Could US fiscal expansionism lead us to QE4?

The credit crunch era has been one where monetary policy has taken centre stage. There are many ways of expressing this but one is that technocrats ( central bankers) have mostly run the economic show as elected politicians have chosen to retreat to the sidelines as much as possible. Whatever you may think of President Trump he is not someone who is happy to be on the sidelines as he has exhibited publicly once or twice with some pushing and shoving. But more importantly we are seeing something of a shift in the balance of US economic policy as the monetary weapon gets put away at least to some extent but the fiscal one seems to be undergoing a revival.

A relatively small reflection of this was last night’s budget deal. We have become used to talk of a US government shutdown followed by an eleventh hour deal and no doubt there is a fair bit of both ennui and cynicism about the process. But as the Washington Post notes as we as giving the national debt can another kick there was this in the detail.

According to outlines of the budget plan circulated by congressional aides, existing spending caps would be raised by a combined $296 billion through 2019. The agreement includes an additional $160 billion in uncapped funding for overseas military and State Department operations, and about $90 billion more would be spent on disaster aid for victims of recent hurricanes and wildfires.

An increase in military spending was a Trump campaign promise so it is no surprise but spending increases come on top of the tax cuts we saw at the end of last year.

The Trump Tax Changes

According to the US Committee for a Responsible Fiscal Budget there was much to consider.

The final conference committee agreement of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) would cost $1.46 trillion under conventional scoring and over $1 trillion on a dynamic basis over ten years, leading debt to rise to between 95 percent and 98 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2027 (compared to 91 percent under current law). However, the bill also includes a number of expirations and long-delayed tax hikes meant to reduce the official cost of the bill. These expirations and delays hide $570 billion to $725 billion of potential further costs, which could ultimately increase the cost of the bill to $2.0 trillion to$2.2 trillion (before interest) on a conventional basis or roughly $1.5 trillion to $1.7 trillion on a dynamic basis over a decade. As a result, debt would rise to between 98 percent and 100 percent of GDP by 2027.

This is a familiar political tactic the world over where the numbers depend on others taking the difficult decisions in the future! One rather sneaky move is the replacement in terms of income tax thresholds of inflation indexation by the US Consumer Price Index by the chained version which is usually lower. So jam today but more like dry toast tomorrow.

Won’t this boost the economy?

There are enough problems simply doing the direct mathematics of government spending and revenue but the next factor is how do they effect the economy? Well the US Congress has given it a go.

The Joint Committee staff estimates that this proposal would increase the average level of output (as measured by Gross Domestic Product (“GDP”) by about 0.7 percent relative to average level of output in the present law baseline over the 10-year budget window. That
increase in output would increase revenues, relative to the conventional estimate of a loss of $1,456 billion over that period by about $451 billion. This budget effect would be partially offset by an increase in interest payments on the Federal debt of about $66 billion over the budget
period.

The idea of tax cuts boosting the economy is a reasonable one but the idea you can measure it to around US $451 billion is pure fantasy. To be fair they say “about” but it should really be if you will forgive the capitals and emphasis “ABOUT“. Anyway for the moment let us move on noting that there is already a fair bit of doubt about the impact on the US deficit over time from US $1 trillion or so to a bit over US $2 trillion.

What is the deficit doing?

According to the US CBO ( Congressional Budget Office) it has been rising anyway in the Trump era.

The federal budget deficit was $174 billion for the first four months of fiscal year 2018, the Congressional
Budget Office estimates, $16 billion more than the shortfall recorded during the same period last year.
Revenues and outlays were higher, by 4 percent and 5 percent, respectively, than during the first four
months of fiscal year 2017.

As you can see revenues are doing pretty well and in fact are being led by taxes on income being up by 8%. However spending rose even faster at an annual rate of 5% which at a time of economic growth gives us food for thought. There was one curious detail and one familiar one in this.

Social Security benefits rose by $11 billion (or 4 percent) because of increases both in the number of beneficiaries and in the average benefit payment.

That seems odd at a time of economic growth but the next bit reminds us that the rise in inflation has a cost too due to index-linked bonds called TIPS.

Outlays for net interest on the public debt increased by $13 billion (or 14 percent), largely because of differences in the rate of inflation.

More Spending?

It looks as though we will find out more about the much promised infrastructure plan next week. From Bloomberg.

President Donald Trump expects to release on Monday his long-awaited plan to generate at least $1.5 trillion to upgrade U.S. roads, bridges, airports and other public works, according to a White House official.

