Is Japan the future for all of us?

A regular feature of these times is to compare our economic performance with that of Japan. That has propped up pretty regularly in this crisis mostly about the Euro area but with sub-plots for the US and UK. One group that will be happy about this with be The Vapors and I wonder how much they have made out of it?

I’m turning Japanese, I think I’m turning Japanese
I really think so
Turning Japanese, I think I’m turning Japanese
I really think so.

The two basic concepts here are interrelated and are of Deflation and what was called The Lost Decade but now are The Lost Decades. These matters are more nuanced that usually presented so let me start with Deflation which is a fall in aggregate demand in an economy. According to the latest Bank of Japan Minutes this is happening again.

This is because aggregate demand is
highly likely to be pushed down by deterioration in the labor market and the utilization rate of conventional types of services could decline given a new lifestyle that takes into
consideration the risk of COVID-19.

The latter point echoes a discussion from the comments section yesterday about an extension to the railway to the Scottish Borders. Before COVID-19 anything like that would come with a round of applause but now there are genuine questions about public transport for the future. There is an irony close to me as I have lived in Battersea for nearly 3 decades and a tube line there has been promised for most of that. Now it is on its way will it get much use?

This is a difficult conceptual issue because if we build “White Elephants” they will be counted in GDP ( it is both output and income), but if they are not used the money is to some extent wasted. I differ to that extent from the view of John Maynard Keynes that you can dig and hole and fill it in. If that worked we would not be where we are now. In the credit crunch we saw facets of this with the empty hotels in Ireland, the unused airport in Spain and roads to nowhere in Portugal. That was before China built empty cities.

Inflation Deflation

There is something of a double swerve applied here which I will illustrate from the Bank of Japan Minutes again.

Next, the three arrows of Abenomics should continue to be carried out to the fullest extent until the economy returns to a growth path in which the annual inflation
rate is maintained sustainably at around 2 percent.

A 2% inflation target has nothing at all to do with deflation and this should be challenged more, especially when it has this Orwellian element.

It is assumed that achievement of the price stability target will be delayed due to COVID-19
and that monetary easing will be prolonged further

It is not a price stability target it is an inflation rate target. This is of particular relevance in Japan as it has had stable prices pretty much throughout the lost decade period. It is up by 0.1% in the past year and at 101.8 if we take 2015 as 100, so marginal at most. The undercut to this is that you need inflation for relative price changes. But this is also untrue as the essentially inflation-free Japan has a food price index at 105.8 and an education one of 92.7.

Policy Failure

The issue here is that as you can see above there has been a complete failure but that has not stopped other central banks from speeding down the failure road. It is what is missing from the statement below that is revealing.

: the Special Program to Support Financing in Response to the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19); an ample provision of
yen and foreign currency funds without setting upper limits; and active purchases of assets such as exchange-traded funds (ETFs).

No mention of negative interest-rates? Also the large-scale purchases of Japanese Government Bonds only get an implicit mention. Whereas by contrast the purchase of equities as in this coded language that is what “active purchases of assets such as exchange-traded funds (ETFs)” means gets highlighted. The 0.1% will be happy but as any asset price rise is omitted from the inflation indices it is entirely pointless according to their stated objective. No wonder they keep failing…

This matters because pretty much every central bank has put on their running shoes and set off in pursuit of the Bank of Japan. Ever more interest-rate cuts and ever more QE bond buying. Perhaps the most extreme case is the ECB (European Central Bank) with its -0.5% Deposit Rate and large-scale QE. On the latter subject it seems to be actively mirroring Japan.

The ECB may not need to use the full size of its recently expanded pandemic purchase program, Executive Board member Isabel Schnabel says ( Bloomberg)

This is a regular tactic of hinting at reductions whereas the reality invariably ends up on the Andrea True Connection road.

More! More! More!

Staying with the Euro area the ECB has unveiled all sorts of policies and has a balance sheet of 6.2 trillion Euros but keeps missing its stated target. We noted recently that over the past decade or so they have been around 0.7% per year below it and that is not getting any better.

In June 2020, a month in which many COVID-19 containment measures have been gradually lifted, Euro area annual inflation is expected to be 0.3%, up from 0.1% in May ( Eurostat )

Real Wage Deflation

This to my mind is the bigger issue. It used to be the case ( in what was called the NICE era by former Bank of England Governor Mervyn King) that wages grew faster than wages by 1-2% per annum. That was fading out before the credit crunch and since there have been real problems. The state of play for the leader of the pack here has been highlighted by Nippon.com.

Wage growth in Japan is also slow compared with other major economies. According to statistics published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the average Japanese annual wage in 2018 was the equivalent of $46,000—a mere 0.2% increase on the figure for 2000 ($45,000).

They mean 2% and everyone else seems to be heading that way.

This increase is significantly smaller than those recorded in the same period in the United States ($53,900 to 63,100), Germany ($43,300 to 49,800), and France ($37,100 to 44,500).

The UK has gone from around $39,000 to the same as France at $44.500.

There is an obvious issue in using another currency but we have the general picture and right now it is getting worse everywhere.

Comment

The answers to the question in my title unfold as follows. In terms of central bank action we have an unequivocal yes. They have copied Japan as much as they can showing they have learnt nothing. We could replace them with an AI version ( with the hope that the I of Intelligence might apply). Related to this is the inflation issue where all the evidence is that they will continue to fail. We have here an example of failure squared where they pursue policies that do not work in pursuit of an objective which would make people worse rather than better off.

That last point feeds into the wages issue which in my opinion is the key one of our times. The Ivory Towers of the central banks still pursue policies where wages growth exceeds inflation and their models assume it. Perhaps because for them it is true. But for the rest of us it is not as real wages have struggled at best and fallen at worst. This is in spite of the increasingly desperate manipulation of inflation numbers that has been going on.

So we see different elements in different places. The Euro area is heading down the same road as Japan in terms of inflation and apart from Germany wages too. The UK is an inflation nation so that part we are if not immune a step or two away from, but that means our real wage performance is looking rather Japanese.

There is also another sub-plot.

30y gilt yield < 30y JGB yield ( Divyang Shah )

The Investing Channel

 

Can US house prices bounce?

The US housing market is seeing two tsunami style forces at once but in opposite directions. The first is the economic impact of the Covid-19 virus pandemic on both wages (down) and unemployment (up). Unfortunately the official statistics released only last week are outright misleading as you can see below.

Real average hourly earnings increased 6.5 percent, seasonally adjusted, from May 2019 to May 2020.
The change in real average hourly earnings combined with an increase of 0.9 percent in the average
workweek resulted in 7.4-percent increase in real average weekly earnings over this period.

We got a better idea to the unemployment state of play on Thursday as we note the scale of the issue.

The advance unadjusted number for persons claiming UI benefits in state programs totaled 18,919,804, a decrease of 178,671 (or -0.9 percent) from the preceding week.

The only hopeful bit is the small decline. Anyway let us advance with our own view is that we will be seeing much higher unemployment in 2020 although hopefully falling and falling real wages.

The Policy Response

The other tsunami is the policy response to the pandemic.

FISCAL STIMULUS (FEDERAL) – The U.S. House of Representatives passed a $2.2 trillion aid package – the largest in history – on March 27 including a $500 billion fund to help hard-hit industries and a comparable amount for direct payments of up to $3,000 to millions of U.S. families.

That was the Reuters summary of the policy response which has been added to in the meantime. In essence it is a response to the job losses and an attempt to resist the fall in wages.

Next comes the US Federal Reserve which has charged in like the US Cavalry. Here are their words from the report made to Congress last week.

