How many central banks will end up buying equities?

Sometimes we can combine one of our themes with the news flow and today is an example of that. We can start with the role of central banks where what was considered extraordinary policy is now ordinary and frankly sometimes mundane. We have seen interest-rate cuts, then QE bond buying, then credit easing and of course negative interest-rates. Overnight even the home of the All Blacks has joined the latter party.

Some New Zealand wholesale rates fell below zero for the first time on Wednesday as investors increased bets on a negative policy rate. Two and three-year swap rates sank to minus 0.005%, as did the yield on the benchmark three-year bond. ( Bloomberg)

So we have negative bond yields somewhere else as the contagion spreads. Whilst it is only marginal the track record so far is that it will sing along with Madonna.

Deeper and deeper, and deeper, and deeper

Bloomberg thinks it is driven by this.

Most economists expect the RBNZ to cut its cash rate from 0.25% to minus 0.25% or minus 0.5% in April next year, and some see the chance of an earlier move.

However they seem to have missed the elephant in the room.

The Monetary Policy Committee agreed to expand the Large Scale Asset Purchase (LSAP) programme up to $100 billion so as to further lower retail interest rates in order to achieve its remit. The eligible assets remain the same and the Official Cash Rate (OCR) is being held at 0.25 percent in accordance with the guidance issued on 16 March. ( Reserve Bank of New Zealand 12 August)

So we are on the road to nowhere except according to Bloomberg it was a triumph in Sweden.

Negative rates were successful in Sweden because they achieved the aim of returning inflation to target without causing any significant distortions in the economy, said Lars Svensson, an economics professor in Stockholm and a former deputy governor at the Riksbank.

Only a few paragraphs later they contradict themselves.

Swedish mortgage rates dropped below 2%, causing house prices to surge to double-digit annual gains, but unemployment fell and the economy grew. Crucially, headline inflation rose steadily from minus 0.4% in mid-2015 to meet the central bank’s 2% target two years later. Inflation expectations also rose.

And again.

The Riksbank sent its policy rate into negative territory in early 2015, reaching a low of minus 0.5% before raising it back to zero late last year.

It worked so well they raised interest-rates in last year’s trade war and they have not deployed them in this pandemic in spite of GDP falling by 8%!

Oh and there is the issue of pensions.

In Sweden, the subzero-regime was advantageous for borrowers but brutal for the country’s pension industry, which struggled to generate the returns needed when bond yields turned negative.

So in summary we arrive at a situation where in fact even the Riksbank of Sweden has gone rogue on the subject of negative interest-rates. Going rogue as a central bank is very serious because they are by nature pack animals and the very idea of independent thought is simply terrifying to them.

Also the Riksbank of Sweden is well within the orbit of the supermassive black hole for negativity which is the European Central Bank or ECB. We learn much I think by the fact that in spite of economic activity being in a depression no-one is expecting an interest-rate cut from the present -0.5%. When we did have some expectations for that it was only to -0.6% so even the believers have lost the faith. This is an important point as whilst the Covid-19 pandemic has hit economies many were slowing anyway.

Policy Shifts

We are seeing central banks start to hint at ch-ch-changes.

Purchases of foreign assets also remain an option.

The Governor of the Bank of England Andrew Bailey has also been on the case and the emphasis is mine.

But one conclusion is that it could be preferable, and consistent with setting monetary conditions
consistent with the inflation target, to seek to ensure there is sufficient headroom for more potent expansion
in central bank balance sheets when needed in the future – to “go big” and “go fast” decisively.

He then went further.

That begs questions about when does the need for headroom become an issue? What are the limits? One
way of looking at these questions is in terms of the stock of assets available for purchase.

He refers to UK Gilts ( bonds) but he is plainly hinting at wider purchases.

Swiss National Bank

This has become something of a hedge fund via its overseas equity purchases. For newer readers this all started with a surge in the Swiss Franc mostly driven by the impact of the unwinding of the “Carry Trade” where investors had borrowed Swiss Francs. The SNB promised “unlimited intervention” before retreating and now as of the end of June had 863.3 billion Swiss Francs of foreign currency assets. It did not want to hold foreign currency on its own so it bought bonds. But it ended up distorting bond markets especially some Euro area ones so it looked for something else to buy. It settled on putting some 20% of its assets in equities.

Much of that went to the US so we see this being reported.

Swiss National Bank is one of the leading tech investors in the world. 28% of SNB’s Equity portfolio is allocated to tech stocks. Swiss CenBank has 17.4mln Apple shares worth $6.3bn or 538k Tesla shares worth $630mln. ( @Schuldenshelder )

So this is a complex journey on which we now note an issue with so-called passive investing. The SNB buys relative to market position but that means if shares have surges you have more of them each time you rebalance. So far with Apple that has been a large success as it has surged above US $2 trillion in market capitalisation as the recent tech falls are minor in comparison.But the 20% fall in Tesla yesterday maybe a sign of problems with this sort of plan. It of course has surged previously but it seems to lack any real business model.

The Tokyo Whale

The Bank of Japan bought another 80.1 billion Yen of Japanese equities earlier today as it made its second such purchase so far this month. As of the end of last month the total was 33,993,587,890,000 Yen. Hence its nickname of The Tokyo Whale.

Quite what good this does ( apart from providing a profit for equity investors) is a moot point? After all the Japanese economy was shrinking again pre pandemic and there was no sign of an end to the lost decades.

Comment

We find ourselves in familiar territory as central bankers proclaim the success of their polices but are always expanding them. If they worked it would not be necessary would it? For example the US Federal Reserve moving to average inflation targeting would not be necessary if all the things they previously told us would work, had. I expect the power grab and central planning to continue as they move further into fiscal policy via the sort of subsidies for banks provided by having a separate interest-rate for banks ( The Precious! The Precious!) like the -1% provided by the ECB. Another version of this sort of thing is to buy equities as they can create money and use it to support the market.

The catch of this is that they support a particular group be it banks or holders of assets. So not only does the promised economic growth always seem to be just around the corner they favour one group ( the rich) over another ( the poor). They have got away with it partly by excluding asset prices from inflation measures, but also partly because people do not fully understand what is taking place. But the direction of travel is easy because as I explained earlier central bankers are pack animals and herd like sheep. They will be along…..

The ECB could be the next central bank to start buying equities

It feels like quite a week already and yet it is only Monday morning! As rumours circulated and fears grew after some pretty shocking data out of China on Sunday the Bank of Japan was limbering up for some open mouth action. Below is the statement from Governor Kuroda.

Global financial and capital markets have been unstable recently with growing uncertainties about the outlook for economic activity due to the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The Bank of Japan will closely monitor future developments, and will strive to provide ample liquidity and ensure stability in financial markets through appropriate market operations and asset purchases.

Actually most people were becoming much clearer about the economic impact of the Corona Virus which I will come to in a moment. You see in the language of central bankers “uncertainties” means exactly the reverse of the common usage and means they now fear a sharp downturn too. This will be a particular issue for Japan which saw its economy shrink by 1.6% in the final quarter of last year.

But there was a chaser to this cocktail which is the clear hint of what in foreign exchange markets the Bank of Japan calls “bold action” or intervention. This not only added to this from Chair Powell of the US Federal Reserve on Friday but came with more.

The fundamentals of the U.S. economy remain strong. However, the coronavirus poses evolving risks to economic activity. The Federal Reserve is closely monitoring developments and their implications for the economic outlook. We will use our tools and act as appropriate to support the economy.

As an aside if the fundamentals of the US economy were strong the statement would not be required would it?

The Kuroda Put Option

The problem for the Bank of Japan is that it was providing so much liquidity anyway as Reuters summarises.

Under a policy dubbed yield curve control, the BOJ guides short-term rates at -0.1% and pledges to cap long-term borrowing costs around zero. It also buys government bonds and risky assets, such as ETFs, as part of its massive stimulus program.

