave events another push.

Again there was an implication that this would be temporary until matters calmed down but the reality has been very different. Or to put it another way in central banker speak the word temporary now means permanent.

The signal we now have has been provided by two developments this morning. Let me start with the Swiss one.

Domestic sight deposits CHF 475.3 bn vs CHF 469.0 bn prior…………. Once again, a notable rise in the sight deposits data and that continues to suggest that the SNB is stepping in to smooth the appreciation in the franc over the past few weeks.

In case you are wondering why those numbers are looked at the SNB only occassionally declares it has intervened in foreign exchange markets and does so via other central banks and the BIS. So to find out we have to look at other numbers and thank you to Bank Pictet for this estimate.

In total, sight deposits have increased by CHF 9.8bn in the last 4 weeks, and CHF 10.3bn in the last 5 weeks.

So like The Terminator the SNB is back. Why? The Swiss Franc has been strengthening again and went through 1.09 versus the Euro. Whereas on the 23rd of April last year I noted that Reuters were reporting this.

The Swiss franc fell to a three-year low of 1.20 against the euro on Thursday as a revival in risk appetite encouraged investors to use it to buy higher yielding assets elsewhere, betting on loose monetary policy keeping the currency weak.

There were still problems though as I pointed out to a background elsewhere of something of a chorus saying the SNB had triumphed..

Any economic slow down would start currently with interest-rates at -0.75% posing the question of what would happen next?

Well we have an economic slow down and we expect the ECB to cut again which according to Bank Pictet will have this consequence.

SNB officials have emphasized the importance of the interest rate differential (mainly versus the euro area) for the exchange rate and thus the policy outlook. The SNB’s policy rate differential with the ECB’s deposit facility rate now stands at 35bp, below the 50bp in 2015 when the SNB lowered its interest rates to -0.75%.

To be fair to Bank Pictet that was from the end of July and so could not factor in the statements from Bank of Finland Governor Ollie Rehn on Friday about “overshooting” market expectations about the ECB move. So the statement below has got more likely.

In that event, should the CHF come under
excessive upward pressure, our best guess is that the SNB would cut the interest rate on sight deposits by 25 bps, bringing it down to -1.0%.

Comment

Thus we are facing a new frontier should the Swiss find they have to cut to -1% interest-rates or as the SNB might put it.

Yes we’re gonna have a wingding
A summer smoker underground
It’s just a dugout that my dad built
In case the reds decide to push the button down
We’ve got provisions and lots of beer
The key word is survival on the new frontier. ( Donald Fagen )

This will mean that the pressure for more of this will build.

UBS, the world’s largest wealth manager, told its ultra-wealthy clients on Tuesday that it would introduce an annual 0.6% charge on cash savings of more than €500,000 (£461,000). The fee, to be introduced in November, rises to 0.75% on savings of more than 2m Swiss francs (£1.7m). ( The Guardian ).

In some ways the economic situation has already adjusted to this as the Swiss ten-year bond yield is -1.1% and the thirty-year is -0.6%. Imagine the impact of this on long-term contracts such as pensions. Give me 100.000 Swiss Francs and I will give you 84,000 back in thirty-years, who would do that?

Meanwhile here is something to make UK readers very nervous.

BoE Gov Carney: At This Stage We Do Not See Negative Rates As An Option In The UK ( @LiveSquawk )

Podcast

Can we stop interest-rates falling and going negative?

This week has seen a development I have long-expected and forecast. That is that the establishment will respond to the next economic slow down with negative interest-rates. The rationale for that is in one sense simple as in most places interest-rates never went back up again and if they did by not much, Only yesterday I looked at my own country the UK where in the decade or so since the credit crunch the Bank of England has raised interest-rates by a net 0.25%. Not much is it? Last time around the only reason it did not cut interest-rates even lower it was because it feared that the creaking IT systems of the UK banks could not take it. As it was some mortgages ( mostly with Cheltenham & Gloucester if I recall correctly) went below 0% and were dealt with via capital repayments to stop a HAL 9000 style moment.

Of course more than a few central banks continue to have negative interest-rates as we look at Denmark, the Euro area, Japan, Sweden and Switzerland. The ECB may pause this morning to mull whether it will get its deposit rate ( -0.4%) back even to zero as it note German factory orders some 7% lower than the previous year in December. This brings us to the driver of the current situation which is the economic slow down we have been following and indeed predicting via the decline in money supply growth. That remains as a slow down and has not yet signalled an overall recession but none the less it has produced quite a change.