Specifically, at two meetings in March, the FOMC lowered the target range for the federal funds rate by a total of 1-1/2 percentage points, bringing it to the current range of 0 to 1/4 percent.

That meant that they have now in this area at least nearly fulfilled the wishes of President Trump. They also pumped up their balance sheet.

The Federal Reserve swiftly took a series of policy actions to address these developments. The FOMC announced it would purchase Treasury securities and agency MBS in the amounts needed to ensure smooth market functioning and the effective transmission of monetary policy to broader financial conditions. The Open Market Desk began offering large-scale overnight and term repurchase agreement operations. The Federal Reserve coordinated with other central banks to enhance the provision of liquidity via the standing U.S. dollar liquidity swap line arrangements and announced the establishment of temporary U.S. dollar liquidity arrangements (swap lines) with additional central banks.

Their explanation is below.

 Market functioning deteriorated in many markets in late February and much of March, including the critical Treasury and agency MBS markets.

Let me use my updated version of my financial lexicon for these times. Market function deteriorated means prices fell and yields rose and this happening in the area of government and mortgage borrowing made them panic buy in response.

Mortgage Rates

It seems hard to believe now but the US ten-year opened the year at 1.9%, Whereas now after the recent fall driven by the words of Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell it is 0.68%. Quite a move and it means that it has been another good year for bond market investors. The thirty-year yield is 1.41% as we note that there has been a large downwards push as we now look at mortgage rates.

Let me hand you over to CNBC from Thursday.

Mortgage rates set new record low, falling below 3%

How many times have I ended up reporting record lows for mortgage rates? Anyway we did get some more detail.

The average rate on the popular 30-year fixed mortgage hit 2.97% Thursday, according to Mortgage News Daily……..For top-tier borrowers, some lenders were quoting as low as 2.75%. Lower-tier borrowers would see higher rates.

Mortgage Amounts

CNBC noted some action here too.

Low rates have fueled a sharp and fast recovery in the housing market, especially for homebuilders. Mortgage applications to purchase a home were up 13% annually last week, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.

According to Realtor.com the party is just getting started although I have helped out with a little emphasis.

Meanwhile, buyers who still have jobs have been descending on the market en masse, enticed by record-low mortgage interest rates. Rates fell below 3%, to hit an all-time low of 2.94% for 30-year fixed-rate loans on Thursday, according to Mortgage News Daily.

Mortgage demand is back on the rise according to them.

For the past three weeks, the number of buyers applying for purchase mortgages rose year over year, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. Applications shot up 12.7% annually in the week ending June 5. They were also up 15% from the previous week.

Call me suspicious but I thought it best to check the supply figures as well.

Mortgage credit availability decreased in May according to the Mortgage Credit Availability Index (MCAI)………..The MCAI fell by 3.1 percent to 129.3 in May. A decline in the MCAI indicates that lending standards are tightening, while increases in the index are indicative of loosening credit.

So a decline but still a lot higher than when it was set at 100 in 2012. The recent peak at the end of last year was of the order of 185 and was plainly singing along to the Outhere Brothers.

Boom boom boom let me here you say way-ooh (way-ooh)
Me say boom boom boom now everybody say way-ooh (way-ooh)

What about prices?

As the summer home-buying season gets underway, median home prices are surging. They shot up 4.3% year over year as the number of homes for sale continued to dry up in the week ending June 6, according to a recent realtor.com® report. That’s correct: Prices are going up despite this week’s announcement that the U.S. officially entered a recession in February.

Comment

As Todd Terry sang.

Something’s goin’ on in your soul

The housing market is seeing some surprises although I counsel caution. As I read the pieces about I note that a 4.3% rise is described as “shot up” whereas this gives a better perspective.

While that’s below the typical 5% to 6% annual price appreciation this time of year, it’s nearly back to what it was before the coronavirus pandemic. Median prices were rising 4.5% in the first two weeks of March before the COVID-19 lockdowns began. Nationally, the median home list price was $330,000 in May, according to the most recent realtor.com data.

But as @mikealfred reports there is demand out there.

Did someone forget to tell residential real estate buyers about the recession? I’m helping my in-laws buy a house in Las Vegas right now. Nearly every house in their price range coming to market sees 40+ showings and 5+ offers in the first few days. Crazy demand.

Of course there is the issue as to at what price?

So there we have it. The Federal Reserve will be happy as it has created a demand to buy property. The catch is that it is like crack and if they are to keep house prices rising they will have to intervene on an ever larger scale. For the moment their policy is also being flattered by house supply being low and I doubt that will last. To me this house price rally feels like trying to levitate over the edge of a cliff.

Podcast

 

 

 

Where will all the extra US Money Supply end up?

Today brings both the US economy and monetary policy centre stage. The OECD has already weighed in on the subject this morning.

The COVID-19 outbreak has brought the longest economic expansion on record to a juddering halt. GDP
contracted by 5% in the first quarter at an annualised rate, and the unemployment rate has risen
precipitously. If there is another virus outbreak later in the year, GDP is expected to fall by over 8% in 2020
(the double-hit scenario). If, on the other hand, the virus outbreak subsides by the summer and further
lockdowns are avoided (the single-hit scenario), the impact on annual growth is estimated to be a percentage
point less.

Actually that is less than its view of many other countries. But of course we need to remind ourselves that the OECD is not a particularly good forecaster. Also we find that the official data has its quirks.

Total nonfarm payroll employment rose by 2.5 million in May, and the unemployment rate
declined to 13.3 percent, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today……In May, employment rose sharply in leisure and hospitality, construction, education and health services, and retail trade. By contrast, employment
in government continued to decline sharply……….The unemployment rate declined by 1.4 percentage points to 13.3 percent in May, and the number of unemployed persons fell by 2.1 million to 21.0 million.

Those figures not only completely wrong footed the forecasters they nutmegged them as well in one of the most spectacular examples of this genre I have seen. I forget now if they were expecting a rise in unemployment of eight or nine million but either way you get the gist. We do not know where we are let alone where we are going although the Bureau of Labor Statistics did try to add some clarity.

If the workers who were recorded as employed but absent from work due to “other  reasons” (over and above the number absent for other reasons in a typical May) had
been classified as unemployed on temporary layoff, the overall unemployment rate  would have been about 3 percentage points higher than reported (on a not seasonally  adjusted basis).

We learn more about the state of play from the New York Federal Reserve.

The New York Fed Staff Nowcast stands at -25.5% for 2020:Q2 and -12.0% for 2020:Q3. News from this week’s data releases increased the nowcast for 2020:Q2 by 10 percentage points and increased the nowcast for 2020:Q3 by 24.5 percentage points. Positive surprises from labor, survey, and international trade data drove most of the increase.

As you can see the labo(u)r market data blew their forecasts like a gale and leave us essentially with the view that there has been a large contraction but also a wide possible and indeed probable error range.

The Inflation Problem

We get the latest inflation data later after I publish this piece. But there is a problem with the mantra we are being told which is that there is no inflation. Something similar to the April reading of 0.3% is expected. So if we switch to the measure used by the US Federal Reserve which is based on Personal Consumption Expenditures the annual rate if we use our rule of thumb would in fact be slightly negative right now. On this basis Chair Powell and much of the media can say that all the monetary easing is justified.

But there are more than a few catches which change the picture. Let me start with the issues I raised concerning the Euro area yesterday where the numbers will be pushed downwards by a combination of the weights being (very) wrong, many prices being unavailable and the switch to online prices. It would seem that the ordinary person has been figuring this out for themselves.