How much of this will come from the government is open to debate. The modern methodology is to promise some spending ( in this case US $200 billion) and assume that the private-sector will do the rest. One of the more extraordinary efforts on this front was the Juncker Plan in the Euro era which assumed a multiplier of up to twenty times. But returning stateside we can see that there will be upwards pressure on spending but so far we are not sure how much.

Comment

In my opening I suggested that the United States was switching from monetary expansionism to fiscal expansionism. Let me now introduce the elephant in this particular room.  From the Atlanta Fed

The GDPNow model forecast for real GDP growth (seasonally adjusted annual rate) in the first quarter of 2018 is 4.0 percent on February 6, down from 5.4 percent on February 1.

They may well be somewhat excitable but if we look at the 3.2% predicted by the New York Fed the view is for pretty solid economic growth. So the fiscal position should be good especially if we add in the fact that for all the media hype treasury bond yields are historically still rather low. Yet none the less the fiscal pump is being primed. Or to put it more strictly after a period of pro-cyclical monetary policy we now seem set for pro-cyclical fiscal policy.

There are obvious implications for the bond market here as there will be increases in supply on their way. No doubt for example this has been a factor in pushing the thirty-year bond yield above 3%. You might have expected more of an impact but I am increasingly wondering about something I suggested some time ago that the path to higher interest-rates in the United States might be accompanied by QE4 or a return to bond buying by the US Federal Reserve. Should the economy slow at any point which would boost the deficit on its own then we could see it. Also this could be a factor in the weaker US Dollar as in is it falling to reflect the risks of a possible return to Quantitative Easing?

The deep question here is can we even get by these days without another shot of stimulus be it monetary,fiscal or both?

Me on Core Finance TV

 

 

 

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What are the consequences of rising bond yields?

So far in 2018 we have seen a move towards higher bond yields across the financial world. This poses more than a few questions not least for the central banks who went to unparalleled efforts in terms of scale to try to reduce them. This as I pointed out on the 6th of December led to some changes.

The credit crunch era has brought bond markets towards the centre stage of economics and finance. Before then there were rare expressions of interest in either a crisis or if the media wanted to film a response to an economic data release. You see equities trade rarely but bonds a lot so they filmed us instead and claimed we were equities trades so sorry for my part in any deception!

At the moment they are back in the news and this morning the Bank of Japan responded. From the Wall Street Journal.

The Bank of Japan took on the market and won—for now.

As Japanese 10-year bond yields threatened to break through the 0.1% mark early Friday, the bank threw down the gantlet and offered to buy out every player in the market.

If we step back for a moment it is hard not to have a wry smile at the Bank of Japan defending a yield on a mere 0.1%!  Not much of a yield or a bear market is it? It poses the question of how strong the economic recovery might be if that is all we can take. Overall it is a consequence of this.

“Today’s action was aimed at firmly implementing the bank’s policy target of guiding the 10-year yield around zero, taking into consideration recent large increases in long-term yields,” a senior BOJ official said. For the BOJ, “around zero” essentially means up to but not including 0.1%.

I am not so sure about the “large increases in long-term yields” story as in fact the thirty and forty-year yields have been dropping. But the response was as follows.

The bank offered to buy an unlimited amount of JGBs with remaining maturities of five to 10 years at a fixed rate of 0.11%, the same level it used on two previous occasions. Yields slipped to 0.85% from 0.95%.

This poses a couple of questions. Firstly for the argument that the Bank of Japan is tapering its bond buying or QE ( which is called QQE in Japan) as offering to buy an “unlimited amount” is hardly tapering. The issue here you may note is rather like that of the Swiss National Bank defending the Swiss Franc at 1.20 which suddenly found it was intervening on an enormous scale. So what looks like tapering could morph into expansion quite easily. How very Japanese!

Also I guess if you own 40% or so of a market as the Bank of Japan does you too would be touchy and nervous about any rise in yield and fall in prices. Time for En Vogue on its tannoy loudspeakers.

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

Maybe our songstresses even had a view for us on how likely it is that the central banking control freaks will reverse course.

I know you think that if we move too soon it would all end

The UK

This is an intriguing one as you see the ten-year Gilt yield has risen to 1.58% this morning  Here is how Bloomberg reflects on this.

Ten-year gilt yields climbed five basis points to 1.58 percent as of 9:29 a.m. London time, after touching 1.59 percent, their highest level since May 2016. The yield has surged about 40 basis points this year.