The Reuters journalist is a bit shy at the end because the Bank of Japan has been buying equity ETFs for some time as well as smaller commercial property purchases. I have been watching and all last week apart from the public holiday on Monday they bought 70.4 billion Yen each day.

Regular readers will be aware that the Bank of Japan buys on down days in the equity market and that the clip size is as above. Or if you prefer Japan actually has an explicit Plunge Protection Team or PPT and it was active last week. This morning though Governor Kuroda went beyond open mouth operations.

BoJ Bought Japan Stock ETFs On Monday – RTRS Market Sources BoJ Normally Does Not Buy ETFs On Day TOPIX Index Is Up In Morning ( @LiveSquawk )

As you can see they have changed tactics from buying on falls to singing along with Endor.

Don’t you know pump it up
You’ve got to pump it up
Don’t you know pump it up
You’ve got to pump it up

Also there was this.

BANK OF JAPAN BOUGHT RECORD TOTAL 101.4B YEN OF ETFS TODAY ( @russian_market )

Actually about a billion was commercial property but the principle is that the Bank of Japan has increased its operations considerably as well as buying on an up day. So the Nikkei 225 index ended up 201 points at 21,344 as The Tokyo Whale felt hungry.

Coordinated action

The Bank of England has also been indulging in some open mouth operations today.

“The Bank continues to monitor developments and is assessing its potential impacts on the global and UK economies and financial systems.

The Bank is working closely with HM Treasury and the FCA – as well as our international partners – to ensure all necessary steps are taken to protect financial and monetary stability.” ( The Guardian)

The rumours are that interest-rate cuts will vary from 1% from the Federal Reserve to 0.5% at places like the Bank of England to 0.1% at the ECB and Swiss National Bank. The latter are more constrained because they already have negative interest-rates and frankly cutting by 0.1% just seems silly ( which I guess means that they might….)

There have already been market responses to this. For example the US ten-year Treasury Bond yield has fallen below 1.1%. The ten-year at 0.75% is a full percent below the upper end of the official US interest-rate. So the hints of interest-rate cuts are in full flow as we see Treasuries go to places we were assured by some they could not go. Oh and you can have some full number-crunching as you get your head around reports that expectations of an interest-rate cut in Australia are now over 100%

The Real Economy

China

If we switch now to hat got this central banking party started it was this. From the South China Morning Post on Saturday.

Chinese manufacturing activity plunged to an all-time low in February, with the first official data published amid the coronavirus outbreak confirming fears over the impact on the Chinese economy.

The official manufacturing purchasing managers’ index (PMI) slowed to 35.7, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said on Saturday, having slipped to 50.0 in January when the full impact of the corona virus was not yet evident.

The only brief flicker of humour came from this.

Analysts polled by Bloomberg had expected the February reading to come in at 45.0.

Although you might think that manufacturing would be affected the most there was worse to come.

China’s non-manufacturing PMI – a gauge of sentiment in the services and construction sectors – also dropped, to 29.6 from 54.1 in January. This was also the lowest on record, below the previous low of 49.7 in November 2011, according to the NBS. Analysts polled by Bloomberg had expected the February reading to come in at 50.5.

To give you an idea of scale Greece saw its PMI ( it only has a manufacturing one) fell into the mid-30s as its economic depression began. So we are now facing not only a decline in economic growth in China but actual falls. This is reinforced by stories that factories are being asked to keep machines running even if there are no workers to properly operate them to conceal the size of the slow down.

Comment

The problem for central banks is that they are already so heavily deployed on what is called extraordinary monetary policy measures. Thus their ammunition locker is depleted and in truth what they have does not work well with a supply shock anyway as I explain in the podcast below. So we can expect them to act anyway but look for new tools and the next one is already being deployed by two central banks. I have covered the Bank of Japan so step forwards the Swiss National Bank.

Total sight deposits at the SNB rose by CHF3.51bn last week… ( @nghrbi)

Adding that to last weeks foreign exchange intervention suggests it has another 1 billion Swiss Francs to invest in (mostly US) equities.

Who might be next? Well the Euro is being strong in this phase partly I think because of the fact it has less scope for interest-rate cuts and partly because of its trade surplus. Could it copy the Swiss and intervene to weaken the Euro and investing some of the Euros into equities? It would be a “soft” way of joining the party. Once the principle is established then it can expand its activities following the model it has established with other policies.

As for other central banks they will be waiting for interest-rates to hit 0% I think. After all then the money created to buy the shares will be “free money” and what can go wrong?

Podcast

 

Are world equity markets front-running expected central bank buying?

Sometimes we get an opportunity to both take some perspective and also to observe what is considered by some to be cutting edge. So let us open with the perspective of the general manager of the Bank for International Settlements.

Growth cannot depend on monetary policy, Agustín Carstens tells CNBC.

I am sure that many of you are thinking that it is a bit late ( like a decade or so) to tell us now.. Interestingly if you watch the video he says in reference to the Euro area that monetary policy “cannot be the only solution for growth”. This reminds me of the statement by ECB President Mario Draghi that it QE was responsible for the better Euro area growth phrase in 2016 to 17. It also brings me to my first official denial of the day.

Some analysts said a tiered rate would make room for the ECB to cut its deposit rate farther — a prospect that one source said was nowhere near being discussed. ( Reuters )

You know what usually happens next….

Asset Markets

This is an area that central banks have increasing moved into with sovereign and corporate bond buying. But in the same Reuters article I spotted something that looked rather familiar.

TLTRO III, a new series of cheap two-year loans aimed at banks, was unveiled in March as a tool to help lenders finance themselves, particularly in countries such as Italy and Portugal. But policymakers now increasingly see it as a stimulus tool for a weakening economy, the sources said.

With the growth outlook fading faster than feared, even hawkish policymakers have given up pricing the loans at the private market rate. Some are even discussing offering the TLTROs at minus 0.4 percent, which is currently the ECB’s deposit rate, the sources said.

That looks rather like the Funding for Lending Scheme which I mentioned yesterday as the way the Bank of England fired up the UK housing market from 2012 onwards. Essentially if you give banks plenty of cheap funding you get a lot of rhetoric about lending to business ( small ones in particular) but the UK experience was that it declined and mortgage lending rose. This was because mortgage rates fell quite quickly by around 1% and according to the Bank of England the total impact rose as high as 2%.

Thus in my opinion the ECB is considering singing along to the “More,more,more” of Andrea True Connection in relation to this.

House prices, as measured by the House Price Index, rose by 4.2% in both the euro area and the EU in the fourth
quarter of 2018 compared with the same quarter of the previous year.

This is one area where the ECB has managed to create some inflation and may even think that the lack of growth in Italy ( -0.6%) is a sign of its economic malaise. Although you do not have to know much history to mull the 6.7% in Spain and 7.2% in Ireland.

Equities

Regular readers will be aware that the Swiss National Bank and the Bank of Japan started buying equities some time ago now. There are differences in that the SNB is doing so to diversify its foreign exchange reserves which became so large they were influencing the bond markets ( mostly European) they were investing in. So it has bought foreign equities of which the most publicly noted it the holding in Apple because if you invest passively then the larger the company the larger the holding. If we note the Apple Watch this must provide food for thought for the Swiss watchmaking industry.

Japan has taken a different route in two respects in that it buys funds ( Exchange Traded Funds or ETFs) rather than individual equities and that it buys Japanese ones. Also it is still regularly buying as it  bought  70.500,000,000 Yen’s worth on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday this week. Whereas buying by the SNB in future will be more ad hoc should it feel the need to intervene to weaken the Swiss Franc again.