The May 2020 Survey of Consumer Expectations shows small signs of improvement in households’ expectations compared to April. Median inflation expectations increased by 0.4 percentage point at the one-year horizon to 3.0 percent, and were unchanged at the three-year horizon at 2.6 percent. ( NY Fed Research from Monday)

It is revealing that they describe an increase in inflation that is already above target as an “improvement” is it not? But we see a complete shift as we leave the Ivory Towers and media palaces as the ordinary person surveyed expects a very different picture. Still the Ivory Towers can take some solace from the fact that inflation is in what they consider to be non-core areas.

Expected year-ahead changes in both food and gasoline prices displayed sharp increases for the second consecutive month and recorded series’ highs in May at 8.7% and 7.8%, respectively, in May.

Just for the avoidance of doubt I have turned my Irony meter beyond even the “turn up to 11” of the film Spinal Tap.

Central bankers will derive some cheer from the apparent improvement in perceptions about the housing market.

Median home price change expectations recovered slightly from its series’ low of 0% reached in April to 0.6% in May. The slight increase was driven by respondents who live in the West and Northeast Census regions.

Credit

More food for thought is provided in this area. If we switch to US Federal Reserve policy Chair Jerome Powell will tell us later that the taps are open and credit is flowing. But those surveyed have different ideas it would seem.

Perceptions of credit access compared to a year ago deteriorated for the third consecutive month, with 49.6% of respondents reporting credit to be harder to get today than a year ago (versus 32.1% in March and 48.0% in April). Expectations for year-ahead credit availability also worsened, with fewer respondents expecting credit will become easier to obtain.

Comment

I now want to shift to a subject which is not getting the attention it deserves. This is the growth in the money supply where the three monthly average for the narrow measure M1 has increased in annualised terms by 67.2% in the three months to the 25th of May. Putting that another way it has gone from a bit over US $4 trillion to over US $5 trillion over the past 3 months. That gives the monetary system quite a short-term shove the size of which we can put into context with this.

In April 2008, M1 was approximately $1.4 trillion, more than half of which consisted of currency.  ( NY Fed)

Contrary to what we keep being told about the decline of cash it has grown quite a bit over this period as there is presently a bit over US $1.8 trillion in circulation.

Moving to the wider measure M2 we see a similar picture where the most recent three months measured grew by 40.6% compared to its predecessor in annualised terms. Or if you prefer it has risen from US $15.6 billion to US $18.1 billion. Again here is the historical perspective from April 2008.

 M2 was approximately $7.7 trillion and largely consisted of savings deposits.

So here is a question for readers, where do you think all this money will go? Whilst you do so you might like to note this from the 2008 report I have quoted.

While as much as two-thirds of U.S. currency in circulation may be held outside the United States….

The Investing Channel

 

The USA will Spend! Spend! Spend! As we wonder whatever happened to the debt ceiling?

Yesterday evening there was a piece of news which created a stir even in these inflated times. So without further ado let me hand you over to the US Treasury Department.

During the April – June 2020 quarter, Treasury expects to borrow $2,999 billion in privately-held net marketable debt, assuming an end-of-June cash balance of $800 billion.  The borrowing estimate is $3,055 billion higher than announced in February 2020.

I have to confess the numbers did not look right so I checked the February release.

During the April – June 2020 quarter, Treasury expects to pay down $56 billion in privately-held net marketable debt, assuming an end-of-June cash balance of $400 billion.

This was to be quite an improvement on where it was at the time.

During the January – March 2020 quarter, Treasury expects to borrow $367 billion in privately-held net marketable debt, assuming an end-of-March cash balance of $400 billion.

So we return to the concept of some US 3 trillion dollars being borrowed in a single quarter. As to the higher cash balance which is in the process of being doubled that looks as though it is simply because the US is spending at such a rate it needs more to avoid the risk of a cash crunch. Indeed the process is well under way.

During the January – March 2020 quarter, Treasury borrowed $477 billion in privately-held net marketable debt and ended the quarter with a cash balance of $515 billion.  In February 2020, Treasury estimated privately-held net marketable borrowing of $367 billion and assumed an end-of-March cash balance of $400 billion. The $110 billion increase in borrowing resulted primarily from the higher end-of-quarter cash balance.

Where is the money going?

The US Treasury is light on some detail but the Paycheck Protection Program had spent some US $350 billion very quickly so we then saw this.

Washington (CNN)The Trump administration announced Sunday that 2.2 million small business loans worth $175 billion have been made in the second round of the Paycheck Protection Program……Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Small Business Administration Administrator Jovita Carranza said in a joint statement that the average size of a loan made under the second iteration of the program, which began Monday, was $79,000.

The original stimulus effort was described below by CNN.

Congressional lawmakers put the finishing touches on a $2 trillion stimulus bill to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, with cash and assistance for regular Americans, Main Street businesses and hard-hit airlines and manufacturers, among others……..Key elements of the proposal are $250 billion set aside for direct payments to individuals and families, $350 billion in small business loans, $250 billion in unemployment insurance benefits and $500 billion in loans for distressed companies.

We can see that like the small business loans the numbers are likely to have been climbing higher and higher. As to the new higher employment benefits they seem to be being paid to ever higher numbers.

The advance unadjusted number for persons claiming UI benefits in state programs totaled 17,776,006, an increase of 1,498,784 (or 9.2 percent) from the preceding week. The seasonal factors had expected a decrease of 648,558 (or -4.0 percent) from the previous week. A year earlier the rate was 1.1 percent and the volume was 1,647,874 ( Department of Labor)

I think we can figure out for ourselves what has been happening to tax revenues.

Treasury Bonds and QE

In ordinary times one might have expected this market to have cratered. I have worked through times when futures markets prices limits are employed ( it was initially 2 points and then moves to 3 points). But the surge in expected borrowing has provided nothing of the sort and these days eyes turn first to the US Federal Reserve and its Quantitative Easing programme. The emphasis below is mine.

To support the flow of credit to households and businesses, the Federal Reserve will continue to purchase Treasury securities and agency residential and commercial mortgage-backed securities in the amounts needed to support smooth market functioning, thereby fostering effective transmission of monetary policy to broader financial conditions. In addition, the Open Market Desk will continue to offer large-scale overnight and term repurchase agreement operations. The Committee will closely monitor market conditions and is prepared to adjust its plans as appropriate.

That is a sort of combination of “whatever it takes” and “To Infinity! And Beyond!” in my opinion. We saw purchases of US $75 billion a day in the height of the panic and we should not forget that in the heat of the “Not QE” phase some US $60 billion of US Treasury Bills were bought a month. So we see that it now owns some US $3.97 trillion of Treasury Securities which has risen by US $1.8 trlllion on the past year.

Thus although we are now seeing a much lower daily amount of QE purchases the surge of buying has anaesthetised the market. This week only US $8 billion a day is being bought and yet we see the benchmark yield for the ten-year Treasury Note if a mere 0.67%. The long bond ( 30 year) has responded a little but at 1.33% is less than half what it was this time last year.

Foreign Holdings

There is a long wait for such numbers but here is what the US Treasury thinks that they are.

The survey measured the value of foreign portfolio holdings of U.S. securities as of end-June 2019 to be $20,534 billion, with $8,630 billion held in U.S. equities, $10,991 billion in U.S. long-term debt securities [/1] (of which $1,417 billion are holdings of asset-backed securities (ABS) [/2] and $9,575 billion are holdings of non-ABS securities), and $913 billion held in U.S. short-term debt securities.

Comment

Remember the debt ceiling?