This is considered a bear market which as someone who has definitely seen such moves in a day and maybe when we were ejected from the ERM in 1992 maybe an hour is hard to take. So let us settle on a QE era bear market. Also the QE link comes back in as the high for UK Gilts was driven by the panic buys of late summer 2016 when the Bank of England dove into the market like a kamikaze pushing the yield down to 0.5%. From time to time apologists for such moves claim that QE does not make losses but if you pay 120 for something and get back 100 at maturity what is that please?

Intriguingly at least one player may have been wondering about a real bear market. From James Mackintosh in the WSJ.

The trade goes like this: borrow £750 million ($1 billion) for 100 years at a time when money is basically free. Invest it in shares. Pocket the difference.

Okay perhaps not a real bear market as that would affect shares too and as you see below the money is cheap in historical terms but not free.

 The scale of that demand was shown Wednesday when Wellcome’s 100-year bond was more than four times oversubscribed with a coupon of just 2.517%, the lowest ever paid on a corporate century bond.

That is not likely to be much in real yield terms and I would much rather be Welcome that those who bought the bonds. They think along the lines I pointed out in my post on Monday on pensions and the distorted world there.

Wellcome Chief Investment Officer Nick Moakes says ultralong bonds are distorted by rules forcing insurance companies and pension funds to buy them at any price, creating an uneconomic demand he is happy to satisfy with a bond issue

Of course buying equities at what is something of a top after a succession of all-time highs might be a case of not the best timing.

The US

This is the leader of the pack on such matters on two counts. It is the world’s largest economy and it currently has a central bank which is in the process of raising interest-rates. It’s central bank is even reducing its stock of bonds albeit at a snail’s pace. If we stick with the domestic impact then it is led by the thirty-year yield which has nudged over 3%. This means that the thirty-year fixed mortgage rate is now 4.23% as we look for the clearest link between the financial world and the real economy.

If we look at the shorter end of the scale we see that the rate rises so far combined with the expectations of more have seen the two-year yield rise to 2.16% as opposed to the 1.2% of this time last year. So there has been a tightening of monetary conditions all round from this route.

Comment

There is a lot to consider here and let us start with the economics. A rise in bond yields tightens monetary conditions and in that sense is a logical response to the better economic environment. However it is awkward for central banks who have paid more than the 100 they will get from their treasury on maturity as politicians have got used to spending the explicit and implicit profits. If they sell their holdings then they will exacerbate the price falls and weaken their remaining stock.

Moving to the foreign exchanges we have seen something rather odd. If you buy the US Dollar you get 2.8% right now if you put the money in a ten-year US Treasury Note whereas if you buy the Japanese Yen you only get 0.9%. So the US Dollar is rising right? Eh no, as I have covered many times. Of course some may be buying now thinking that an US Dollar in the 109s is attractive combined with picking up a 2.7% relative yield. Similar arguments can be made for the Euro and UK Pound £ albeit with smaller yield differentials.

Here is another thought for you. Imagine a Swiss or German version of Wellcome if there is one and how cheaply they could borrow for 100 years. Actually with its international position it could presumably have borrowed in Euros. Perhaps it is bullish of the UK Pound £……..brave if you look back 100 years.

Meanwhile if the bond bear market and its consequences are all too much there is apparently something which can take the pain away.

 

 

What are the consequences of a weak US Dollar?

So far 2018 has seen an acceleration of a trend we saw last year which is a fall in the value of the US Dollar. The latest push was provided by the US Treasury Secretary only yesterday at Davos. From Bloomberg.

“Obviously a weaker dollar is good for us as it relates to trade and opportunities,” Mnuchin told reporters in Davos. The currency’s short term value is “not a concern of ours at all,” he said.

“Longer term, the strength of the dollar is a reflection of the strength of the U.S. economy and the fact that it is and will continue to be the primary currency in terms of the reserve currency,” he said.

The way it then fell it is probably for best its value is not a concern as the rhetoric was both plain and transparent.

A day before Trump’s scheduled arrival in the Swiss ski resort of Davos for the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin endorsed the dollar’s decline as a benefit to the American economy and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said the U.S. would fight harder to protect its exporters.

The response to the words is a pretty eloquent explanation of why policy makers have a general rule that you do not comment on the level of the exchange rate. Not only might you get something you do not want there is also the issue of being careful what you wish for! Sadly the Rolling Stones were not on the case here.