The San Francisco Fed

It is far from a coincidence that the San Francisco Fed has produced a paper on negative interest-rates this week. After all the overall Federal Reserve has put up the white flag on interest-rate increases as we wait to hear what was discussed when Chair Powell had dinner with President Trump on Monday night.  Anyway the paper seems to open with a statement of regret.

Traditionally, it has been assumed that nominal interest rates cannot fall below zero, known as the “lower bound.” Ever since 2008, researchers have debated how much monetary policy was constrained by this lower bound and how much it affected economic outcomes. To work around this constraint, the Federal Reserve turned to unconventional monetary policy tools such as forward guidance and large-scale asset purchases.

Also an admission that QE was driven by the belief that interest-rates could not go below zero. I cannot be too churlish about that because there was a time when I did not think so either at least on a sustained basis although it was around 20 years ago and before the full impact of the Japanese lost decade! I do not know if one of the drivers of this thought was fear of what negative interest-rates would do to the US banks but history has seen a potential revision.

In this Economic Letter, I consider whether pushing rates below zero would have improved economic outcomes in the United States in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

For a central banker the answer is clearly yes.

Model estimates suggest that reducing the effective lower bound for the federal funds rate to –0.75% would have reduced economic slack by as much as one-half at the trough of the recession and sped up the ensuing recovery. While the boost to the economy would have been negligible after 2014, inflation would have been higher throughout the recovery by about half a percentage point on average.

There are various points here. First the central banker assumption that higher inflation is a good thing whereas in reality the ordinary person is likely to be worse off via lower real wages. Next the interesting observation that it is a temporary gain. Finally there is a later reference to Switzerland which took interest-rates to -0.75% so we are left with the view that this paper might recommend even more negative rates if only someone else had been brave/silly enough to try them. It omits to point out that Switzerland has not escaped from this as it is still at -0.75%.

How does this work?

An old friend appears.

In the model, the output gap falls with the interest rate.

Ah so it works because we assume it will. What could go wrong? Whilst we are at the Outer Limits of fantasy why not throw in the kitchen sink.

However, expectations about the future path of the fed funds rate matter, including any Federal Reserve announcements about its path—known as forward guidance—as well as expectations about being at the zero lower bound.

I am not sure if that is chutzpah, ignorance or just simple Ivory Tower non-thinking. After all we have just had a Forward Guidance U-Turn so are we following the old or new versions and if so what was the cost of the change? Those who have fixed their mortgage expecting higher interest-rates for example. Whereas now Men at Work are being played.

It’s a mistake, it’s a mistake
It’s a mistake, it’s a mistake

Rather oddly the paper says that the output gap is pushed higher when the author must mean lower, But there is a bigger space oddity which is this.

According to these simulations, the negative lower bound would have reached its maximum effect in the first quarter of 2011. Setting the lower bound at –0.25% would have increased the output gap by 1.5 percentage points, while pushing the lower bound down further to –0.75% would have contributed an additional 0.4 percentage point to the output gap. This means that a rate of –0.25% would have done most of the job, and allowing it to drop further would have accomplished fewer additional benefits.

Let us subject that to a sense check because we know that the US Federal Reserve did cut its official interest-rate to 0% ( technically 0% to 0.25%) but that going a mere extra 0.25% would make much of a difference? From the previous peak the US had cut by 5% so would an extra 0.25% make any difference at all?

The IMF goes further

Here we go.

One option to break through the zero lower bound would be to phase out cash.

It wants to go as Madonna would put it, deeper and deeper.

To illustrate, suppose your bank announced a negative 3 percent interest rate on your bank deposit of 100 dollars today.

They need a tax or fine or cash to achieve this.

Suppose also that the central bank announced that cash-dollars would now become a separate currency that would depreciate against e-dollars by 3 percent per year. The conversion rate of cash-dollars into e-dollars would hence change from 1 to 0.97 over the year.

Comment

There is quite a bit to consider here but let me start with the concept of arrogance. This is because monetary policymakers have had the freedom over the past decade to do pretty much what they liked and if it had worked we would not be here would we? Yet like Jose Mourinho in the football transfer market they always want more, more, more. Actually I am being a little unfair on Jose as there was a time his policies brought plenty of success.

Combined with this is an obsessive clinging onto failed past concepts. The output gap has had a dreadful credit crunch yet here it is again. Next the idea that higher inflation is good has ( thank God) had a bad run too but central bankers confuse what is good for the banks with what is good for the rest of us. The reality that no country or economic area has gone into negative interest-rates and then recovered is simply ignored whereas so far they have all sung along with Muse.