Now let us move to Federal Reserve policymaker Neel Kashkari

So an official denial! Also you may note that he has left some weasel room as he has not rejected the Japanese route of indirectly buying them. This is common amongst central bankers as they leave themselves an out and if they fear they might need to introduce a policy that will attract criticism they first deny they intend to do it to give the impression they have been somehow forced.

For a lighter touch @QTRResearch translated it into Trumpese so that the man who many think is really running the US Federal Reserve gets the picture.

Kashkari: We’re not buying stocks, who said anything about buying stocks, we’re definitely not buying stocks, we’d never buy stocks.

It was,of course, only last week that ended with the CIO of BlackRock suggesting that the ECB should purchase equities and no doubt he had a list ready! I suppose it would sort of solve this problem.

ECB will ask Deutsche Bank to raise fresh funds for merger: source ( Reuters)

Although of course that would not open just one can of worms but a whole cupboard full of them. But when faced with a problem the ECB regularly finds itself singing along with Donald Fagen.

Let’s pretend that it’s the real thing
And stay together all night long
And when I really get to know you
We’ll open up the doors and climb into the dawn
Confess your passion your secret fear
Prepare to meet the challenge of the new frontier

Comment

Now let us switch to markets as we remind ourselves that they have developed a habit of front-running or anticipating central bank action. Sometimes by thinking ahead but sometimes sadly via private briefings ( I hope the ECB has stopped them). However you spin it @Sunchartist made me think with this.

*Softbank Group Prices Japan’s Biggest Ever Yen Corporate Bond ¥500 Billion 1.64%

Aramco, Softbank, LYFT, Pinterest, Uber

The gravy train.

Or as Hipster on Twitter put it.

So Uber and Lyft will have a combined market cap of ~$150BN with a combined net loss of ~$3BN

Next there is the issue of something that is really rather uncomfortable.

It’s official: This is an all-time record year for corporate stock buybacks.

Announced buybacks for 2018 are now at $1.1 trillion. And companies are using their authorizations. About $800 billion of stock has already been bought back, leaving about $300 billion yet to be purchased. We’ve seen buyback announcements recently from Lowes’s. Pfizer, and Facebook, but in the last few days, as stocks have moved to new lows, companies are picking up the pace of activity. ( CNBC)

This makes me uncomfortable on several counts. It is the job of a board of directors to run a business not to be punters in its shares. This is especially uncomfortable if their bonuses depend on the share price. Frankly I would look to make that illegal. As to them knowing the future how has that worked out for Boeing? To be fair to CNBC they did highlight a problem.

So the critics of corporate buybacks and dividend raises are correct. It is a form of financial engineering that does not do anything to improve business operations or fundamentals………. obsessing over ways to boost stock prices helps the investing class but not the average American.

Perhaps nothing has been done about this because it suits the establishment after all think of the wealth effects. But that brings inequality and the 0.01% back into focus.

 

How many more central banks will end up buying equities?

One of the features of modern economic life is the way that central banks have expanded their operations. In a way that development is a confession of failure ( as why are new policies requited if they existing ones are working? ) Although of course that would be met with as many official denials as you can shake a stick at. We moved from sharply lower interest-rates to QE (Quantitative Easing) bond purchases to credit easing and in some places to negative interest-rates. The latter brings me to the countries I classified as the “Currency Twins” Japan and Switzerland who both have negative interest-rates and some negative bond yields. In fact this morning the Bank of Japan gave Forward Guidance on this subject.

The Bank intends to maintain the current extremely low levels of short- and long-term interest rates for an extended period of time, taking into account uncertainties regarding
economic activity and prices including the effects of the consumption tax hike scheduled to take place in October 2019.

So the first feature seems to be negative interest-rates and perhaps ones which persist as both Japan and Switzerland are on that road. Thus you start by funding yourself with money at a negative cost something which ordinary investors can only dream of. But we also have countries with negative interest-rates which have not ( so far) bought equities such as Sweden and the Euro area although the latter does have a sort of hybrid in its ongoing corporate bond programme.

However we find more of a distinguishing factor if we note that both Japan and Switzerland ended up with soaring exchange-rates due to the impact of the large carry-trades that took place before the credit crunch. This was what led me to label them the “Currency Twins”  and the period since then has seen them respond to this which has seen them via different routes end up as equity investors on a larger and larger scale albeit by a different route. An irony comes if we look at an alternative universe where Germany had its own currency too as in that timeline it too would have seen a soaring currency and presumably it too would be an equity investor.

Bank of Japan

Here is this morning’s announcement.

The Bank will purchase exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and Japan real estate investment trusts (J-REITs) so that their amounts outstanding will increase at annual
paces of about 6 trillion yen and about 90 billion yen, respectively. With a view to lowering risk premia of asset prices in an appropriate manner, the Bank may increase
or decrease the amount of purchases depending on market conditions.

As you can see the Tokyo Whale will continue to gobble up the plankton from the Japanese equity world and at quite a pace. The latter sentence refers to the way it buys more when the market drops which of course looks rather like a type of put option for other equity investors. That is what it means by “lower risk premia” although more than a few would question if this is “appropriate”

Also there are ch-ch-changes ahead. From the Financial Times.

the BoJ also said it would alter the balance of its ¥6tn ($54bn) per year ETF buying programme so that a much greater proportion was focused on ETFs that track the broader, market cap-weighted Topix index. The scale of its Topix-linked ETF purchases would rise from ¥2.7tn to ¥4.2tn per year, the bank said in its statement.

The Japanese owned FT fails however to note the main two significant points of this. The first is that the Tokyo Whale was simply running out of Nikkei index based ETFs to buy as it was up to around 80% of them and of course rising. The next comes from a comparison of the two indices where the Nikkei is described as very underweight this sector and it is much larger in the Topix ( ~9%). Regular readers will no doubt have figured that this is the “precious” or banking sector.

As of this month it has made major purchases on 3 days buying 70.5 billion Yen on each occasion.

Let us move on by noting that Japan has bought equities but so far they have been Japanese ones boosting its own market and keeping the impact on the exchange-rate to an implied one.

Swiss National Bank

The SNB has been a buyer of equities as well but came to it via a different route which is that once it implemented its “unlimited” policy on foreign exchange intervention it then found it had “loadsamoney” and had to find something to do with all the foreign currency it had bought. The conventional route would be to buy short-dated foreign government bonds which it did but because of the scale of the operation it began to impact here and may have been a factor in some Euro area bond yields going negative. The Geneva Whale would have found itself competing with the ECB QE operation if it had carried on so switched to around 20% of its foreign exchange reserves going into equities.

That is a tidy sum when we note it had some 748.8 billion Swiss Francs of foreign exchange reserves at the end of June. How is that going?

. The profit on foreign currency positions amounted to CHF 5.2 billion.

So at that point rather well but of course it is rather strapped in for the ride with its holdings which will have led to some fun and games more recently as it notes its holding in Facebook as the tweet below illustrates.

 

If you ride the tiger on the way up you can end up getting bitten by it in the way down. Also a passive investment strategy means you raise your stake as prices rise whereas an active one means you are an explicit as opposed to an implicit hedge fund. Some like to express this in terms of humour.

SNB OFFERS TO BUY UNLIMITED AMOUNT OF TESLA AT 305 ( @RudyHavenstein )

We do not know if the recent weakness in the so-called FANG tech stocks is just ebb and flow or a sea change, but the latter would have the SNB entering choppy water.

Comment

We see that this particular development can be traced back to the carry trade and a rising currency. Both of the countries hit by this ended up with central banks buying equities although only the Swiss have bought foreign equities. Perhaps the Japanese think that as a nation they own plenty of foreign assets already or there is an inhibition against supporting a gaijin market. That would be both emotional and perhaps logical if we note how many lemons have been passed onto them.