You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometime
You’ll find
You get what you need

However you spin it we are in a phase where the US government is encouraging a weaker dollar as part of the America First strategy. It has already produced an echo of the autumn of 2010 if this from the Managing Director of the IMF is any guide.

 “It’s not time to have any kind of currency war,” Lagarde said in an interview with Bloomberg Television.

Criticising someone for rhetoric by upping the rhetoric may not be too bright. Also there are more than a few examples of countries trying to win the race to the bottom around the world.

What does a lower US Dollar do?

Back in November 2015 Stanley Fischer gave us the thoughts of the US Federal Reserve.

To gauge the quantitative effects on exports, the thick blue line in figure 2 shows the response of U.S. real exports to a 10 percent dollar appreciation that is derived from a large econometric model of U.S. trade maintained by the Federal Reserve Board staff. Real exports fall about 3 percent after a year and more than 7 percent after three years.The gradual response of exports reflects that it takes some time for households and firms in foreign countries to substitute away from the now more expensive U.S.-made goods.

Also imports are affected.

The low exchange rate pass-through helps account for the more modest estimated response of U.S. real imports to a 10 percent exchange rate appreciation shown by the thin red line in figure 2, which indicates that real imports rise only about 3-3/4 percent after three years.

This means that the overall economy is affected as shown below.

The staff’s model indicates that the direct effects on GDP through net exports are large, with GDP falling over 1-1/2 percent below baseline after three years. Moreover, the effects materialize quite gradually, with over half of the adverse effects on GDP occurring at a horizon of more than a year.

Okay we need to flip all of that around of course because we are discussing a lower US Dollar this time around. Net exports will be boosted which will raise economic output or GDP over time.

How much?

If we look at the US Dollar Index we see at 89.1 it has already fallen by more than 3% this year. The recent peak was at just over 103 as 2016 ended so we have seen a fall of a bit under 14%. The official US Federal Reserve effective exchange rate has fallen from 128.9 in late December 2016 to 116.8 at the beginning of this week so 116 now say. Conveniently that gives us a fall of the order of 10%.

So if we look up to the preceding analysis we see that via higher exports and reduced imports US GDP will be 1.5% higher in three years time than otherwise.

What about inflation?

There is a lower impact on the US because of the role of the dollar as the reserve currency and in particular as the currency used for pricing the majority of commodities.

While the Board staff uses a range of models to gauge the effect of shocks, the model employed in figure 4–as well as other models used by staff–suggests that the dollar’s large appreciation will probably depress core PCE inflation between 1/4 and 1/2 percentage point this year through this import price channel.

You may note that Stanley Fischer continues the central banking obsession with core inflation measures when major effects will come from food and energy. It would be entertaining when they sit down to luncheon to say that we are having a core day so there isn’t any! Have you ever tried eating an i-pad?

So inflation may be around 0.5% higher.

What about everybody else?

The essential problem with reducing the value of your currency to boost your economy via exports is that overall it is a zero-sum game. As you win somebody else loses.  So the gains are taken from somebody else as no doubt minds in Beijing, Tokyo and Frankfurt are thinking right now. Of course pinning an actual accusation on the United States is not easy because of its persistent trade deficits.

Furthermore the exchange-rate appreciation seen elsewhere will not be welcomed by the ECB ( European Central Bank) and particularly the Bank of Japan. The latter is pursuing an explicit Yen depreciation policy to try to generate some inflation whereas what it has instead seen is a rise towards 109 versus the US Dollar. Of course workers and consumers will have reason to thank the lower dollar as lower inflation will boost their spending power.

Later today we will see how Mario Draghi handles this at the ECB policy meeting press conference. He finds himself pursuing negative interest-rates and still substantial if tapering QE and a stronger currency. It is hard for him to be too critical of the US though when even Christine Lagarde is saying this.

LAGARDE: GERMANY’S 8% CURRENT ACCOUNT SURPLUS IS EXCESSIVE ( @lemasabacthani)

Of course that takes us back to a past competitive depreciation which Germany arranged via its membership of the Euro.

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider here. As it stands it looks as though the US economy will benefit over the next 3 years (convenient for the political timetable) by around 1.5% of GDP at the cost of higher inflation of 0.5%. There are two main problems with this type of analysis of which the first is simply the gap between theory and reality. The smooth mathematical curves of econometrics are replaced in practice by businesses and consumers ignoring moves for as long as they can and then responding but by how much and when? So we see a succession of jump moves. The other issue is that exchange-rates are usually on the move and can change in an instant unlike economies leaving us wondering which exchange-rate they are responding too?

