The world of negative interest-rates now has negative economic growth too

It was not that long ago that many of us “experts” in the interest-rate market felt that negative interest-rates could not be sustained. Back then the past Swiss example could be considered a tax – which remains a way of considering negative interest-rates – and the flicker in Japan was covered by it being Japan. Yesterday brought some fascinating news from the front line which has been in danger of being ignored in the current news flow.

Sweden’s GDP decreased by 0.2 percent in the third quarter of 2018, seasonally adjusted, compared with the second quarter of 2018. GDP increased by 1.6 percent, working-day adjusted, compared with the third quarter of 2017. ( Sweden Statistics).

Firstly let me reassure you that Sweden has no Brexit style plans. What it does have is negative interest-rates as this from the Riksbank shows.

Consequently, in line with the previous forecast, the Executive Board has decided to hold the repo rate unchanged at -0.50 per cent.

I bet they now regret opening their latest forward guidance report like this.

Since the Monetary Policy Report in September, economic developments have been largely as expected, both in Sweden and abroad.

In fact the Riksbank was expecting this.

The most recently published National Accounts paint a picture of  slightly weaker GDP growth in recent years. Nevertheless, the Riksbank deems that economic activity in Sweden has been and continues to be strong.

In fact it has been so nonplussed that it has already reached for the central banking playbook and wondered what is Swedish for Johnny Foreigner?

Riksbank Floden: Sees Increased Uncertainty In World Economy ( @LiveSquawk )

Those who have followed my analysis that central banks will delay moving out of extraordinary monetary policy and negative interest-rates and thus are in danger of being trapped, will have a wry smile at this.

The forecast for the repo rate is unchanged since
the monetary policy meeting in September and indicates that the repo rate will be raised by 0.25
percentage points either in December or in February. As with the first raise, monetary policy will also
subsequently be adjusted according to the prospects for inflation.

That’s the spirit! You keep interest-rates negative through a strong phase of economic growth then you raise them when you have a quarterly decline. Oh hang on. I am not being clever after the event here because a month or so before the Riksbank report on the 6th of September I pointed out this.

This is also true of Sweden because if we look at the narrow measure or M1 we see that an annual rate of growth of 10.5% in July 2017 was replaced with 6.3% this July. …..A similar but less volatile pattern can be seen from the broad money measure M3. That was growing at an annual rate of 8.3% in July 2015 as opposed to the 5.1% of this July.

Since then M1 has stabilised but M3 has fallen further and was 4.5% in October. In fact if you were looking for an area it might effect then it would be domestic consumption so lets take a look.

Household consumption expenditures decreased by 1.0 percent and government consumption expenditures remained unchanged, seasonally adjusted, compared with the previous quarter ( Sweden Statistics).

Time for page 2 of the central banking play book.

Riksbank’s Floden: Recent Data Since Latest Policy Meeting Have Been Disappointing -But There Were Some Temporary Effects In 3Q GDP Data,

Something else caught my eye and it was this.

 Exports grew by 0.3 percent and imports declined by 0.6 percent.

So foreign demand flattered the numbers in a rebuttal to the central banking play book. But if we look at the overall pattern then economics 101 has yet more to think about.

J curve R.I.P. (?) – In Sweden, 2018 is heading for the worst trade year ever. The Oct deficit was SEK8.4bn. One observation: J curve effect does not work and thus the exchange rate channel (on real economy) is partially broken.   ( Stefan Mullin)

So let’s see you have negative interest-rates to boost domestic demand which is falling and you look to drive the currency lower which does not seem to be helping trade. Oh and you plan to raise interest-rates into a monetary decline. What could go wrong?

As it is the end of the week let us have some humour albeit of the gallows variety from Forex Crunch yesterday.

Analysts at TD Securities suggest that their nowcast models point to a 0.6% q/q gain to Sweden’s GDP (mkt: 0.2% q/q on a wide range of estimates), which if materialised would leave TD (and likely the Riksbank) comfortable with a December rate hike

Switzerland

Let us start with a response from Nikolay Markov of Pictet Asset Management.

GDP growth plunged to its lowest pace since the introduction of negative rates in Q1 2015. There is no reason to panic as this is a temporary drop:

There are few things more likely to cause a panic than being told there is no reason for it. I also note he was not so kind to the Swedes. Let us investigate using Swiss Statistics.

Switzerland’s GDP fell by 0.2% in the 3rd quarter of 2018, after climbing by 0.7% in the previous quarter. The strong, continuous growth phase enjoyed by the Swiss economy for one and a half years was suddenly interrupted.