Looking ahead newer entrants may not follow the same path as we note that once a central bank crosses a monetary policy Rubicon it has the effect of emboldening others. The temptation of what so far have been profits will be an incentive although of course any suggestion that such moves are for profit would be meant with the strictest official denial. Should there be losses however we know that they will be nobody’s fault unless they become large in which case it will be entirely the fault of financial terrorists.

Putting this into perspective is the price I am about to describe. Around 1000 until the middle of 2016 but rose to 8380 earlier this year and as of the last trade 6080. One of those volatile coins the central bankers dislike so much? Nope, it is the SNB share price in Swiss Francs.

 

The soaring price of shares in the Swiss National Bank poses many questions

We find ourselves today looking at a country which exhibits many of the economic themes of these times and one of them is brought to mind by this from the fastFT twitter feed.

US 10-year bond yields creep further towards 3% milestone

The fact that the 10-year Treasury Note yield is 2.99% is part of what is called “normalisation” of interest-rates and bond yields, although care is needed as we have been here before. But my subject of today can say the equivalent of “bah humbug” to this as it has a 10-year yield of a mere 0.13%. If we look back and take a broad sweep it has had this yield averaging around 0% for the past five years with a low of -0.6%. In fact Switzerland can still borrow out to the 8 year maturity and be paid for doing so as its yields are negative out to their. So the old normal remains a distant dream ( or nightmare depending on your perspective) and let me throw in a thought. There are arguments you should use such times to borrow and invest but the Swiss have pretty much set their face against this.

The Confederation wants to ensure room for manoeuvre for future generations by means of a sustainable fiscal policy. It has been pursuing a strategy of a balanced budget in the medium-term and a low level of debt since the start of 2000…………Thanks to the debt brake, it has been possible to considerably reduce federal debt ( Department of Finance February 2nd 2018).

According to the OECD it has a national debt of just under 43% of annual GDP. Of course there is a virtuous circle between bond yields and fiscal surpluses but for these times Switzerland is rather abnormal to say the least.

Negative Interest-Rates

The Swiss National Bank has contributed to the above via this.

Interest on sight deposits at the SNB is to remain at –0.75% and the target range for the three-month Libor is
unchanged at between –1.25% and –0.25%.

Money rates are at -0.73% if you want precision and as Swiss Banks have some 573 billion Swiss France deposited at the SNB there will be an icy chill felt although of course the SNB did take measures to protect the “precious”. Nonetheless there is a cost. From Reuters.

Swiss banks paid 970 million Swiss francs ($1 billion) in negative interest rate charges in the first six months of 2017, according to central bank data, up 40 percent year-on-year as clients continue to hoard cash.

Interesting isn’t it that so far ( and we have over 3 years now) there has been little impact on cash holdings? We learn a little more about negative interest-rates from this as there does not seem to be much of an adjustment so far.

Boom!

Last week saw what was quite an event. From Reuters.

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.

This took us back to January 15th 2015 when this happened.

The Swiss National Bank (SNB) has decided to discontinue the minimum exchange rate of CHF 1.20 per euro with immediate effect and to cease foreign currency purchases associated with enforcing it.

This was how interest-rates were reduced to -0.75% as the previous policy of “unlimited intervention” fell to earth. It was not that the SNB was running out of reserves as when you intervene against a strong currency you are selling something you do have an unlimited supply of at least in theoretical terms. But it was a combination of the scale of interventions  required and the side-effects and consequences which in this instance broke the bank policy.

As ever a move in interest-rates of 0.5% was in currency terms like putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg and the Swiss Franc surged.

; in midMarch 2015 it was at CHF 1.06 per euro, constituting a 12% appreciation against the minimum exchange rate of CHF 1.20 per euro in place until mid-January. ( SNB)

For newer readers wondering why the Swiss Franc was so strong it had been kicked-off by the reversal of the Carry Trade. If you look back in time on here you will see analysis of what I called the Currency Twins of the Swissy and the Japanese Yen who were affected by enormous levels of foreign borrowing pre credit crunch. This strengthened those two currencies after the credit crunch as some rushed to get out and of course the currency markets noted that at least some were desperate to get out.

This had a substantial human cost as many mortgage and business borrowers in Eastern Europe had taken advantage of low interest-rates in the Swiss Franc. They then faced surging monthly repayments when they were converted into the currency in which they had an income and quite a crisis was started. Of course doing such a thing was stupid but care is needed as whilst you should be responsible for your own actions it is also true that the banking sector did its best to miss lead on this issue and hide the risks faced.

Hedge Fund

On the road to the 15th of January 2015 the Swiss National Bank built up an extraordinary amount of foreign exchange reserves. In fact since there it has also intervened from time to time but on a much more minor scale.

The SNB will remain active in the foreign
exchange market as necessary, while taking the overall currency situation into consideration.

Which according to the 2017 annual report has led to this.

The level of currency reserves has risen by more than
CHF 700 billion to almost CHF 800 billion since the onset of the financial and debt crisis in 2008. The increase is largely due to foreign currency purchases aimed at curbing the appreciation of the Swiss franc.

Which has led to this as I pointed out on the 15th of March.

The majority of the SNB’s foreign currency investments are in government bonds, bonds issued by foreign local authorities (e.g. provinces and municipalities) and supranational organisations, as well as corporate bonds, or are placed at other central banks. The proportion of equities is one-fifth. Two-fifths of the foreign currency investments are denominated in euros, and more than one-third in US dollars. Other important investment currencies are the pound sterling, yen and Canadian dollar.

It has become rather a large hedge fund as we note the diversification into equities. Also we get a hint of why Euro area bonds have done so well as not only has the ECB been buying via its QE program so has the Swiss National Bank. A rally driven by competing central banks?

Comment

There is a lot to consider here as for example if we start with an international perspective what will happen to equities if the Swiss National Bank should stop buying and start selling? The bellweather of this is Apple where according to NASDAQ it owned some 19.1 million shares at the end of 2017. Care is needed as we are just below the 1.20 level and the SNB intervened at considerably worse levels but it could decide to reverse course soon at least in part unless of course it is singing along to the ladies of En Vogue.

Hold me tight and don’t let go
Don’t let go
You have the right to lose control
Don’t let go

Don’t let go
Don’t let go

Meanwhile staying with the theme of equities there is the ongoing issue of shares in the Swiss National Bank itself.

This has led to quite a lot of speculation that one day the private shareholders might get a share so to speak. This is how it looked back in October.

Less than a month after its stock smashed through the 3,000-franc-a-share barrier, SNB shares hit an intraday high of 4,324 on Wednesday and were trading as high as 4,600 on Thursday. The stock has tripled in value from a year ago, repeatedly confounding market watchers by regularly hitting records.

It is now 8380 Swiss Francs according to Bloomberg. Should shares in a central bank be doing this? The answer is clearly no as we mull a central bank which is partly privately owned.

Moving back to Switzerland I note many are calling this a success for the SNB. Odd isn’t it that this way round the counterfactuals that many are so keen on when things go wrong for central banks seem to get lost in a fog of amnesia? The truth is we do not know as currency trends ebb and flow but there is of course another factor. Any economic slow down would start currently with interest-rates at -0.75% posing the question of what would happen next? Perhaps they will run into Korean Won. From February.

The swap agreement enables Korean won and Swiss francs to be purchased and repurchased between the two central banks, up to a limit of KRW 11.2 trillion, or CHF 10 billion.

 

The Swiss mixture of negative interest-rates, currency intervention and equity investing

Today brings an opportunity to look at a consequence of several economic themes. The opening one is related to the way that in both economic and currency terms the Euro is something of a super massive black hole. This accompanies and has exacerbated issues caused by what was called the carry trade in the years that preceded the credit crunch. Back then borrowers both individual and corporate decided to take advantage of cheaper interest-rates abroad and in particular used the Swiss Franc and the Japanese Yen. This meant that both currencies soared and in the early days on here I christened them the currency twins for that reason. Both currencies were bounced around by this as at first as the trade was put on they were depressed but later as the credit crunch hit and nerves replaced greed both currencies soared. This showed how even national economies were to this extent the playthings of international currency flows and meant that Switzerland had elements of the Japanese experience.