Next we have the awkward issue of a country raising interest-rates and seeing a currency depreciation. Theory predicts the reverse. I have a couple of thoughts on this and the first is about timing. In my opinion exchange-rates these days move on expectations of an event so they have already happened before it does. So the current phase of interest-rate rises was reflected in the US Dollar rise from the summer of 2014 to the spring of 2015. That works because if anything we have seen fewer rate rises than expected back then and the bond market has fallen less. As to the Federal Reserve well with the US Dollar here and inflation with a little upwards pressure it will therefore find a scenario which makes it easy for it to keep nudging interest-rates higher.

Meanwhile there are other factors which are hard to quantify but seem to happen. For example a lower dollar coming with higher commodity prices. Hard to explain and of course there are other factors in play, But it seems to have happened again.

Me on Core Finance TV

http://www.corelondon.tv/will-pound-go-next-vs-us-dollar/

 

 

What is happening to US consumer credit and car loans?

If we take a look at the US economy then we see on the surface something which looks as it is going well. For example the state of play in terms of economic growth is solid according to the official data.

Real gross domestic product (GDP) increased at an annual rate of 3.2 percent in the third quarter of 2017 (table 1), according to the “third” estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. In the second quarter, real GDP increased 3.1 percent.

Looking ahead the outlook is bright as well.

The New York Fed Staff Nowcast stands at 3.9% for 2017:Q4 and 3.1% for 2018:Q1.

That would be a change as the turn of the year has tended to under perform in recent times. Also if we use the income measure for GDP the performance is lower. But if we continue with the data we see that both the unemployment rate ( 4.1% in December) and the underemployment rate ( 8.1% in December) have fallen considerably albeit that the latter nudged higher in December.

Less positive is the rate of wage growth where ( private-sector non farm) hourly earnings are currently growing at 2.5%. This is no doubt related to this issue.

In the 2007-2016 period, annual labor productivity decelerated to 1.2 percent at an annual average rate, as compared to the 2.7 rate in the 2000-2007 period.

So a familiar pattern we have observed in many places although the US is better off than more than a few as it has real wage growth albeit not a lot especially considering the unemployment rate and at least has some productivity growth.

Interest-rates are rising

Whilst wages have not risen much in response to a better economic situation interest-rates are beginning to. The official Federal Reserve rate is now 1.25% to 1.5% and is set to rise further this year. If we move to how such things impact on people then the 30 year (fixed) mortgage rate is now 4.06%. It has had a complicated picture not made any easier by the current government shutdown but in broad terms the downtrend which took it as low as 3.34% is over.

How much debt is there?

As of the end of the third quarter of 2017 the total mortgage debt was 14.75 trillion dollars. This is not a peak which was 14.8 trillion in the spring/summer of 2008 but if we project the recent growth rate we will be above that now. Of course the economy is now much larger than it was then.

If we move to consumer credit then we see the following. It was 3.81 trillion dollars at the end of November and that was up 376 billion dollars on a year before.

In November, consumer credit increased at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 8-3/4 percent. Revolving credit increased at an annual rate of 13-1/4 percent, while nonrevolving credit increased at an annual rate of 7-1/4 percent.

So quite a surge but care is needed as the numbers are erratic and October gave a much weaker reading. So we wait for the December data. If we look into the detail we see that student loans were 1.48 trillion dollars as of September and the troubled car loans sector was 1.1 trillion dollars. For perspective the former were were 1.05 trillion in 2012 and the latter 809 billion.

In terms of interest-rates new car loans are 5.4% from finance companies and 4.8% from the banks for around a 5 year term. Credit cars debt is a bit over 13% and personal loans are 10.6%.

Credit cards

The Financial Times is reporting possible signs of trouble.

The big four US retail banks sustained a near 20 per cent jump in losses from credit cards in 2017, raising doubts about the ability of consumers to fuel economic expansion……Recently disclosed results showed Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo took a combined $12.5bn hit from soured card loans last year, about $2bn more than a year ago.

It suggests that the rise in lending that has been seen is on its way to causing Taylor Swift to sing “trouble,trouble,trouble”

Yet borrower delinquencies are outpacing rising balances. While still less than half crisis-era levels, the consultancy forecasts soured credit card loans will reach almost 4.5 per cent of receivables this year, up from 2.92 per cent in 2015.