The change has seen annual growth dip from 3.5% to 2.4% so different to Sweden although there has been a fall in the growth of domestic consumption. Quite what a central bank with an interest-rate of -0.75% can do about falling domestic consumption is a moot point. A driver of the decline is a familiar one.

Value added in manufacturing dipped slightly (−0.6%);  Total exports of goods (−4.2%) also contracted substantially.

The official view is that is just a blip but it does require watching as I note this area still seems to be troubled as this from earlier shows.

How cold is ‘s auto market? Passenger car sales down 28% in first 3 weeks of Nov. Whole year drop “inevitable”. Car dealers’ inventory climbing and many of them making losses. Authority said bringing back purchase tax cut will not help much. ( @YuanTalks )

Just as a reminder the Swiss National Bank holds some 778.05 billion Swiss Francs of foreign currency investments as a result of its interventions to reduce the exchange-rate of the Swissy.

Comment

These developments add to those at some other members of the negative interest-rates club or what is called NIRP.

German economic growth has stalled. As the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis) already reported in its first release of 14 November 2018, the gross domestic product (GDP) in the third quarter of 2018 was by 0.2% lower – upon price, seasonal and calendar adjustment – than in the second quarter of 2018.

And another part of discovering Japan.

Japan’s economy shrank in the third quarter as natural disasters hit spending and disrupted exports.

The economy contracted by an annualised 1.2% between July and September, preliminary figures showed. ( BBC )

As you can see we go to part three of the play book as the poor old weather takes another pounding. Quite what this has done to IMF News I am not sure as imagine how it would report such numbers for the UK?

has had an extended period of strong economic growth—GDP expected to rise by 1.1% in 2018.

 

Perhaps it has been discombobulated by a period when expansionary monetary policy has not only crunched to a halt but gone into reverse at least for a bit. But imagine you are a central banker right now wondering of this may go on and you will be starting it with interest-rates already negative. Or to use the old City phrase, how are you left?

Oh and hot off this morning’s press there is also this.

In the third quarter of 2018 the seasonally and calendar adjusted, chained volume measure of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) decreased by 0.1 per cent to the previous quarter and increased by 0.7 per cent in comparison with the third quarter of 2017. ( Italy Statistics)

Japan

There as been a development in something predicted by us on here quite some time ago. So without further ado let me hand you over to The Japan Times.

Japan is considering transforming a helicopter destroyer into an aircraft carrier that can accommodate fighter jets, a government source said Tuesday,

 

 

 

 

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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

What is happening with fiscal policy?

A feature of the credit crunch era has been the way that monetary policy has taken so much of the strain of the active response. I say active because there was a passive fiscal response as deficits soared caused on one side by lower tax revenues as recession hit and on the other by higher social payments and bank bailout costs. Once this was over the general response was what has been badged as austerity where governments raised taxes and cut spending to reduce fiscal deficits. Some care is needed with this as the language has shifted and often ignores the fact that there was a stimulus via ongoing deficits albeit smaller ones.

Cheap debt

Something then happened which manages to be both an intended and unintended consequence. What I mean by that is that the continued expansion of monetary policy via interest-rate reductions and bond buying or QE was something which governments were happy to sign off because it was likely to make funding their spending promises less expensive. Just for clarity national treasuries need to approve QE type policies because of the large financial risk. But I do not think that it was appreciated what would happen next in the way that bond yields dropped like a stone. So much so that whilst many countries were able to issue debt at historically low-levels some were in fact paid to issue debt as we entered an era of negative interest-rate.

This era peaked with around US $13 trillion of negative yielding bonds around the world with particular areas of negativity if I may put it like that to be found in Germany and Switzerland. At one point it looked like every Swiss sovereign bond might have a negative yield. So what did they do with it?

Germany

This morning has brought us solid economic growth data out of Germany with its economy growing by 0.6% in the last quarter of 2017. But it has also brought us this.

Net lending of general government amounted to 36.6 billion euros in 2017 according to updated results of the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis). In absolute terms, this was the highest surplus achieved by general government since German reunification. When measured as a percentage of gross domestic product at current prices (3,263.4 billion euros), the surplus ratio of general government was +1.1%.

So Germany chose to take advantage of being paid to issue debt to bring its public finances into surplus which might be considered a very Germanic thing to do. There is of course effects from one to the other because their economic behaviour is one of the reasons why their bonds saw so much demand.

But one day they may regret not taking more advantage of an extraordinary opportunity which was to be able to be paid to borrow. There must be worthy projects in Germany that could have used the cash. Also one of the key arguments of the credit crunch was that surplus countries like Germany needed to trim them whereas we see it running a budget surplus and ever larger trade surpluses.

In the detail there is a section which we might highlight as “Thanks Mario”

 Due to the continuing very low-interest rates and lower debt, interest payments decreased again (–6.4%).