Thus it should be no great surprise to see a country with elements of the Euro and the Yen experience finding itself in the cold icy world of negative interest-rates, From the Swiss National Bank earlier.

The Swiss National Bank (SNB) is maintaining its expansionary monetary policy, with the
aim of stabilising price developments and supporting economic activity. Interest on sight deposits at the SNB is to remain at –0.75% and the target range for the three-month Libor is unchanged at between –1.25% and –0.25%.

This goes through to some extent on the nod these days but if we look at the economic situation we see something that is increasingly familiar.

In Switzerland, GDP grew in the fourth quarter at an annualised 2.4%. This growth was again primarily driven by manufacturing, but most other industries also made a positive contribution. In the wake of this development, capacity utilisation in the economy as a whole
improved further. The unemployment rate declined again slightly through to February. The SNB continues to expect GDP growth of around 2% for 2018 and a further gradual decrease in unemployment.

We set yet again that expansionary monetary policy coincides with economic expansion and there is a contradiction. We are told by the SNB that manufacturing is leading the charge whilst it also tells us that the Swiss Franc is at too high an exchange-rate.

The Swiss franc remains highly valued. The situation in the foreign exchange market is still fragile and monetary conditions may change rapidly. The negative interest rate and the SNB’s willingness to intervene in the foreign exchange market as necessary therefore remain essential. This keeps the attractiveness of Swiss franc investments low and eases pressure on the currency.

In other words perhaps the currency is not as big a deal for an area you might think would be price competitive and no doubt the situation below is a factor in this.

The international economic environment is currently favourable. In the fourth quarter of 2017,
the global economy continued to exhibit solid, broad-based growth. International trade
remained dynamic. Employment registered a further increase in the advanced economies,
which is also bolstering domestic demand.
The SNB expects global economic growth to remain above potential in the coming quarters.

So is the Swiss Franc too high as the SNB keeps telling us? If you think of foreign exchange markets as being “fragile” in one of the better periods for the world economy when can you ever leave the party?As you can see below the rhetoric is still the same.

The SNB will remain active in the foreign
exchange market as necessary, while taking the overall currency situation into consideration.

The Swiss Franc

Actually the indices of the SNB also pose a question about its policy as it has various real exchange rate indices and they are between 104 and 110 now if we set 2000 as 100. This is different to the nominal measure which is at 153. So the situation is complex as the carry trade pushed it down and then sucked it back up. Of course the SNB would say its policies have helped ameliorate the situation.

Hedge Fund alert

The enthusiasm of the SNB for currency intervention especially in the period running up to the 20th of January 2015 has led to it becoming one of the world’s largest investors. This is because in an unusual situation – from the Uk’s perspective anyway – it has intervened to keep its currency down rather than up so it has bought foreign currencies. this meant that it needed some sort of investment strategy.

The majority of the SNB’s foreign currency investments are in government bonds, bonds issued by foreign local authorities (e.g. provinces and municipalities) and supranational organisations, as well as corporate bonds, or are placed at other central banks. The proportion of equities is one-fifth. Two-fifths of the foreign currency investments are denominated in euros, and more than one-third in US dollars. Other important investment currencies are the pound sterling, yen and Canadian dollar.

As there were some 790 billion Swiss Francs of reserves as of the end of last year this is a big operation. With equity markets rising it has been profitable and of course over time so has the bond investing even allowing for recent tougher times. This has led to this.

Another important project was the renewal of the profit distribution agreement  between the Federal Department of Finance (FDF) and the SNB, which defines the amount of the annual profit distribution to the Confederation and
the cantons.

Yet as I pointed out on the 3rd of October last year there are also private shareholders.

Cantons own 45% of stock, cantonal banks 15% and private investors (individuals or institutions) the remaining 40%.

This has led to quite a lot of speculation that one day the private shareholders might get a share so to speak. This is how it looked back in October.

Less than a month after its stock smashed through the 3,000-franc-a-share barrier, SNB shares hit an intraday high of 4,324 on Wednesday and were trading as high as 4,600 on Thursday. The stock has tripled in value from a year ago, repeatedly confounding market watchers by regularly hitting records.

The price is now as of the last trade 5640 Swiss Francs so the rumours continue. We get many stories about central banks being privately owned which are usually not true whereas here there is some truth  to it.

Comment

There is a lot to consider about the present Swiss situation where we again see negative interest-rates and a different type of balance sheet expansion combined with recorded economic growth that is solid. We also see some familiar risks.

Imbalances on the mortgage and real estate markets persist. While growth in mortgage lending remained relatively low in 2017, prices for single-family houses and owner-occupied apartments began to rise more rapidly again. Residential investment property prices also rose,
albeit at a somewhat slower pace. Owing to the strong growth in recent years, this segment in particular is subject to the risk of a price correction over the medium term.

Things take a further step forwards when we note their line of thinking.

The SNB will
continue to monitor developments on the mortgage and real estate markets closely, and will
regularly reassess the need for an adjustment of the countercyclical capital buffer.

It seems as though rather than stepping back they might intervene even more reminding me of the words of Joe Walsh.

I go to parties sometimes until 4
It’s hard to leave when you can’t find the door

Me on Core Finance TV

Who owns the Swiss National Bank?

A feature of pretty much any discussion about a central bank is that someone invariably pops up and claims that it is privately owned. This comes with the implication that dark forces are at work. Mostly it is simply not true but there are some cases which give food for thought and one of those is the case of the Swiss National Bank. You see it is possible to purchase a share in its equity capital and so far this morning some 14 shares have traded with the current price being 3965 Swiss Francs. If dark forces are at play this morning they have a lot of work to do as we look at the equity capital according to the

The share capital of the National Bank amounts to 25 million Swiss francs. It is divided into 100,000 registered shares with a nominal value of 250 Swiss francs each. The shares are fully paid up.

Also to have any real power you would either need to mislead the regulations or be part of a group as there is a limit to how many voting shares an individual can hold.

A shareholder’s registration is limited to a maximum of 100 shares. This limitation shall not apply to Swiss public-law corporations and institutions or to cantonal banks pursuant to Article 3a of the Federal Act of 8 November 19341 on Banks and Savings Banks.

Mind you as Swissinfo.ch pointed out a year ago not everyone is bothered by this.

The prime suspect is Theo Siegert, a German professor and business expert who sits on the boards of numerous companies. Siegert owned 6.6% of the share capital of the SNB at the end of last year, making him the second-largest shareholder behind the canton of Bern.

If we move to policy we see that we have a curious situation as of course investors are buying shares in what these days is a hedge fund which holds a lot of equities. This particular hedge fund has some 747 billion Swiss Francs in foreign currency investments of which around 20% is in equities.

Swissinfo.ch updated us a year ago on who owned the shares back then.

Cantons own 45% of stock, cantonal banks 15% and private investors (individuals or institutions) the remaining 40%.

What has happened?

The share price has given the impression that as Todd Terry would put it there is “something going on”. Here is the Wall Street Journal from the 21st of September.

Less than a month after its stock smashed through the 3,000-franc-a-share barrier, SNB shares hit an intraday high of 4,324 on Wednesday and were trading as high as 4,600 on Thursday. The stock has tripled in value from a year ago, repeatedly confounding market watchers by regularly hitting records.

So far this year, SNB shares are up about 160%, compared with an 11% gain for the SMI stock-market index of Swiss blue-chip companies. The broader Stoxx Europe 600 is up only 5.7% on the year.