Congress has always acted when called upon to raise the debt limit. Since 1960, Congress has acted 78 separate times to permanently raise, temporarily extend, or revise the definition of the debt limit – 49 times under Republican presidents and 29 times under Democratic presidents. Congressional leaders in both parties have recognized that this is necessary. ( US Treasury )

Anyway the total national debt was US $23.7 trillion at the end of March and is about to go on something of a tear. On the other side of the coin economic output as measured by GDP or Gross Domestic Product is about to plunge.

The WEI is currently -11.58 percent, scaled to four-quarter GDP growth, for the week ending April 25 and -10.86 percent for April 18; for reference, the WEI stood at 1.58 percent for the week ending February 29. ( New York Fed )

Or if you prefer.

The New York Fed Staff Nowcast stands at -9.3% for 2020:Q2.

Also the US Federal Reserve is about to get rather popular as we note how this trend will change in 2020.

In 2019, the Federal Reserve remitted a total of $54.9 billion to the Treasury, less than the $65.3 billion remitted in 2018, owing primarily to a decline in net income resulting from a decrease in average SOMA domestic securities holdings.

I guess both the US Federal Reserve and Treasury will be singing along with Prince for a while.

Money don’t matter to night
It sure didn’t matter yesterday
Just when you think you’ve got more than enough
That’s when it all up and flies away
That’s when you find out that you’re better off
Makin’ sure your soul’s alright
‘Cause money didn’t matter yesterday,
And it sure don’t matter to night

 

What to do when we do not know GDP,Inflation or even Unemployment levels?

Today has brought a whole raft of data for our attention and much of it is eye-catching. So let is begin with La Belle France a subject on my mind after watching the film Waterloo last night.

In Q1 2020, GDP in volume terms fell sharply: –5.8%, the biggest drop in the series’ record, since 1949. In particular, it is bigger than the ones recorded in Q1 2009 (–1.6%) or in Q2 1968 (–5.3%). ( Insee )

I have to confess I am a little in the dark as to 1968 and can only think it may have been related to the student riots of the era. The Covid-19 vibe is established by the way that domestic demand plunged.

Household consumption expenditures dropped (–6.1%), as did total gross fixed capital formation in a more pronounced manner (GFCF: –11.8%). Overall, final domestic demand excluding inventory changes fell sharply: it contributed to –6.6 points to GDP growth.

I guess no-one is going to be surprised by this either.

Overall production of goods and services declined sharply (–5.5%). It fell the hardest in construction (–12,6%), while output in goods declined –4.8% and output in manufactured goods dropped –5.6%. Output in market services declined by –5.7% overall.

Such production as there was seems to have piled up.

Conversely, changes in inventories contributed positively to GDP growth (+0.9 points).

At a time like this GDP really struggles to deal with trade so let me use France as an example on the way to explaining the issue.

Exports also fell this quarter (–6.5%) along with imports (–5.9%), in a less pronounced manner. All in all, the foreign trade balance contributed negatively to GDP growth: –0.2 points, after –0.1 points the previous quarter.

As you can see the net effect here is rather small especially in these circumstances. But there is a lot going on as we see large moves in both exports and imports. Another way of looking at this is provided by the Bureau of Economic Analysis in the US.

Imports, which are a subtraction in the calculation of GDP, decreased

A lot less detail for a start. Let me help out as imports in the US fell heavily by US $140.1 billion in fact and exports only fell by US $56.9 billion. So net exports rose by US $83.3 billion and boosted the numbers. This is really awkward when a signal that the US is doing badly raises GDP by 2.32% on its own and in net terms by 1.3% ( care is needed with US numbers because they are annualised).

So here is a major caveat that the US may appear to be doing better but the trade breakdown hints strongly things are much worse than that.

Spain

Spain had been having a good run but sadly that is now over.

Spanish GDP registers a -5.2% variation in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the previous quarter in terms of volume. This rate is 5.6 points less than the Registered in the fourth quarter. ( INE)

The chart is quite extraordinary as the good run since around 2014 is replaced by quite a plummet. We see that it is essentially a domestic game as like France the international factor small.

For its part, external demand presents a contribution of 0.2 points, three tenths lower than that of the previous quarter.

We do get a hint of what is about to hit the labour market and indeed unemployment which had remained high in Spain.

The employment of the economy, in terms of hours worked, registers a variation of ,5.0% compared to the previous quarter.

Inflation

Let me return to France to illustrate the issues here.

Over a year, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) should rise by 0.4% in April 2020, after +0.7% in the previous month, according to the provisional estimate made at the end of the month. This drop in inflation should result from an accentuated fall in energy prices and a sharp slowdown in service prices.

A problem leaps off the page and ironically they have unintentionally described it

an accentuated fall in energy prices

That is because the weight for energy is too high as for example factories stopped work and there was much less commuting. Then there is this.

Food prices should rebound sharply, due to a strong rise in fresh food product prices.

Fresh food prices rose by 18.1% in March but are weighted at a mere 2.3% as opposed to the 8.1% of energy, when we know that there was heavy demand to stock up. I do not wish to demean their efforts but the claim that other food prices rose by 1.4% compared to 2.3% this time last year looks dodgy and may well be suffering from this

The price collection carried out by collectors on the field (about 40% in the CPI) has been suspended since 16 March:

Also it was a rough month for smokers as tobacco rose by 13.7%.

If we look at Spain we see the energy/fuel problem emerge again.

The preliminary data that is presented today through the leading indicator of the CPI, places its annual variation at –0.7% in April, seven tenths below that registered in March, influenced for the most part by the drop in fuel prices and fuels, compared to the increase registered in 2019.

Also with food prices albeit it on a lower scale.

It is remarkable the behavior of food prices, whose annual rate passes from 2.5% in March to 4.0% in April. Of these, fresh food reaches a rate of 6.9%, three points above that of the previous month, and packaged foods, place their annual rate at 2.2%, six tenths above that of March.

Although to be fair to INE in Spain they are trying to adapt to the new reality.

the prices of the products included in the goods special group COVID-19 increased 1.2% in April, compared to the previous month. While the services COVID-19 decreased 1.4% in April compared to March.

Unemployment

This may well be the biggest statistical fail I have seen in the world of economics.

In March 2020, in comparison with the previous month, employment slightly decreased and unemployment sharply fell together with a relevant increase of inactivity.

Yes you did read the latter part correctly.

In the last month, also the remarkable fall of the unemployed people (-11.1%, -267 thousand) was
recorded for both men (-13.4%, -169 thousand) and women (-8.6%, -98 thousand). The unemployment
rate dropped to 8.4% (-0.9 percentage points) and the youth rate fell to 28.0% (-1.2 p.p.).

They had two issues to contend with but tripped over a theoretical flaw. The issues were having to do the survey by telephone and a sample size some 20% lower. The flaw is that to be unemployed you have to be available for work and in this situation I am sure many reported that they were not. Indeed you can see this below.

In the last three months, also the number of unemployed persons decreased (-5.4%, -133 thousand), while
a growth among inactive people aged 15-64 years was registered (+1.5%, +192 thousand)……..On a yearly basis, the decrease of employed people was accompanied by a fall of unemployed persons
(-21.1%, -571 thousand) and a growth of inactive people aged 15-64 (+4.4%, +581 thousand).

Comment

I summarised the situation on social media yesterday.

Reasons not to trust the US GDP print

1. Advance estimates only have ~50% of the full data

2. Inflation estimates will be nearly hopeless at a time like this.

3. Output of say planes for no one to fly in them has obvious issues….

Let me add a fourth which is the impact of imports that I have described above.