Switzerland

The Swiss situation has been similar but more extreme. Membership of the Euro protected Germany to some extent as the Swiss Franc soared leading to an interest-rate of -0.75% and “unlimited” – for a time anyway – currency intervention. This led to the Swiss National Bank becoming an international hedge fund as it bought equities with its new foreign currency reserves and Switzerland becoming a country that was paid to borrow. What did it do with it? From its Finance Ministry.

A deficit of approximately 13 million is expected in the ordinary budget for 2018.

So fiscal neutrality in all but name and the national debt will decline.

 It is expected that gross debt will post a year-on-year decline of 3.3 billion to 100.8 billion in 2018 (estimate for 2017). This reduction will be driven primarily by the redemption of a 6.8 billion bond maturing combined with a low-level of new issues of only 4 billion.

The UK

Briefly even the UK had some negative yielding Gilts ( bonds) in what was for those who have followed it quite a change on the days of say 15% long yields. This was caused by Mark Carney instructing the Bank of England’s bond buyers to rush like headless chickens into the market to spend his £60 billion of QE and make all-time highs for prices as existing Gilt owners saw a free lunch arriving. Perhaps the Governor’s legacy will be to have set records for the Gilt market that generations to come will marvel at.

Yet the path of fiscal policy changed little as indicated by this.

Or at least it would do if something like “on an annual basis” was added. Oh and to complete the problems we are still borrowing which increases the burden on future generations. The advice should be do not get a job involving numbers! Which of course are likely to be in short supply at a treasury………..

But the principle reinforces this from our public finances report on Wednesday.

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) decreased by £7.2 billion to £37.7 billion in the current financial year-to-date (April 2017 to January 2018), compared with the same period in the previous financial year; this is the lowest year-to-date net borrowing since the financial year-to-date ending January 2008.

So we too have pretty much turned our blind eye to a period where we could have borrowed very cheaply. If there was a change in UK fiscal policy it was around 2012 which preceded the main yield falls.

Bond yields

There have been one or two false dawns on this front, partly at least created by the enthusiasm of the Bank of Japan and ECB to in bond-buying terms sing along with the Kaiser Chiefs.

Knock me down I’ll get right back up again
I’ll come back stronger than a powered up Pac-Man

This may not be entirely over as this suggests.

“Under the BOJ law, the finance ministry holds jurisdiction over currency policy. But I hope Kuroda would consider having the BOJ buy foreign bonds,” Koichi Hamada, an emeritus professor of economics at Yale University, told Reuters in an interview on Thursday.

However we have heard this before and unless they act on it rises in US interest-rates are feeding albeit slowly into bond yields. This has been symbolised this week by the attention on the US ten-year yield approaching 3% although typically it has dipped away to 2.9% as the attention peaked. But the underlying trend has been for rises even in places like Germany.

Comment

Will we one day regret a once in a lifetime opportunity to borrow to invest? This is a complex issue as there is a problem with giving politicians money to spend which was highlighted in Japan as “pork barrel politics” during the first term of Prime Minister Abe. In the UK it is highlighted by the frankly woeful state of our efforts on the infrastructure front. We are spending a lot of money for very few people to be able to travel North by train, £7 billion or so on Smart Meters to achieve what exactly? That is before we get to the Hinkley Point nuclear power plans that seem to only achieve an extraordinarily high price for the electricity.

One example of fiscal pump priming is currently coming from the US where Donald Trump seems to be applying a similar business model to that he has used personally. Or the early days of Abenomics. Next comes the issue of monetary policy where we could of course in the future see news waves of QE style bond buying to drive yields lower but as so much has been bought has limits. This in a way is highlighted by the Japanese proposal to buy foreign bonds which will have as one of its triggers the way that the number of Japanese ones available is shrinking.

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 is happening with the Swiss Franc?

One of the features of the credit crunch era has been the strength of the Swiss Franc. This has been for two interrelated reasons. The first is simply that Switzerland has been seen as something of a safe haven in these troubled times. The second as we have looked at many times comes from what was called the Carry Trade. This involved people and companies from other parts of the world borrowing in Swiss Francs because in something getting ever harder to believe interest-rates were much higher in their own domestic currencies than they were in the Swissy. In particular those taking out mortgages in some parts of eastern Europe with Hungary and Poland to the fore and also in places like Cyprus took out Swiss Franc mortgages to take advantage of the lower “carry” or interest-rate. The catch was the fact that there was an exchange rate risk which was obscured by the fact that the size of the trade put downwards pressure on the Swiss Franc ( and the Japanese Yen which was its currency twin in this regard). Accordingly it looked as if a financial triumph was on its way where interest-rate gains came with exchange-rate benefits. What could go wrong?