If we look back the share price was in recent years mostly between 1000 and 1100 Swiss Francs so something has changed. The first wave was in August and September last year when the price rose to 1750 Swiss Francs and the next began towards the end of July when the 2000 Swiss Franc barrier was broken. As you can see progress was swift after that. Rather an irony to see a central bank share price surge like well “a boy in a bubble” isn’t it?

Backing

There is a dividend payment as shown below.

 

Subject to the Annual General Meeting’s approval of the proposed profit appropriation, a dividend not exceeding 6% of the share capital is to be paid from net profit (art. 31 para. 1 NBA). The dividend is CHF 15 (gross) and CHF 9.75 (net) per share, after deduction of withholding tax.

Interestingly the SNB itself feels that its shares should be traded like a bond.

Due to the legally stipulated maximum dividend of 6%, the price of the SNB share usually develops along similar lines to a long-term Confederation bond with a 6% coupon.

That gives us grounds for a surge in the price but leaves us with an awkward timing problem. The Swiss ten-year government bond yield went negative at the beginning of 2015 and it is currently 0%. So everybody was asleep at the wheel for quite some time.

The SNB as an equity investor

Here is @stocknewstimes and these tweets are from this morning.

Swiss National Bank boosted its stake in Bright Horizons Family Solutions Inc. (NYSE:BFAM) by 7.8% during the 2nd quarter………..SwissNationalBank Boosts Stake in Bright Horizons Family Solutions Inc. …….SwissNationalBank Boosts Holdings in The Madison Square Garden Company

You get the picture but how is this going? Well here is the Financial Times today.

Japan’s stock market hit a two-year high on Tuesday following fresh records set overnight in New York.

So equity investors are singing along with the band Chic.

Good times, these are the good times
Leave your cares behind, these are the good times
Good times, these are the good times
Our new state of mind, these are the good times

As a very large equity investor the SNB must be cheering from the sidelines and a weaker phase for the Swiss Franc only adds to the party. We do not know how holdings have performed but we are looking at a company with around 150 billion Swiss Francs of overseas equities at a time of all time highs for stock markets. Suddenly we have a potential rationale for buying shares in the Swiss National Bank.

Comment

Let us now move to the public side of the SNB where it sets interest-rates ( currently -0.75%) and monetary policy for Switzerland. This sits rather oddly with the private shareholders. They might be looking for a bond coupon as they are in short supply to say the least in modern-day Switzerland. Much more likely is that eyes are on the profits from the equity investments in particular. It is hard not to think of the phrase “socialisation of losses and privatisation of profits” at this point.

As to getting their hands on it the issue poses formal problems as profit distributions are for the public-sector. From Reuters.

For 2016 it paid 1.7 billion francs to the federal government and cantons. Remaining profit went into SNB reserves.

However according to Reuters some seem to think they have a chance of changing the rules.

A group of private shareholders proposed changing the bank’s rules to allow a higher payment, saying the bank’s foreign currency purchases had diluted the value of the Swiss franc.

“Our proposal aims to demonstrate the dilution of the purchasing power of the Swiss franc following the seven-fold increase in the SNB’s balance sheet since the financial crisis,” said shareholder Blaise Rossellat.

Has nobody told them that rule changes are only for central banks themselves? Or rather the rules get “interpreted” along the lines so memorably described in Yes Prime Minister “they didn’t seem quite appropriate.”

So we have two routes here I think which can be interrelated. Someone may have “high- ticked” the shares to get a reaction. This would most logically be done by an existing investor but may have been someone who was simply bored. The next is that some think they have a solid chance of changing the rules and actually benefitting from the gains of the SNB. Of course they are at this stage almost entirely paper profits but that does not bother people in so many other areas. This simultaneously has everything and nothing to do with monetary policy as we mull yet another series of unintended consequences. The investors must be hoping that the words of Tom Petty do not turn out to be appropriate.

I’m learning to fly, around the clouds
But what goes up must come down.

RIP Tom and thank you for the music.

What have negative interest-rates done to and for Switzerland?

This morning has seen the latest missive from the Swiss National Bank which reminds us that Switzerland is one of the leaders of the pack of the world of negative interest-rates. Before we do so we have two anniversaries to mark one of which is one of the events which led us into a world now containing so much negativity. Tracy Alloway has kindly reminded us of how the Financial Times reported it.

Do you work at Lehman? Did you hear Christian Meissner ( LEH’s co-head of investment banking in EMEA) tell you in a London meeting this morning that you are on your own and shouldn’t expect to be paid?

Because he did, apparently

Eight years ago for something which feels like yesterday! Also one hundred years ago in an actual war rather than a financial one some brave men climbed into their tanks and advanced on the enemy. Sometimes we do not realise how lucky we are.

Swiss National Bank

The state of play is as shown below.

 Interest on sight deposits at the SNB is to remain at –0.75% and the target range for the three-month Libor is unchanged at between –1.25% and –0.25%.

This is in one sense unchanged and in another a change. What I mean by that is the point which I have made before which is that banking systems have in general resisted some of the implications of negative interest-rates but cannot do that forever. So the longer they persist the harder it is for them to keep doing that. The clear example is that whilst we have seen negative interest-rates proliferate in wholesale and money markets they are a rarer beast in retail ones.

Also at the extreme this is the joint lowest negative interest-rate to be seen as one of the technical interest-rates at the Riksbank of Sweden is at -1.25% as well. However there is another feature of this as we need to look wider than the official interest-rate. In spite of the fact that we are currently seeing a “temper tantrum” for bonds and bond yields Switzerland issued a 9 1/2 year bond yesterday at a yield of -0.27% Yes they were paid to issue and anyone who holds to maturity is guaranteed a loss. Actually the last 4 bond issues have been at negative yields of which the most remarkable is the one in July at -0.02% because it was for 42 years. I do know about you but a 42 year bond at any negative yield seems to have an extraordinary level of risk to me! What could go wrong?

Interest-Rates for the ordinary person

You may be surprised at this and let me give you an example. According to the SNB the ordinary variable mortgage-rate is 2.81% and the one linked to a base rate is 1.14%. These have not fallen since the SNB plunged into an official negative interest-rate. Actually the base rate linked one is higher as it was 1.06% in December 2014. So we have low mortgage-rates but not the falls we might have expected. Oh and the overdraft rate has in fact risen from 4.84% to 5.02%.

What is that doing to the housing market? Well here is the official version.

While growth in real estate prices weakened overall in the second quarter, growth in mortgage lending was virtually unchanged compared to the previous quarter. According to the SNB’s assessment, imbalances on the mortgage and real estate markets persist.

Ah “imbalances”, how euphemistic!

I guess many of you are waiting for what deposit savings rates are and according to the SNB they were 0.01% in June. As to a change well if we look back three years we see that they were 0.05% so the official cuts have in fact not had much impact at all. So far banks have resisted making moves into negative savings rates. However they have dipped their toe into them for time deposits for larger deposits in the 3 month to one year maturity range which vary between -0.17% and -0.22%. You would get back less than you put in. I can think of two reasons why someone might do that. Firstly if you are a foreign investor expecting a stronger Swiss Franc and secondly if you think that the SNB will cut interest-rates further. If you think about it we would perhaps be seeing an example of retail investors joining institutional ones in front-running central banks.

The Swiss Franc

This was affected by the end of much of what was called the Carry Trade where investors borrowed Swiss Francs ( and Japanese Yen ) because it was cheap to do so. That feels like a different world but for example those taking out Swiss Franc mortgages in Eastern and Central Europe were able to do so at much lower interest-rates. This bust of the strategy meant that the Swiss Franc sang along to Jackie Wilson.

Higher and higher (higher)

The chart below shows what happened.

 

The period that looks flat is the one in which the Swiss National Bank put a cap on the value of the Swissy versus the Euro and then had to intervene on a grand scale to maintain it. In the end the rhetoric of “unlimited quantities for this purpose” was replaced by a retreat to occasional intervention and we heard more about that today.