Glaciers melting in the dead of night
And the superstars sucked into the super massive
Super massive black hole
Super massive black hole
Super massive black hole
Finally is the idea that those who do not worship at this particular monetary altar need to be punished. Just like in the novel 1984……

What next for the world of negative interest-rates?

There were supposed to be two main general economic issues for 2017. The first was the return of inflation as the price of crude oil stopped being a strong disinflationary force. The second was that we would see a rise in interest-rates and bond yields as we saw an economic recovery combined with the aforementioned inflation. This was described as the “reflation” scenario and the financial trade based on it was to be short bonds. However we have seen a rise in inflation to above target in the UK and US and to just below it in the Euro area but the bond market and interest-rate move has been really rather different.

Negative Official Interest-Rates

Euro area

These are still around particularly in Europe where the main player is the European Central Bank. This plays out in three main areas as it has an official deposit rate of -0.4%, it also has its long-term refinancing operations where banks have been able to borrow out to the early 2020s at an interest-rate that can also be as low as -0.4% plus of course purchasing sovereign bonds at negative yields. So whilst the rate of monthly bond purchases has fallen to 60 billion Euros a month the envelope of negative interest-rates is still large in spite of the economic recovery described earlier this week by ECB President Draghi.

As a result, the euro area is now witnessing an increasingly solid recovery driven largely by a virtuous circle of employment and consumption, although underlying inflation pressures remain subdued. The convergence of credit conditions across countries has also contributed to the upswing becoming more broad-based across sectors and countries. Euro area GDP growth is currently 1.7%, and surveys point to continued resilience in the coming quarters.

Indeed the economic optimism was turned up another notch by the Markit PMI business surveys on Tuesday.

The PMI data indicate that eurozone growth remained impressively strong in May. Business activity is expanding at its fastest rate for six years so far in the second quarter, consistent with 0.6- 0.7% GDP growth. The consensus forecast of 0.4% second quarter growth could well prove overly pessimistic………

That is better than “resilience” I think.

Sweden

This is one of the high fortresses of negative interest-rates as you can see from the latest announcement.

The Executive Board decided to extend the purchases of government bonds by SEK 15 billion during the second half of 2017 and to hold the repo rate unchanged at −0.50 per cent. The repo rate is now not expected to be raised until mid-2018, which is slightly later than in the previous forecast.

As you can see a move away from the world of negative interest-rates seems to have moved further into the distance rather than get nearer. If you look at the economic situation then you may quite reasonably wonder what is going on here?

Swedish economic activity is good and is expected to strengthen further over the next few years. Confidence indicators show that households and companies are optimistic and demand for exports is strong. The economic upturn means that the demand for labour is still strong.

We do not have the numbers for the first quarter but we do know that GDP ( Gross Domestic Product) increased by 1% in the last quarter of 2016. If you read the statement below then it gets ever harder to justify the current official interest-rate.

Rising mortgage debt is a serious threat to Sweden’s economy while regulators need to introduce tougher measures to strengthen banks against future shocks, the central bank said in its semi-annual stability report, published on Wednesday………Swedish house prices have doubled over the last decade. Apartment prices have tripled. Household debt levels – in relation to disposable income – are among the highest in Europe.

Switzerland

The Swiss National Bank feels trapped by the pressure on the Swiss Franc.

The Swiss franc is still significantly overvalued. The negative interest rate and the SNB’s willingness to intervene in the foreign exchange market are necessary and appropriate to ease pressure on the Swiss franc. Negative interest has at least partially restored the traditional interest rate differential against other countries.

You may note that they are pointing the blame pretty much at the ECB and the Euro for the need to have an interest-rate of -0.75% ( strictly a range between -0.25% and -1.25%).

Denmark

As you can see Denmark’s Nationalbank has not moved this year either.

Effective from 8 January 2016, Danmarks Nationalbank’s interest rate on certificates of deposit is increased by 0.10 percentage point to -0.65 per cent.

The 2016 move left it a little exposed when the ECB cut again later than year but it remains firmly in negative interest-rate territory.

Japan

Until now we have been looking at issues surrounding the Euro both geographically and economically but we need to go a lot further east to see the -0.1% interest-rate of the Bank of Japan. Added to that is its policy of bond purchases where it aims to keep the ten-year yield at approximately 0%. So there is no great sign of a change here either.

 

The United States

Here of course we have seen an effort to move interest-rates to a move positive level but so far we have not seen that much and it has not been followed by any of the other major central banks. Indeed one central bank which is normally synchronised with it is the Bank of England but it cut interest-rates and expanded its balance sheet last August so it has headed in the opposite direction this time around.