As the credit crunch hit there was a safe haven demand for Swiss Francs accompanied by some beginning to reverse their carry trades and the two reinforced each other. This meant that those who had taken Swiss Franc mortgages in eastern Europe found that the amount owed headed higher in their own currency and as the monthly repayments depended on the amount owed they headed higher too. The same happened to business borrowers. As more cut their losses the pressure was built up even more on those who remained. Meanwhile Switzerland was left feeling like a tennis ball bouncing around on a foreign currency ocean with consequences described the summer of 2011 by the Swiss National Bank like this.

The massive overvaluation of the Swiss franc poses a threat to the development of the economy in Switzerland and has further increased the downside risks to price stability.

It was afraid of a pricing out of the Swiss economy as it became less competitive. In September of that year it made something of a ground breaking announcement.

The Swiss National Bank (SNB) is therefore aiming for a substantial and sustained weakening of the Swiss franc. With immediate effect, it will no longer tolerate a EUR/CHF exchange rate below the minimum rate of CHF 1.20. The SNB will enforce this minimum rate with the utmost determination and is prepared to buy foreign currency in unlimited quantities.

On that road the SNB became an enormous hedge fund with at the time of writing some 724.4 billion Swiss Francs in its foreign currency reserves. An odd consequence of this is that it would have welcomed this news overnight. From Reuters.

Shares in the world’s most valuable company surged 6 percent after-hours to a record of more than $159, taking its market capitalization above $830 billion.

As 20% of its assets are in equities the SNB will be happy and the last number I saw had it holding some 15 million shares in Apple. However even “utmost determination” apparently has its bounds as this told us 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%.

So the full set had been deployed in terms of monetary policy of foreign exchange intervention and negative interest-rates. But it was not enough and the retreat by the SNB was followed by another Swiss Franc surge causing worries for not only Switzerland but more losses for those who had borrowed in it.

Ch-ch-changes

More recently there has been signs and hints of a possible crack in the dam of Swiss Franc strength. At the end of last week Bloomberg was pointing out that it was at its weakest since the January 2015 announcement and that this was driven by stop-loss buying from Japanese banks. Whilst my career has seen regular episodes of stop-loss buying by Japanese banks across many instruments which begs the question of whether they ever make profits this is an interesting connection between what were the two currency twins. CNBC summarised the situation like this.

The franc fell sharply against the euro in morning deals, trading at 1.13 Swiss francs, a three percent drop on the week. Against the dollar, it hit a month low of 0.9724 Swiss francs.

This morning has seen the Euro rise to 1.143 Swiss Francs as the new beat goes on.

Swiss Cheese

The Financial Times notes that the hole in Swiss cheese production may be in the process of being fixed.

 

Its competitiveness wounded by the strong Swiss franc, Switzerland has imported more cheese than it has exported in some recent months — an unhappy state of affairs for producers of Gruyère and Emmental. “It would be great to get back to a reasonable exchange rate,” says Manuela Sonderegger, of Switzerland Cheese Marketing.

A real world impact of the exchange rate moves although of course it will take a while for the weaker level of the Swiss Franc to have any significant impact.

Comment

There is quite a bit to consider here so let us look at what is in play. We cannot rule out that this is a consequence of thin summer markets but it is also true that a weakening has been in play for a few months. One initial driver may have been the strong phase of the US Dollar offering an alternative but the main player now is the Euro area. The better phase for it economically is now being accompanied by a stronger Euro signalled by the way it has moved above 1.18 versus the US Dollar and in a lesser way by the UK Pound £ being just under 1.12.

Thus the SNB will be hoping for a continuation of the stronger Euro and thus has a vested interest in the next move of Mario Draghi and the ECB. It will be hoping that it will withdraw more of its stimulus measures once the summer and indeed elections are over. Of course now the web gets increasingly tangled as the ECB will not be that keen on further rises in the Euro as it moves it reduces its “price stability” target. This particular currency war is now in the world of strength rather than weakness which of course sends another Ivory Tower or two collapsing as we note there is still 60 billion Euros a month of QE from the ECB.

Also if we look wider there will be implications. For example we may hear a sigh of relief from eastern Europe but also what if the rally continues and the SNB gets the chance to trim its reserves. As it has been a factor in driving equity markets higher would it be a sign of a turn? That is a fair way away from here but much more nearby has been the recent disarray in the claimed safe haven of Bitcoin. It makes me wonder if this has impacted the Swiss Franc but am struggling to think of a causal link.

Let me finish with another potential consequence which would be quite a change which would be an interest-rate rise in Switzerland. Could it get away from negative interest-rates before the next downturn strikes or is it trapped there?

 

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….