At the same time, the SNB will remain active in the foreign exchange market, as necessary. The negative interest rate and the SNB’s willingness to intervene in the foreign exchange market are intended to make Swiss franc investments less attractive, thereby easing upward pressure on the currency.

Reserve Assets

A consequence of all the foreign currency invention is that the SNB held some 603.7 billion Swiss Francs of foreign securities at the end of July. Just to give a comparison and also a hint at the intervention in the meantime – remember the assets are also revalued – if we go back two years the same number was 447.9 billion Swiss Francs. Also 20% of the assets are now equities as the SNB has been on something of a buying splurge of which because of its size and prominence has been its investment in Apple. I cannot imagine the Swiss watchmaking industry being ecstatic about their central bank investing in the manufacturers of the Apple Watch can you?

Comment

So far I have discussed the financial situation so let me now shift to the real economy. In spite of all the efforts and the negative interest-rate there is little sign of inflation according to the SNB.

For 2016, the inflation forecast remains unchanged at –0.4%. For 2017, the SNB expects inflation of 0.2%, compared to 0.3% forecast in the last quarter, while for 2018, the forecast has fallen from 0.9% to 0.6%.

In essence the commodity price falls and the exchange-rate have trumped interest-rate moves yet again. Also Switzerland has managed economic growth in spite of the overall higher exchange-rate.

In the second quarter, the Swiss economy posted growth of 2.5% on an annualised basis. Overall, the revised quarterly estimates for GDP suggest a somewhat stronger recovery of the Swiss economy since the middle of last year.

As ever you could argue that the drift lower in the Swiss Franc has had an impact as we note we so rarely get an absolutely clear picture.

So the prophets of doom were overall wrong I think as Switzerland has coped with a higher exchange-rate remarkably well in the circumstances. But the problem with all the central banking intervention and planning is how do you ever get out of it and can you do so before the side-effects and unintended consequences swamp the gains? What about a plunge in equity markets? This would also presumably push the Swissy higher yet again….

 

Will central banks forever cry “To Infinity! And Beyond!”

Some days pieces of news just leap off the screen at you and this morning has seen a strong example of that. One event has encapsulated many of the themes of this website already so let us crack on as I temporarily hand you over to the Riksbank of Sweden.

Riksbank to purchase government bonds for a further SEK (Swedish Kronor) 45 billion and repo rate held unchanged at -0.50 per cent.

This is a bit like one of those Russian dolls so let us open them up one by one. Firstly for newer readers the Riksbank has been operating in an icy Nordic world of negative interest-rates for over a year now and its deposit rate is the lowest of all at -1.25%.  It was relatively late to the policy of QE (Quantitative Easing ) starting it in February last year but has since expanded and expanded the effort from the original 10 billion Kronor toe in the water. Indeed there is a new front being opened today.

The purchases cover both nominal and real government bonds, corresponding to SEK 30 and SEK 15 billion, respectively.

I like the idea of inflation linked bonds being called “real” and the others? There is an additional risk here if you think about it as an exchange between the treasury and an “independent” central bank. Or if they are one and the same well what are they playing at? I will answer that later. But we are left with the thought that the Riksbank may have been running out of conventional or nominal bonds to buy.

As to the pace of purchases context is not easy. As you can see it is much faster than the plan from this time last year but also represents a slowing on the first half of 2016 so take your pick.

The Swedish economy

Students of economics are no doubt taught these days by those living in Ivory Towers that monetary easing is a response to economic difficulties so let us check that out.

Sweden’s GDP increased 1.3 percent in the fourth quarter of 2015, seasonally adjusted and compared to the third quarter of 2015. GDP increased 4.5 percent, working-day adjusted and compared to the fourth quarter of 2014.

Even the most casual observer will have to admit that this is an odd and indeed bizarre type of economic difficulty as the Swedish economy looks both turbo and super-charged. As to fears of the economy slowing, well the Riksbank raised its economic growth forecast for 2016 this morning to 3.7%. Now I do not know about you but there was a time when economic growth of 8% in only two years would have a central bank applying the brakes and raising interest-rates.

The excuse is low inflation and in particular it being below the 2%. Readers of this website will be aware that I think the trend has changed illustrated by the new theme for the price of crude oil. Some of this was evident in the latest Swedish inflation numbers.

The inflation rate was 0.8 percent in March, up from 0.4 percent in February. The Swedish Consumer Price Index (CPI) increased by 0.5 percent from February to March 2016.

Indeed if you exclude mortgage rates which have been driven lower by the Riksbank then the picture changes again.

The inflation rate according to CPIF was 1.5 percent in March 2016. CPIF increased by 0.5 percent from February to March 2016.

For those of you wondering where all the money has gone well you do not have to look too far for it.

 (House)Prices increased by almost 12 percent on an annual basis during the first quarter 2016, compared to the same period last year.

So the list of casualties in the QE wars has both first time buyers and those looking to trade up the property market in Sweden on it.

Oh and the list of winners starts with asset owners again a feature regularly denied by central bankers.

Meanwhile GDP per head may not be all you think it might be. From Sweden Statistics.

In the next few years the population in Sweden is expected to increase by about 1.5 percent per year.

Currency Wars

Todays policy action is explicitly described as such by the Riksbank.

With continued expansionary monetary policy abroad, there is a risk that the krona will appreciate earlier and faster than in the forecast…..The continued asset purchases will reduce the risk of the krona appreciating faster than in the forecast and of a break in the upturn in inflation.

Oh and just in case this does not work.

The Riksbank is also prepared to intervene on the foreign exchange market if the krona appreciates so quickly as to threaten the upturn in inflation.

Some of you may be wondering how did that work out for the Swiss National Bank ( and indeed the Bank of Japan)? Well according to market observers it opened fire itself last night.

as per usual the SNB busy buying EUR selling CHF ahead of the ECB tomorrow

The link and indeed casual factor here is the Euro. You may note that something which is regularly badged by supporters as an example of stability is clearly not for the surrounding nations. Some of this is caused by the monetary policy response to the lack of economic stability and growth within the Euro area to which other nations respond. Only a couple of weeks ago even Hungary joined the negative interest-rates club albeit only -0.05%. Mind you it always starts like that.

Of course another part of the Nordic region will be closely following events as the Nationalbanken which is presumably meeting right now in Copenhagen Denmark mulls how to respond to all of this. When you are pegged to the Euro you have no choice at all. After all with it expecting economic growth of 1.3% in 2016 it is in danger of being a “lenny lightweight” when it meets the Riksbank at international meetings.

An Inconvenient Truth

All this effort to weaken a currency and yet? Well Twitter does have its uses and takes up the story.

Robert Bergqvist Riksbank delivers more QE (SEK+45bn) but SEK is strengthening!

Katie Martin: Riksbank boosts QE to cool the krona. Krona jumps.

So the Riksbank joins the Swiss National Bank, ECB and Bank of Japan is seeing that monetary easing leads to a stronger rather than a weaker currency. Also the half-life of the  initial easing response has shortened dramatically to a few second now if that.

Oh and this sums it up although we are left wishing that his parents had called him Rick.

European Central Bank

The Euro and the monetary policy of the ECB are the main drivers of the events above. Muse sing about a “supermassive black hole” and the Euro has been like that for the interest-rates and currencies of its neighbours. Today Mario Draghi is on deck and we are left wondering whether he has been subject to some early morning economic policy trolling from the Riksbank!

Personally I think that the Riksbank was catching up from the last ECB move and whilst mice do upset elephants I am only expecting some minor policy changes if at all today. Along the lines of a definition change or two around for example the “assets” of Italian banks and similar.

Comment

By the time you read this many of you will know the ECB decision and if it sticks to rhetoric and Open Mouth Operations it will be mimicking the Bank of Japan.