Switching to the unemployment numbers from Italy I do not blame those compiling the numbers and find them helpful when I have an enquiry. But someone higher up the chain should at least have put a large warning on these numbers and maybe even stopped their publication as statistics are supposed to inform not mislead. They seem to have taken Talking Heads a little too literally.

Stop making sense
Quit talking
Stop making sense
Start falling
Stop making sense
Hold onto me
You’re always at your best
When you’re not making sense

Me on The Investing Channel

The US Federal Reserve moves nearer to bùying equities

Yesterday as the media clustered around the news from the Bank of England the real news came from the US Federal Reserve which in many respects is acting as the world’s central bank. So it has two roles right now the first is for the world’s largest economy and the second is for the rest of us.For the avoidance of doubt that is the order in which it will operate if its past track record is any guide. There was something of an irony as so many US financial commentators were looking at the Bank of England. Some of you may have spotted me pointing out to the Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman that he was spreading an economics version of fake news.

The Trigger

This was provided by the latest weekly update on the US labour market

The latest round of coronavirus-induced layoffs and furloughs soared by another 6.6 million in the first week of April, bringing total job losses in less than a month to 16.8 million.Initial jobless claims, a rough proxy for job losses, have now posted increases of 6.6 million, 6.8 million and 3.3 million in the last three weekly readings since the middle of March.

To put these mind-boggling numbers in perspective, before the March 21 surge, the highest single weekly reading ever recorded was 695,000 in 1982,” said chief economist Joshua Shapiro of MFR Inc. ( Marketwatch )

As you can see these were really bad and came with a sub-plot that there had been so many claims that the offices processing this had been struggling to keep up. Thus the real situation was likely to be even worse.

The Federal Reserve’s Response

The US central bank came out of the blocks like a 60 metres sprinter

The Federal Reserve on Thursday took additional actions to provide up to $2.3 trillion in loans to support the economy. This funding will assist households and employers of all sizes and bolster the ability of state and local governments to deliver critical services during the coronavirus.”

Apart from the rapid response there was an immediate impact from the sum quoted as this was slightly over half the size of the pre Corona Virus peak of the Fed’s balance sheet. So in modern parlance a bazooka.

There was something rather familiar in there which was a central bank “interpreting” its mandate. Let me cover that by looking at the market response via the Financial Times.

The high-yield market, often referred to as “junk”, encompasses the debt issued by lower-rated, riskier companies that are more exposed to deteriorating economic conditions stemming from the viral outbreak and the collapse in oil prices.

In response to the Fed’s move on Thursday, the biggest high-yield bond ETF — run by Blackrock which is also administering the Fed’s bond purchases — jumped by more than 7 per cent, on course for its largest one-day move since 2008.

Therè are two points to consider here which is the expansion of the role of the Fed and the way that Blackrock seems to have surpassed the Vampire Squid Goldman Sachs. As it administers a process which sees its own fund surge! Here is the view from CNBC.

As part of its announcement, the Fed expanded its corporate lending programs to take it into an entirely new area, including ETFs of companies that are rated below investment grade. It had previously announced a program to buy investment-grade corporate debt and ETFs. It also will now accept triple-A-rated commercial mortgage-backed securities and collateralized loan obligations as part of its Term Asset-Backed Securities Lending Facility, first created in the financial crisis.

The Details

Below is the report from the Fed itself and the significant factor is how often these policies need to be underwritten by the US taxpayer.

Bolster the effectiveness of the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) by supplying liquidity to participating financial institutions through term financing backed by PPP loans to small businesses. The PPP provides loans to small businesses so that they can keep their workers on the payroll. The Paycheck Protection Program Liquidity Facility (PPPLF) will extend credit to eligible financial institutions that originate PPP loans, taking the loans as collateral at face value;

 

Ensure credit flows to small and mid-sized businesses with the purchase of up to $600 billion in loans through the Main Street Lending Program. The Department of the Treasury, using funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) will provide $75 billion in equity to the facility;

 

Increase the flow of credit to households and businesses through capital markets, by expanding the size and scope of the Primary and Secondary Market Corporate Credit Facilities (PMCCF and SMCCF) as well as the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF). These three programs will now support up to $850 billion in credit backed by $85 billion in credit protection provided by the Treasury; and

 

Help state and local governments manage cash flow stresses caused by the coronavirus pandemic by establishing a Municipal Liquidity Facility that will offer up to $500 billion in lending to states and municipalities. The Treasury will provide $35 billion of credit protection to the Federal Reserve for the Municipal Liquidity Facility using funds appropriated by the CARES Act.

Comment

Back in the day my boss was convinced that the US authorities were buying equities when the market fell and such thoughts became what half – jokingly became called The Plunge Protection Team. That then developed into the concept of central banks providing a Put Option for equity markets via not letting them fall.The most explicit version of that is the Bank of Japan which bought over 500 billion Yen of equities this month . Hence its nickname of The Tokyo Whale.

Now we see the US Fed heading on that road and there is one bit it is copying from Japan which is the use of Exchange Traded Funds or ETFs. I guess that is to avoid having to go to any AGMs and the like. But as to the Fed buying equities well I hope by now I have taught you all what to do with these.

Mnuchin says no talks right now about potential to have fed buy stocks

In terms of monetary policy the balance sheet is already over US $6 trillion and will go much higher. In terms of the money supply the recent growth rate of narrow money was already 13.4% at the end of March and now seems set to surge.

Happy Easter and I hope you have the same weather as London today.

The spectre of mass unemployment is starting to haunt us

Today’s topic is one that I hoped never to have to write. If we look back to the last century then mass unemployment scarred the economic landscape on several occasions and particularly so in the Great Depression. The credit crunch era initially brought higher unemployment but fortunately we managed to reduce that over time. Indeed from around 2013 we saw considerable improvements on that front in mnay countries. The leader of the pack in this regard has been Japan where the unemployment rate has fallen as low as 2.2%. The UK and US saw strong improvements too with the unemployment rate falling below 4%. More latterly the Euro area has seen unemployment fall too although its progress has been slower leading to its unemployment rate being more like 7%

That was the good news section of the labour market as employment rose and unemployment fell. Although there always was the issue of under employment as a cloud in the sky as we wondered what jobs were being taken and how employment is defined? The waters also had something of a shark in them as the strong quantity numbers were accompanied by at best weak real wage growth something my country the UK has been particularly affected by. Especially troubling is the way the establishment has responded which is to impose poorer measures of inflation  ( the Imputed Rent driven CPIH ) to flatter the figures and mislead the unwary. Along the way the economic Ivory Towers had plenty of troubles too as the unemployment rate fell below their definitions of “full employment ” and made their “output gap” theories crumble. I am sure many of you still remember when Governor Carney of the Bank of England signposted a 7% unemployment rate as significant before exhibiting the sort of behaviour that led to him being called the “Unreliable Boyfriend ”

The US

Last week this provided something of a forerunner of what we can now expect.As Politico points out below even that shock may have been an understatement.

Last week’s headline number of 3.28 million claims — itself a more than 1,000 percent increase — is also expected to be revised upward, in part because of stark discrepancies between data that states reported at the ground level and what the Department of Labor recorded.

Florida’s initial claims hit a record for the week ended March 21, and then tripled to 222,054 for the week ended March 28, according to the state Department of Economic Opportunity.Florida’s initial claims hit a record for the week ended March 21, and then tripled to 222,054 for the week ended March 28, according to the state Department of Economic Opportunity…..Florida’s initial claims hit a record for the week ended March 21, and then tripled to 222,054 for the week ended March 28, according to the state Department of Economic Opportunity.