This theme has been reflected in the US bond market where we saw a rise in yields when President Trump was elected but I note now that not much has happened since. The ten-year Treasury Note now yields around 2.25% which is pretty much where it was back then. We did see a rise to above 2.6% but that faded away as events moved on. Even the prospect of a beginning of an unwinding of all of the bond holdings of the Federal Reserve does not seem to have had much impact. That seems extraordinarily sanguine to me but there are two further factors which are at play. One is that investors do not believe this will happen on any great scale and also that there is no rule book or indeed much experience of how bond markets behave when a central bank looks for the exit.

How much?

There was a time when we were regularly updated on the size of the negative yielding bond universe whereas that has faded but there is this from Fitch Ratings in early March.

Rising long-term sovereign bond yields across the eurozone contributed to a decline in outstanding negative yielding sovereign debt to $8.6 trillion as of March 1 from $9.1 trillion near year-end 2016.

The fall such as it was seemed to be in longer dated maturities.

The total of negative-yielding sovereign debt with remaining maturities of greater than seven years fell significantly to $0.5 trillion as of Mar. 1 from over $2.6 trillion on June 27 2016.

Since then German bond yields have moved only a little so the general picture looks not to be much different.

Comment

I wanted to point out today the fact that whilst it feels like the economic world has moved on in 2017 in fact the negative interest-rate and yield story has changed a lot less than we might have thought. It has fallen out of the media spotlight and perceptions but it has remained as a large iceberg floating around.

One of my themes has been that we will find out more about the economic effects of negative interest-rates as more time passes. Accordingly I noted this from VoxEU yesterday.

Banks throughout the Eurozone are reluctant to cut retail deposit rates below zero, wary of possible client reactions

That has remained true as time has passed and it seems ever clearer that the banking sector is afraid of a type of deposit flight should they offer less than 0% on ordinary retail savings. That distinguishes it from institutional or pension markets where as we have discussed before there have been lots of negative yields and interest-rates. Also if we look at average deposit rates there remain quite large differences in the circumstances.

For example, the average rate on Belgian deposits has dropped to 0.03%. If Belgians took their money across the border, they could get almost ten times that in the Netherlands (0.28%). In France even, rates average 0.43%.

If we move to household borrowing rates we see that there are much wider discrepancies as we wonder if at this level we can in fact call this one monetary policy?

The Finns borrow against 1.8%, the Irish pay 3.6%

Some of the differences are down to different preferences but as the Irish borrowing is more likely to be secured ( mortgages) you might reasonably expect them to be paying less. Oh and as a final point as we move to borrowing we note that rates are a fair distance from the official ones meaning that the banks yet again have a pretty solid margin in their favour, which is somewhat contrary to what we keep being told.

How much can a central bank lose before bankruptcy looms?

One of the features of the “new normal” of the credit crunch era is that central banks bestride the economic and financial stages like colossi as they dispense both cash and claimed wisdom. Many are in thrall to our central banking overlords but not here as it was only yesterday I discussed their inconsistencies and fudges when setting interest-rates. This morning has brought news of yet another set back for the theory that central banks are omnipotent and it has come from the often sleepy small country of Switzerland. Indeed Swiss citizens are likely to get something of a shock when they read the news and discover what has been done in their name and with their money.

The Swiss National Bank (SNB)

The latest release from the SNB is not for those of a nervous disposition especially if you happen to be a Swiss taxpayer.

The Swiss National Bank (SNB) is reporting a loss of CHF 50.1 billion for the first half of 2015.

If we convert into UK Pound’s then this is £33.3 billion. So how did this happen?

On 15 January 2015, the SNB decided to discontinue the minimum exchange rate of CHF 1.20 per euro with immediate effect. The subsequent appreciation of the Swiss franc led to exchange rate-related losses on all investment currencies. For the first half of 2015, these amounted to a total of CHF 52.2 billion.

Thus we see that it was not only private investors, currency and spread trading companies (some went bust back then) and hedge funds which were hit as a modern version of King Canute finally submitted to the tide. Added to this were problems with bond markets which if you recall have followed the surge of early 2015 with declines since and remember due to the size of its foreign currency intervention and reserves the SNB is a large holder of Euro area bonds.

A loss of CHF 3.9 billion was recorded on interest-bearing paper and instruments.

The SNB must think that it never rains but it pours as it note that it has been a bad 2015 so far for something which it is famous for holding which is of course gold.

A valuation loss of CHF 3.2 billion was recorded on gold holdings.

So far we have too many losses so let me factor in something which is immediately obvious when you think about it. The SNB makes a profit out of its negative interest-rate of -0.75%.