BoJ Officials Are Said To Share Rising Concern About Yen’s Gain… (@livesquawk)

But we see that negative interest-rates and QE are a clear example of junkie culture where the central banking addict needs ever higher doses with ever more side-effects or unintended consequences. For a while now the main game has been trying to devalue or depreciate your currency which can also be called exporting deflation. Of course it is not going well as we see exactly the reverse often happening. Time for some Outkast.

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

In these inflated times a trillion seems a bit undercooked but as to how long this will last the duo do have an opinion.

Forever, forever, ever, forever, ever?

How many central banks will turn into hedge funds?

One of the under appreciated consequences of all the monetary easing and intervention that has gone on in the world since the credit crunch is the impact on central banks themselves. What I mean is that they find themselves holding ever larger sums of assets which in many cases they are compounding by often holding ever riskier ones. They are taking advantage of the fact that they are backed by national treasuries – although being backed by 19 national treasuries as the European Central Bank or ECB  has a different perspective in my opinion  – allowing the view that this is somehow risk-free to proliferate. Well it may not be risk-free for the taxpayers who find themselves backing all this!

The Bank of England

So far it has mostly confined itself to what we might call bog standard QE where it purchases UK Gilts. However it has been lengthening the maturity of its £375 billion of holdings in an Operation Twist style and now for example has some £989 million of our 2068 Gilt. Too Infinity! And Beyond! Indeed…

The main risk to taxpayers is in fact even less understood operations like the house price boosting Funding for Lending Scheme. Some £69 billion of cheap loans to banks have been issue here and should house price ever fall there are risks.

Foreign Exchange Reserves

These seem to be safe but the QE era has led to changes here because you see conventional theory has central banks investing in shorter dated bonds. Some of you will be spotting the problem already! This is how the Financial Times puts it.

European and Japanese (interest) rate cuts are putting pressure on many central banks’ returns — a source of income used to cover running costs and to provide finance ministries with profits on which they have come to rely.

In other words investing at negative yields carries a guaranteed loss if you hold to maturity which is awkward to say the least when you come to explain your stewardship to auditors and indeed taxpayers. The ECB in particular is hoist by its own petard here as I recall it arguing that value on maturity was the way of valuing Greek bonds back in the day and of course that is still convenient there. But not elsewhere. We have just excluded the Euro and the Yen which of course are major markets (even now some 20% and 4% of reserve assets respectively) and logical ones to put some of your reserves. So what are they doing? From the FT.

central bank reserve managers are making or “seriously considering” buying bundles of loans repackaged as asset-backed securities or switching out of currencies affected by negative rates.

There are issues here as we move from theoretically at least safe government bonds to what are less safe assets. There are in fact two issues which the FT does not point out so let me point them out.

The good news for central banks is that a consequence of their own actions is that they have made a profit. Of course they will not put it like that! No doubt the press communiques will concentrate on skilled management and their own abilities. But the QE era has driven the prices of the bonds they hold as foreign exchange reserves higher and hence bingo. Even the own-goal by former UK Chancellor Gordon Brown when he sold gold at what is now cruelly called Brown’s Bottom will look a little better as the replacement strategy of buying bonds does well.

The catch is for future investment as what do you do now with bond prices so high? Indeed these “independent” central bankers will be under pressure from politicians who have no doubt got used to spending the profits created for national treasuries to carry on regardless as the film put it. But where do they go now to do this? The FT gives us a nod and a wink.

But central banks have shed some of their conservatism in recent years, with monetary policies such as quantitative easing forcing them to sell bonds and buy riskier instruments such as equities.

Revealing language there via “forcing them”. Really? Many central banks are not allowed to buy equities for this purpose and so they will be buying longer-dated bonds and dipping into riskier ones. I will discuss the equity buyers in a moment but here is an idea of scale for you.

Total managed reserves were $10.9tn at the end of last year, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Even in these times of ever larger numbers that is quite a lot. By the way how do the numbers keep getting larger when we are supposed to be in deflation? Anyway the UK government has net US $ 38.4 billion which the Bank of England manages. Tucked away here is the issue that gross reserves are around US $97 billion larger as we mull we have liabilities too and the phrase what could go wrong? The bit we do know is that if it should it will not be anybody’s fault.

Riskier bonds

Moving onto a slightly different field which is QE then the ECB gave us an example of this in yesterday’s update.

Asset-backed securities cumulatively purchased and settled as at 15/04/2016 €19,220 mln……..Covered bonds cumulatively purchased and settled as at 15/04/2016 €169,255 mln.

The ABS securities are the riskiest and as an aside you may wonder Mario Draghi made such a big deal of them as in the scheme of things purchases have been relatively small. The US Federal Reserve has been a big buyer in this area and as it still hold some US $1.76 trillion does not seem to have been keen on realising the value stored there.

Equities and property

Here we find what I labelled the “currency twins” back in the day as there were many similarities between the Swiss Franc and the Japanese Yen. The carry trade pushed their currencies lower originally but reversing it post credit crunch saw them shoot higher which the respective central banks resisted. Here are the consequences.

Swiss National Bank

This has the equivalent of some US $600 billion to invest as a result of its past interventions and promises to take on all-comers. Of that some 18% was invested in equities at the end of 2015 and that is why I refer from time to time to it being affected by movements in the share price of Apple for example.

The equity portfolios in the foreign currency investments were comprised of shares from mid-cap and large-cap companies (excluding banks) in advanced economies and, to a lesser extent, shares of small-cap companies. The SNB does not engage in equity selection; it only invests passively.

I wonder what Swiss watchmakers think of their central bank using their money to invest in the creator and manufacturer of the Apple watch? But as we observe this I note that of course we do have what might be considered purist hedge fund behaviour here which is punting, excuse me invested in Apple shares. The equity component had also risen from 15% to 18%.

Bank of Japan

The Bank of Japan also has large foreign exchange reserves amounting to some US $1.26 trillion. All that intervention had to go somewhere or to put it another way we see why the Bank of Japan was reluctant to intervene again as the Yen surged a week or so ago.  The Ministry of Finance is not keen on breaking this down but we do know that in its QQE (Quantiative and Qualitative Easing) policy the Bank of Japan is a keen equity and indeed property investor. From its latest Minutes.

Second, it would purchase ETFs and J-REITs so that their amounts outstanding would increase at annual paces of about 3 trillion yen and about 90 billion yen, respectively.

The Exchnage Traded Funds or ETFs are equity purchases and the J-REITs are property ones. So far just under 7.6 trillion Yen and 300 billion Yen have been purchased respectively. Indeed there are issues building here as regards market stability and structure. From Bloomberg.

the BOJ has accumulated an ETF stash that accounted for 52 percent of the entire market at the end of September, figures from Tokyo’s stock exchange show.

Comment

There is much to consider here as we see more and more central banks make the journey to what a Martian observer might have trouble distinguishing from a hedge fund. The elephant in the room is making investments which can make losses. Also here is a conceptual question for you. Is something a profit if it results from your subsequent purchases? The Bank of Japan which is both a template and the extreme case should be mulling this today in response to this.

JAPAN’S 30-YEAR YIELD FALLS TO RECORD 0.335% (h/t @moved_average )

In this situation it may already be beyond the point of no return which poses its own questions as it chomps on Japanese financial assets “like a powered up Pac-Man” as The Kaiser Chiefs put it.

Most other central banks have only taken relative baby steps on this road but we see that in yet another “surprise” even their foreign exchange reserve management is being affected. As I note that the ECB is the central bank mostly likely to dip into equities next let me leave you with a question. How is it that people who are badged as so intelligent and skilled seem to be so regularly surprised by the consequences of their own actions?!

For a minute there, I lost myself, I lost myself
Phew, for a minute there, I lost myself, I lost myself

For a minute there, I lost myself, I lost myself
Phew, for a minute there, I lost myself, I lost myself (Radiohead Karma Police)