So as you can see the situation in the United States looks as though it may be even worse than we feared even last week. The old saying that a week is a long time in politics is being outdone by economics at the moment.

The UK

Yesterday brought a moment to the UK which we had feared was about to arrive.

Nearly a million people have successfully applied for universal credit in the last fortnight, in a rush to welfare support that reveals the depth of the jobs crisis caused by the UK’s lockdown.

Despite the government’s job support schemes offering 80% of earnings to employees and the self-employed who cannot work, 950,000 people applied for the main income support benefit between 16 and 31 March. There are normally about 100,000 applicants for the benefit in any given two-week period.

Applications started flooding in as soon as Boris Johnson told the nation to stop non-essential contact with others and cease all unnecessary travel. ( The Guardian)

Care is needed here as these are social security payments rather than a labour force measure or indeed a claimant count but we do get a very string hint from the data here.Out of it there is at least a small positive.

The DWP said it had moved more than 10,000 staff to deal with claims and was recruiting more.

The numbers above compare to a situation only a couple of weeks ago when we were told this by our official statisticians.

For November 2019 to January 2020, an estimated 1.34 million people were unemployed. This is 5,000 more than a year earlier but 515,000 fewer than five years earlier. The small increase on the year is the first annual increase in unemployment since May to July 2012, and it was caused by a 20,000 increase for men.

Sadly we seem set to go through 2 million fairly quickly and maybe 3 million. However the numbers will need some interpreting because it looks as though those who are “furloughed” will continue to be counted as in employment. Personally I think it would be better if a new category was created.

Let me welcome the effort by the Office of National Statistics to produce some new data although sadly even the new weekly measures are of course now well behind the times.

Over a quarter (27%) of responding businesses said they were reducing staff levels in the short term in the period 9 March to 22 March 2020, while 5% reported that they were recruiting staff in the short term.

Spain

This mornings news from Spain was grim too.

MADRID (Reuters) – The rise in Spanish jobless numbers in March is the highest monthly increase ever recorded, Labour Minister Yolanda Diaz said at a news conference on Thursday.

The number of jobless jumped 9.3% from the previous month bringing the total number of unemployed people to around 3.5 million. That total number was still below record highs of 2013.

The recent better phase of economic growth for Spain had played its part in bringing unemployment down from a bit over 5 million to just over 3 million last summer. But sadly the mood music had changed and is now dark.

Comment

This is a grim phase with echoes of the 1920s and 30s. I fear for the unemployment numbers that will come from Italy which had its own economic problems ( the essentially 0% economic growth of our “Good Italy: Bad Italy” theme ) before the pandemic started. Some yesterday were promoting this as good news.

The unemployment rate slightly decreased to 9.7% (-0.1 percentage points) while the youth rate stayed stable to 29.6%.

Sadly they did not seem to have read this bit.

This press release is referred to February 2020, therefore it is related to the pre-COVID-19 health emergency phase.

Italy and many other countries are about to see a tsunami of unemployment and our best hope is that it will be brief.

Meanwhile maybe attitudes will change as the other day I looked up at a residential care home where a worker was assisting an elderly lady on her balcony. As she had no protective clothing I could see she put herself at risk. I was thinking of that as I read this from Sarah O’Connor in the Financial Times.

This precarious army labours around the clock. On Monday I spoke to a domiciliary care worker who visits bed-bound clients in their homes (she did not want to be named for fear of punishment by her employer). She was in the middle of a 10-hour shift, having worked 14 hours on Saturday and 14 on Sunday. “We’re all putting the effort in,” she said. She is paid £9.75 an hour at weekends and £8.75 in the week, which amounts to about £1,700 a month.

It got worse.

Unison, the union for many care staff, has been raising concerns about the lack of personal protective equipment. The care worker I spoke to had gloves but no mask; she had purchased her own hand sanitiser. Her company, which employs her on a zero-hours contract, would only pay statutory sick pay of £94.25 a week if she developed symptoms and had to self-isolate. “Before, I would have gone into work with a cold or a cough — now I’d have to stay off but then I don’t know how I would pay the bills.”

Let me say welcome back from maternity leave to Sarah who is easily the FT’s best journalist.

The Investing Channel

Spend! Spend! Spend!

The weekend just passed was one which saw one of the economic dams of our time creak and then look like it had broken. This was due to the announcements coming out of Germany which as regular readers will be aware has a debt brake and had been planning for a fiscal surplus.

Under Germany’s so-called debt brake rule, Berlin is allowed to take on new debt of no more than 0.35% of economic output, unless the country is hit by a natural disaster or other emergencies. ( Reuters)

Actually the economic slow down in 2019 caused by the trade war was pulling it back towards fiscal balance and what it taking place right now would have caused a deficit anyway. But now it seems that the emergency clause above is being activated.

Germany is readying an emergency budget worth more than 150 billion euros ($160 billion) to shore up jobs and businesses at risk from the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak, the finance minister said on Saturday.

Government sources told Reuters hundreds of billions in additional backing for the private sector would be raised, as Finance Minister Olaf Scholz said a ceiling on new government debt enshrined in the country’s constitution would be suspended due to the exceptional circumstances.

Putting that into context it is around 5% of Germany’s GDP in 2019 and I am stating the numbers like that because we have little idea of current GDP other than the fact there will be a sizeable drop. It then emerged that there was more to the package.

According to senior officials and a draft law seen by Reuters, the package will include a supplementary government budget of 156 billion euros, 100 billion euros for an economic stability fund that can take direct equity stakes in companies, and 100 billion euros in credit to public-sector development bank KfW for loans to struggling businesses.

On top of that, the stability fund will offer 400 billion euros in loan guarantees to secure corporate debt at risk of defaulting, taking the volume of the overall package to more than 750 billion euros.

As you can see we end up with intervention on a grand scale with the total being over 22% of last year’s economic output or GDP. This will lead to quite a change in the national debt dynamics which looked on their way to qualifying under the Stability and Growth Pact or Maastricht rules. This is because it was 61.2% of GDP at the end of the third quarter of last year which now looks a case of so near and so far.

Bond Market

There were times when such an audacious fiscal move would have the bond market creaking and yields rising. In fact the ten-year yield has dropped slightly this morning to -0.37%. Indeed even the thirty-year yield is at -0.01% so Germany is either being paid to borrow or is paying effectively nothing.

This is being driven by the purchases of the ECB or European Central Bank and as the Bundesbank seems not to have updated its pages then by my maths we will be seeing around 30 billion Euros per month of German purchases. Also let me remind you that the risk is not quite what you might think.

This implies that 20% of the asset purchases under the PSPP will continue to be subject to a regime of risk sharing, while 80% of the purchases will be excluded from risk sharing. ( Bundesbank)

The situation gets more complex as we note Isabel Schnabel of the ECB Governing Council put this out on social media over the weekend.

The capital key remains the benchmark for sovereign bond purchases, but flexibility is needed in order to tackle the situation appropriately.

That will be particularly welcomed by Italy as other ECB policy makers try to undo the damage created by the “bond spreads” comment of President Lagarde. Although you may note that most of the risk will be with the Bank of Italy.

Also as a German she did a bit of cheer leading for her home country.

The success of our measures hinges on what happens in fiscal policy. This is a European issue which needs a European solution. No country can be indifferent to what happens in another European country – not only because of solidarity, but also for economic reasons.

Some might think she has quite a cheek on the indifference point as that is exactly how countries like Greece described Germany. Still I also think the ECB has plenty of tools but maybe not from the same perspective.