The St.Louis Federal Reserve or FRED is much more sanguine as it has the delinquency rate at 2.53% at the end of the third quarter of 2017. So up on the 2.29% of a year before but a fair way short of what the FT is reporting.

Maybe though there have been some ch-ch-changes.

“The driving factor behind the losses is that banks are putting weaker credits on the books,” said Brian Riley, a former credit card executive and now a director at Mercator.

Car Loans

According to CNBC lenders are being more conservative in the automobile arena.

The percentage of subprime auto loans saw a big decline in the third quarter despite growing concerns that auto dealers and banks are writing too many loans to borrowers with checkered credit histories, according to new data.

In fact, Experian says the percentage of loans written for those with subprime and deep subprime credit ratings fell to its lowest point since 2012.

In terms of things going wrong then we did not learn much more.

In the third quarter, there was a slight decrease in the percentage of loans 30 days overdue and slight increase in those that were 60 days delinquent.

Although a development like this is rarely a good sign.

Meanwhile, Experian says the average term for a new vehicle auto loan hit an all-time high of 69 months, thanks in part to a slight increase in the percentage of loans schedule to be repaid over 85 to 94 months.

“We’re starting to see some spillover to loans longer than 85 months,” said Zabritski.

This morning’s Automotive News puts it like this.

Smoke expects higher interest rates and tighter credit this year will drive many consumers to buy a used vehicle instead of a new one. Most of those buying used cars will be millennials, who are often saddled with student loans and remain credit challenged, he said.

It is no fun being a millennial is it? Although I suppose much better than being one in the last century as we have so far avoided a world war.

This piece of detail provides some food or thought.

Last year, the U.S. Federal Reserve raised interest rates three times for a total of 75 basis points, and data show that auto-loan lenders have been tightening credit for six straight quarters, but auto loans for “superprime borrowers” increased by just 20 basis points, Smoke said.

Are lenders afraid of raising sub-prime borrowing rates? Not according to The Associated Press.

Subprime buyers got substantially better rates even a year ago. The average subprime rate of 5.91% last year has jumped to 16.84% today, Smoke says. For a 60-month loan of $20,000, that means a monthly payment hike of more than $100, to $495.

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider here as we mull how normal this is for the mature phase of an economic expansion? Also how abnormal these times have been in terms of whether the benefits of the economic growth have filtered down much to Joe Sixpack? After all wage growth could/should be much better and the unemployment figures obscure the much lower labour participation rate. We will be finding out should interest-rates continue their climb as we mull the significance of this.

Securitisations of US car loans hit a post-financial crisis high in 2017, as investor demand for yield continued to provide favourable borrowing conditions across a range of credit markets. Wall Street sold more than $70bn worth of auto asset backed securities, which bundle up car loans into bond-like products, this year, the highest level since 2007, according to data from S&P Global Ratings. ( Financial Times).

One thing we can be sure of is that we will be told that everything is indeed fine until it can no longer possibly be denied at which point it will be nobody’s ( in authority) fault.

Jimmy Armfield

Not only a giant in the world of football in England but in my opinion the best radio summariser by a country mile. RIP Jimmy and thank you.

 

 

 

What is happening in the US economy?

It is time and in some ways past time for another delve into the state of play in the US economy which some would have you believe has been doing extraordinarily well. I spotted this from @Trickyjabs on Twitter earlier this week.

George Osborne, January 2015:
“Britain could be richer than US by 2030”

2.5 years later:
US GDP +21.5%
UK GDP +4.5%

If we skip the attempt to make a political point this is the sort of thing to cheer Donald Trump especially if he could find a way to argue it had all happened this year! Sadly of course the lesson here is not to use figures you do not understand as the US figures are realised in an annualised version. So still better than the UK but not by much.

Perspective

If we look back we see that the US Bureau of Economic Analysis or BEA tells us that economic output as measured by GDP peaked at 14.99 Trillion US Dollars in the last quarter of 2007 ( 2009 prices). If we jump forwards to the second quarter of this year we see that it had risen to 17.03 Trillion US Dollars. So if we allow for the likely growth in the third quarter an increase of the order of 14%. This tells us that the US has done relatively well on this measure but that growth is lower than what used to be considered normal. Putting it another way we have a type of confirmation that as output did not reach its previous peak until halfway through 2011 the new normal for economic growth may be of the order of 2% per annum.