The profit on Swiss franc positions totalled CHF 571 million. It was essentially made up of CHF 530 million of negative interest charged on sight deposit account balances since 22 January 2015,

Also the SNB received some interest payments on its various bond holdings.

Interest income provided a positive contribution, at CHF 3.5 billion,

Thrown into the mix is something that does not get the publicity it deserves outside of on here anyway as the SNB is an equity market punter, excuse me investor. Like the Bank of Japan which owns nearly 7 trillion Yen of equities the SNB has spread its wings into this area. As the early part of 2015 was good for equities the SNB can breathe a small sigh of relief and publish this.

By contrast, equity securities and instruments benefited from the favourable stock market environment and contributed CHF 4.1 billion to the net result……. as did dividend income, at CHF 1.2 billion.

What about Apple?

Some wry entertainment has been found in this development described by Bloomberg on the 6th of May.

Switzerland’s central bank owned 8.9 million shares in the iPhone maker on March 31, according to a regulatory filing made to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. That’s up from 5.6 million shares at the end of 2014, a 60 percent increase, according to Bloomberg calculations.

We do not know the exact state of play here but we do know as Apple’s share price peaked at around 132 and was 122.35 at last night’s close that it is no longer solely a one way trade. Should it not work out then I imagine that the Swiss watchmaking industry will be particularly underwhelmed by their central bank investing in the maker of the Apple Watch.

Balance Sheet Alert

As of the 30th of June the SNB owned some 529.5 billion Swiss Francs of foreign currency assets and some 36.4 billion Swiss Francs of gold. If we look at the investment percentages then we see  it held some 90 billion Swiss Francs worth of equities with the vast majority of the rest in other countries government bonds.

This is an awkward consequence of the foreign currency intervention undertaken by the SNB and if you have heard people describe central banks as hedge funds these days well here is the prima facie case of it.

Is the SNB bust?

The answer to this is not yet as the capital has shrunk for obvious reasons as we note a fall in capital from 86.3 billion Swiss Francs to 34.3 billion. If it was a listed company then we might be heading to the panic zone but of course it is not. Swiss taxpayers may be getting nervous at this point because they via the Swiss Treasury back the SNB. Also as pointed out a few years back by Willem Buiter central banks do have access to a large source of funds.

As long as central banks don’t have significant foreign exchange-denominated liabilities or index-linked liabilities, it will always be possible for the central bank to ensure its solvency though monetary issuance (seigniorage).

A sort of printing response or in modern language press control and the letter P.

Also it is not that central banks cannot go bust as we review one obvious past problem and one less obvious one.

Two recent examples are the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (the current inflation rate in Zimbabwe is over 100,000 percent year-on-year) and the National Bank of Tajikistan.

I have written before about issues concerning the structure of the ECB (European Central Bank) partly because it is backed by 19 different treasuries which may copy their attitude to the Greek crisis and have divergent views. However the Swiss taxpayer may null the fact that 40.02 of their central bank is owned by private shareholders. I know nothing about Theo Siegert of Dusseldorf but according to the 2014 Annual Report he owns some 6.5%.

What about Switzerland?

There is an explicit issue for the shareholders in the SNB.

Last year, the SNB paid dividends to shareholders of 2 billion francs after posting 38.3 billion francs in profit but warned such hefty payouts might not continue.

We have the second half of 2015 to come but the outlook for a dividend this year is none to bright as we stand. Also there is the issue of currency strength finally being a drag on the economy. The BBC has looked at its impact on border towns.

The consequences for borders towns like Kreuzlingen were immediate. While Swiss prices have been somewhat higher than those in Germany for some years, with the franc now so high many products cost twice as much or more in Switzerland.

So why shop in Kreuzlingen when ten minutes walk away the bustling German town of Konstanz awaits?

Also Swiss cheese manufacturers are being affected.

“In May our foreign sales figures, especially for traditional cheeses, really slumped”, says Mr Hausammann. “We had a 14% reduction over the same month last year.”

Comment

This week has seen more than a few examples of central banking problems. It was  the Bank of Russia on Wednesday with the value of the Rouble and consequent inflation and yesterday it was the US Federal Reserve and the Riksbank with doppelgänger like views on economic policy. Now we see that there are costs to the “unlimited intervention” policy of the SNB which of course turned out to be very large rather than unlimited. Perhaps the Swiss taxpayer will end up  being very grateful for that!

Meanwhile back in the UK another central bank seems to have hit some choppy water. From Reuters.

New Bank of England rate-setter Gertjan Vlieghe should reassure parliament that his ongoing financial link to one of the world’s biggest hedge funds does not pose a conflict of interest, a senior MP said on Thursday.

What could go wrong?