The ECB is in the comfortable position of having a large set of tools, none of which has been used to its full extent

QE

It was only last Thursday that I was pointing out that I expected QE to go even more viral and last night it arrived at what is in geographical terms one of the more isolated countries.

The Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) has decided to implement a Large Scale Asset Purchase programme (LSAP) of New Zealand government bonds……..The Committee has decided to implement a LSAP programme of New Zealand government bonds. The programme will purchase up to $30 billion of New Zealand government bonds, across a range of maturities, in the secondary market over the next 12 months. The programme aims to provide further support to the economy, build confidence, and keep interest rates on government bonds low.

You can almost hear the cries of “The Precious! The Precious!”

Heightened risk aversion has caused a rise in interest rates on long-term New Zealand government bonds and the cost of bank funding.

Which follows on from this last week.

“To support credit availability, the Bank has decided to delay the start date of increased capital requirements for banks by 12 months – to 1 July 2021. Should conditions warrant it next year, the Reserve Bank will consider whether further delays are necessary.”

This reminds me of one of my themes from back in the day that bank capital requirement changes were delayed almost hoping for something to turn up. Albeit of course they had no idea a pandemic would occur.

Let us move on noting for reference purposes that the ten-year All Black yield is 1.46%.

The US

There are some extraordinary numbers on the way here according to CNBC.

Administration statements over the past few days point to something of the order of $2 trillion in economic juice. By contrast, then-President Barack Obama ushered an $831 billion package through during the financial crisis.

Indeed they just keep coming.

That type of fiscal burden comes as the government already has chalked up $624.5 billion in red ink through just the first five months of the fiscal year, which started in October. That spending pace extrapolated through the full fiscal year would lead to a $1.5 trillion deficit, and that’s aside from any of the spending to combat the corona virus.

At the moment we know something is coming but not the exact size as debate is ongoing in Congress but we can set some benchmarks.

A $2 trillion deficit, which seems conservative given the current scenario, would push deficit to GDP to 9.4%. A $3 trillion shortfall, which seems like not much of a stretch, would take the level to 14%.

Comment

The headline today for those unaware was from Viv Nicholson back in the day after her husband had won the pools. But we see something of a torrent of fiscal action on its way oiled by an extraordinary amount of sovereign bond buying by central banks. For example the Bank of England will buy an extra £5.1 billion today in addition to its ongoing replacement of its holdings of a matured bond.

On the other side of the coin is the scale of the economic contraction ahead. Below are the numbers for the German IFO which we can compare with the fiscal response above albeit that I suggest we treat them as a broad brush.

“If the economy comes to a standstill for two months, costs can range from 255 to 495 billion euros, depending on the scenario. Economic output then shrinks by 7.2 to 11.2 percentage points a year, ”says Fuest. In the best scenario, it is assumed that economic output will drop to 59.6 percent for two months, recover to 79.8 percent in the third month and finally reach 100 percent again in the fourth month. “With three months of partial closure, the costs already reach 354 to 729 billion euros, which is a 10.0 to 20.6 percentage point loss in growth,” says Fuest.

Podcast

 

 

The biggest move by the US Federal Reserve was the one concerning liquidity or FX Swaps

Last night the week started with the arrival of the Kiwi cavalry as the Reserve Bank of New Zealand announced this.

The Official Cash Rate (OCR) is 0.25 percent, reduced from 1.0 percent, and will remain at this level for at least the next 12 months.

With international sporting events being cancelled this was unlikely to have been caused by a defeat for the All Blacks as the statement then confirmed.

The negative economic implications of the COVID-19 virus continue to rise warranting further monetary stimulus.

But soon any muttering in the virtual trading rooms was replaced by quite a roar as this was announced.

Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability. The effects of the coronavirus will weigh on economic activity in the near term and pose risks to the economic outlook. In light of these developments, the Committee decided to lower the target range for the federal funds rate to 0 to 1/4 percent. The Committee expects to maintain this target range until it is confident that the economy has weathered recent events and is on track to achieve its maximum employment and price stability goals. This action will help support economic activity, strong labor market conditions, and inflation returning to the Committee’s symmetric 2 percent objective. ( US Federal Reserve)

So a 1% interest-rate cut to the previous credit crunch era low for interest-rates and whilst the timing was a surprise it was not a shock. This is because on Saturday evening President Donald Trump had ramped up the pressure by saying that he had the ability to fire the Chair Jeroen Powell. The odd points in the statement were the reference to returning to being “on track” for its objectives which seems like from another world as well as reminding people of Greece which has been “on track” to recovery all the way through its collapse into depression. Also “strong labor market conditions” is simply untrue now. All that is before the reference to inflation returning to target when some will be paying much higher prices for goods due to shortages.

QE5

This came sliding down the slipway last night which will have come as no surprise to regular readers who have followed to my “To Infinity! And Beyond!” theme.

To support the smooth functioning of markets for Treasury securities and agency mortgage-backed securities that are central to the flow of credit to households and businesses, over coming months the Committee will increase its holdings of Treasury securities by at least $500 billion and its holdings of agency mortgage-backed securities by at least $200 billion.

This is quite punchy as we note that the previous peak for its balance sheet was 4.5 trillion Dollars and now it will go above 5 trillion. The Repos may ebb and flow bad as we stand it looks set to head to 5.2 trillion or so. The odd part of the statement was the reference to the “smooth functioning” of the Treasury Bond market when buying such a large amount further reduces liquidity in a market with liquidity problems already. For those unaware off the run bonds ( non benchmarks) have been struggling recently. The situation for mortgage bonds is much clearer as some will no doubt be grateful for any buyers at all. Although whether buying the latter is a good idea for the US taxpayer underwriting all of this is a moot point. At least the money used is effectively free at around 0%.

Liquidity Swaps

This was the most significant announcement of all for two reasons. Firstly it was the only one which was coordinated and secondly because it stares at the heart of one of the main problems right now. Cue Aloe Blacc.

I need a dollar dollar, a dollar is what I need
Hey hey
Well I need a dollar dollar, a dollar is what I need
Hey hey
And I said I need dollar dollar, a dollar is what I need
And if I share with you my story would you share your dollar with me
Bad times are comin’ and I reap what I don’t sow.

I have suggested several times recently that there will be banks and funds in trouble right now as we see simultaneous moves in bond, equity and oil markets. That will only be getting worse as the price of a barrel of Brent Crude Oil approaches US $31. This means that some – and the rumour factory will be at full production – will be finding hard to get US Dollars and some may not be able to get them at all. So the response is that the main central banks will be able to.

The Bank of Canada, the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan, the European Central Bank, the Federal Reserve, and the Swiss National Bank are today announcing a coordinated action to enhance the provision of liquidity via the standing U.S. dollar liquidity swap line arrangements.

These central banks have agreed to lower the pricing on the standing U.S. dollar liquidity swap arrangements by 25 basis points, so that the new rate will be the U.S. dollar overnight index swap (OIS) rate plus 25 basis points.

So it appears that price matters for some giving us a hint of the scale of the issue here. If I recall correct a 0.5% cut was made as the credit crunch got into gear. Also there was this enhancement to the operations.

 To increase the swap lines’ effectiveness in providing term liquidity, the foreign central banks with regular U.S. dollar liquidity operations have also agreed to begin offering U.S. dollars weekly in each jurisdiction with an 84-day maturity, in addition to the 1-week maturity operations currently offered. These changes will take effect with the next scheduled operations during the week of March 16.

Then we got something actively misleading because the real issue here is for overseas markets.

The new pricing and maturity offerings will remain in place as long as appropriate to support the smooth functioning of U.S. dollar funding markets.