Also the BEA gives us an insight into the structure of the US economy which goes as follows. 69% is consumption, just under 17% is investment and just over 17% is the government. You may have spotted a mathematical flaw which is solved when we put in net trade which is -3%.So investment has fallen as has the relative size of the government and the gap has partly been filled by services consumption rising from 44% to 47%.

Perhaps the most interesting change is the decline in the trade deficit which peaked at just under 6% of GDP before the credit crunch but is now around 3%. I wonder how much of a role the shale oil industry has played in this.

Looking ahead

One view was expressed by the Donald back in August. From CNBC.

“If we achieve sustained 3 percent growth that means 12 million new jobs and $10 trillion of new economic activity. That’s some number,” Trump said during a speech last month in Missouri promoting tax reform. “I happen to be one that thinks we can go much higher than 3 percent. There’s no reason we shouldn’t.”

If the US Federal Reserve was on board with that then we would have seen more interest-rate increases but its latest forecasts suggest annual economic growth of around 2%. So belatedly they have caught up with us on here!

Interest-Rates

This is an intriguing one as markets expect another rise to circa 1.25% in December and it became more intriguing as we learnt this from the European Central Bank and its President Mario Draghi yesterday.

Real GDP increased by 0.7%, quarter on quarter, in the second quarter of 2017, after 0.6% in the first quarter. The latest data and survey results point to unabated growth momentum in the second half of this year

So better than the US so far in 2017 and the Euro area has seen growth for a while.

Growth is growing and momentum is also growing and labour market and everything is doing – well, I think it’s, I can’t remember how many quarters of consecutive growth, 17 I believe.

But the picture for interest-rates is completely different.

The sequence stays what it is, namely this – the interest rates will stay and they remain at their present – are expected to remain at their present levels for an extended period of time and well past the horizon of our net asset purchases.

So President Draghi is giving us Forward Guidance that the ECB deposit rate will remain at -0.4% for at least the next couple of years and maybe beyond. This is because the cut to the monthly amount of QE to 30 billion Euros a month was accompanied by not only an extension of its term but more hints that it might go “on and on and on ” to coin a phrase.

Whilst 2017 looks like being somewhere between a good year for both the US and Euro area economies sooner or later a recession will come along. Oh except of course in the forecasts of central bankers which seem to actually believe they have ended them! But my point is should it come then we will see a US central bank which has raised interest-rate but an ECB with them starting it in negative territory. The rationale as we look at comparisons is given here.

As such, the US recovery is way more advanced than ours

Quite a compliment for the United States I think.

Inflation

This remains by historical standards relatively mild with this being the latest release from August.

The PCE price index increased
0.2 percent. Excluding food and energy, the PCE price index increased 0.1 percent.

This means that the annual rate for Personal Consumption Expenditure has fallen from 2.2% in February to 1.4% in August. So good news overall and in case you are wondering why CPI is not used the gap between the two measures is variable but tends to see CPI around 0.4% higher.

Wages

From the Bureau of Labour Statistics or BLS.

Real average hourly earnings increased 0.7 percent, seasonally adjusted, from September 2016 to
September 2017. The increase in real average hourly earnings combined with no change in the average
workweek resulted in a 0.6-percent increase in real average weekly earnings over this period.

So there is some growth but hardly stellar.

Comment

In many ways the US economy has done pretty well in the credit crunch era but this does not mean that there are not begged questions. This start in an apparent area of strength because the unemployment has fallen to 4.2% and the underemployment rate to 8.3%. But the catch as was discussed in the comments section yesterday comes from the participation rate which in spite of an improvement in September is some 3% lower than pre credit crunch. So what has happened to nearly 8 million people or ten million if we look further back?

The next issue is one of debt. I am not particularly thinking of the level of it but the way that it seems to have permulated and percolated back down to the sub-prime level again. From Bloomberg in August.

There’s a section of the auto-loan market — known in industry parlance as deep subprime — where delinquency rates have ticked up to levels last seen in 2007, according to data compiled by credit reporting bureau Equifax.

“Performance of recent deep subprime vintages is awful,” Equifax said in a slide show on second-quarter credit trends.

I dread to think what “deep subprime” means don’t you? As to the car market itself this from Automotive News does not seem entirely reassuring.

October is on track to be the second-best month of 2017 for U.S. new-vehicle sales, analysts said, partly due to surging demand in states recovering from hurricane damage, though volume is projected to fall slightly from the same month last year.

When will the next big hurricane come along to boost sales and I note what is happening with prices.