For newer readers wondering who these might be? The main borrowers in recent times have been the European Central Bank and less so the Bank of Japan. This is repeated at the moment as some US $58 million was borrowed by a Euro area bank last week. Very small scale but maybe a toe in the water.

Comment

Some of the things I have feared are taking place right now. We see for example more and more central banks clustering around an interest-rate of 0% or ZIRP ( Zero Interest-Rate Policy). Frankly I expect more as you know my view on official denials.

#BREAKING Fed’s Powell says negative interest rates not likely to be appropriate ( @AFP )

You could also throw in the track record of the Chair of the US Federal Reserve for (bad) luck.

Meanwhile rumours of fund collapses are rife.

Platinum down 18%, silver down 14% Palladium down 12%, Gold down 4% – someone is getting liquidated ( @econhedge )

Some of that may be self-fulfilling but there is a message in that particular bottle.

As to what happens next? I will update more as this week develops but I expect more fiscal policy back stopped by central banks. More central banks to buy equities as I note the Bank of Japan announced earlier it will double its operations this year. Helicopter Money is a little more awkward though as gathering to collect it would spread the Corona Virus. As Bloc Party put it.

Are you hoping for a miracle? (it’s not enough, it’s not enough)
Are you hoping for a miracle? (it’s not enough, it’s not enough)
Are you hoping for a miracle? (it’s not enough, it’s not enough)
Are you hoping for a miracle? (it’s not enough, it’s not enough)

Let me sign off for today by welcoming the new Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey.

Podcast

I would signpost the second part of it this week as eyes will turn to the problems in the structure of the ECB likely to be exposed in a crisis.

 

 

Is this the beginning of the end for yield?

This week has seen some extraordinary events and it is time to take stock. The truth is that something I have both feared and expected is on motion again. It has come with a familiar refrain that it cant happen here until it does! On this road to nowhere the Corona Virus pandemic is in fact just another brick in the wall. It concerns us now and let me express my sympathy for those affected and afflicted but the world economic system was so rigid after all the central banking intervention that something was always going to turn up.

The point is that each so-called Black Swan event has the same consequence and let me give you the main events this week so far.

 the Federal Open Market Committee decided today to lower the target range for the federal funds rate by 1/2 percentage point, to 1 to 1‑1/4 percent.

At its meeting today, the Board decided to lower the cash rate by 25 basis points to 0.50 per cent. The Board took this decision to support the economy as it responds to the global coronavirus outbreak. ( Reserve Bank of Australia)

This was followed yesterday afternoon by this.

The Bank of Canada today lowered its target for the overnight rate by 50 basis points to 1 ¼ percent. The Bank Rate is correspondingly 1 ½ percent and the deposit rate is 1 percent.

Also there have been the central banks of Malaysia and Moldova. But that is not it as we now expect cuts from the Bank of England and ECB amongst others. Actually before the next Bank of England meeting the US Federal Reserve will probably have cut again as once you are a slave to equity markets that is what you are.

But this is merely a staging post in today’s story because when this party started central banks learnt that their Ivory Tower assumptions were wrong. They assumed that other interest-rates such as mortgage-rates and bond yields would slavishly follow, but they had minds of their own. So we got QE bond buying and then credit easing to deal with that.

Then as the credit crunch developed we saw bond yields fall substantially after various wrong turns. For example the Euro area crisis saw bond yields in double-digits before we entered the “whatever it take” era begun by Mario Draghi.

What about now?

Let me now jump forwards in time Dr. Who style and bring this up to date.

Ten-year US Treasury yields—the benchmark for global financing—got a shove below 1% after the Federal Reserve made an emergency cut to its target rate yesterday. It’s the lowest rate ever, according to records going back to 1871. ( @Ray_O_Johnson  )

It was only a week ago it seemed remarkable it had gone through 1.3% and it opened the year at more like 1.9%. So we learnt that as we expected the US was not as different as so many “experts” have tried to claim as when the going got tough its central bank unveiled the playbook which has been so unsuccessful elsewhere.

Canada is in a similar position with a ten-year yield of 1.02% although there are two subplots. It has been here before in the credit crunch era and it has seen some wild swings since its official interest-rate move with the yield going as low as 0.88%. Australia is at 0.77% some one and half percent lower than a year ago.

The economic consequences

Let me illustrate for the United States via CNBC.

The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages fell to 3.57% from 3.73% last week. That drop caused a 26% surge in weekly refinance applications, the Mortgage Bankers Association said. Compared with one year ago, refinance volume was nearly 224% higher.

And the beat goes on.

Detroit-based Quicken Loans saw record-setting volume on Monday and Tuesday, as rates fell to a record low. CEO Jay Farner said the new ways of processing loans are making it easier to handle even tremendous volume spikes.

Even the numbers above are behind events as Mortgage News Daily is reporting that the 30-year fixed rate mortgage is now at 3.16% and the 15-year at 2.88%. Actually the trend is clear but it matters who you call.

Some are offering conventional 30yr fixed rates that are as high as 3.5%–even for top tier qualifications.  On the other side of the spectrum, more than a few lenders are quoting 2.875% for the same scenarios.  The average lender is somewhere in between, but that average is nonetheless an all-time low.

So here we have an immediate consequence which central bankers seem to forget in their press releases. This is that the housing market will receive yet another heroin injection. This will be true in Canada and Australia as well and in Australia’s case will add to last year’s 3 interest-rate cuts.

Economics 101 argues that lower costs for business borrowing increase investment. However when the US Federal Reserve looked at the numbers it was much less clear.  I doubt it will stop people claiming that though.

Fiscal Policy

This has just got a lot cheaper pretty much everywhere. This does not get a lot of attention because it is a slow burner as for example the UK issues a new Gilt this week which will be at a yield at least 4% lower than before, But it will be a while before the next one and so on. On the other side of the coin yields have been falling throughout the credit crunch era as a trend so governments have been able to spend more for the same situation. This is another reason why this does not get much attention as governments of whatever hue want to take the credit for this.

On this road you can see why governments are so keen on “independent” central banks in a you scratch my back and I will scratch yours sort of way.

Comment

There are various lessons to be had here. The most basic is that interest-rates and yields continue to sing along with Alicia Keys.

I keep on fallin’
In and out of love
With you
Sometimes I love ya
Sometimes you make me blue
Sometimes I feel good
At times I feel used
Lovin’ you darlin’
Makes me so confused.

We get occassional rises but the trend is down which means that there has been a change because QE only started because official interest-rates got disconnected to bond yields and mortgage rates. Now we see the link is back. But I think that is just an illusion because some QE is still happening in Japan and the Euro area and more is expected elsewhere. Remember responses to QE now take place before it happens. Other interest-rates sometimes go their own not very merry way as the rise to 40% for unsecured overdrafts in the UK shows

This is really bad news for supporters of the UK Office for Budget Responsibility and the US Congressional Budget Office as their numbers will need large revisions yet again! The mainstream media and “experts” will of course have a case of collective amnesia about this next week for the UK Budget. But the point is seemingly too subtle for them that in the dynamic world in which we now exist such steady-state analysis is in fact misleading.

I think that this is counterproductive for three main reasons.

  1. If pumping up the housing market worked we would have been saved long ago.
  2. The evidence from countries with negative interest-rates and yields is that contrary to economic theory people look to save more which depresses the economy.
  3. Similarly if we look at Germany,Sweden and Switzerland countries with negative yields often look to reduce their debt rather than spend more.

Thus we find that the magic bullet has no magic at all and instead causes pain.

The Investing Channel