Fleming said incentives have risen to 11 percent of average transaction prices — “an indicator that new-vehicle demand is still contracting, and production cuts could be on the horizon to prevent oversupplies.”
Discounts are all but certain to rise further in the coming months, as automakers roll out year-end promotions that typically start in the next few weeks and stretch into early January.

My financial lexicon for these times of course defines an “incentive” as a price cut.

Why have the bond markets lost their bark and their vigilantes?

The credit crunch era took us on quite a journey in terms of interest-rates. At first central banks reduced official short-term interest-rates in the hope that they would fix the problem. Then they embarked on Quantitative Easing policies which were designed to reduce long-term interest-rates or bond yields. This was because quite a few important interest-rates are not especially dependent on official interest-rates and may from time to time even move in the opposite direction. An example is fixed-rate mortgages. However if they are a “cure” then one day all the downwards manipulation of interest-rates and yields needs to stop. Of course the fact that it is still going on all these years later poses its own issues.

The United States looked as though it was heading on that road last year on two counts. Firstly the Federal Reserve was in a program to raise interest-rates and secondly both Presidential candidates indicated plans for a fiscal stimulus. When Donald Trump was elected as President he reinforced this by telling us this as I reported back on November 9th.

We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals. We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none, and we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.

This was somewhat reminiscent of the “New Deal” of President F.D. Roosevelt although I counselled caution at the time and of course any fiscal expansion would be added to by the plan for tax cuts. The two impacted on bond markets as shown below.

There has been a clear market adjustment to this which is that the 30 year ( long bond) yield has risen by 0.12% to 2.75%.

In the US this tends to have a direct impact on fixed mortgage-rates as many places quote a 30 year one.

What happened next?

US bond yields did rise and in mid March the 10 year Treasury Note yield rose to 2.63% meaning that it was approaching the long bond yield quoted above. Meanwhile the long bond yield rose to 3.21%. However as we look back now those were twin peaks and have been replaced by 2.07% and 2.69% respectively.

Why might this be?

Whilst there does seem to be some sort of concrete plan for tax cuts there is little sign of much concrete around any infrastructure spending. So that has drifted away and there has been an element of this with official interest-rate rises. The US Federal Reserve has raised them to a range between 1% and 1.25% but seems to be in no hurry to raise them further. It does plan to reduce its balance sheet but the plan is very small compared to its size.

The Recovery

The US economy has continued to grow in 2017 as shown below.

Real gross domestic product (GDP) increased at an annual rate of 3.0 percent in the second quarter of 2017 (table 1), according to the “second” estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. In the first quarter, real GDP increased 1.2 percent. ( These are annualised figures )

This has not been enough to unsettle bond markets especially if we add in that so far in 2017 inflation has if anything faded. Here are the latest numbers from NASDAQ.

Excluding food prices and fuel, core PCE measure – the Fed’s preferred measure of inflation – increased 1.4% in July year over year compared with 1.5% in June. However, it edged up 0.1% in July on a monthly basis. Therefore, it is still far from the Fed’s target of 2%.

For once it does not matter if you use a core inflation measure as it comes to the same answer as the headline! Although the annual rate has only fallen by 0.2% for the core measure since March as opposed to 0.4% for the headline. But we are left with okay growth and fading inflation which gives us a reason why bond markets have rallied and yields fallen.

What about wages?

The various output gap style theories that falling and indeed low unemployment rates would push wage and in particular real wage growth higher have not come to fruition. From the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

From July 2016 to July 2017, real average hourly earnings increased 0.8 percent, seasonally adjusted. The increase in real average hourly earnings combined with no change in the average workweek resulted in a 0.7-percent increase in real average weekly earnings over this period.

Japan

If we stay with the subject of wages here is today’s data from Japan. From the Financial Times.

 

Unadjusted labour cash earnings fell 0.3 per cent year on year in July, down from a 0.4 per cent increase a month earlier, according to a preliminary estimate by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare…….Special cash earnings, which includes bonuses, were down 2.2 per cent on the same month a year ago.

If we widen our discussion geographically and look at the US where there is some wage growth we see that in other places there is not as real wages in Japan fell by 0.8%. If we stay with Japan for a moment then we see that in spite of the media proclamations over the past 4 years that wages are about to turn upwards we are still waiting. Bonuses were supposed to surge this summer. So the “output gap” continues to fail and there is little pressure on bond yields from wage growth in Japan.

QE

This of course continues in quite a few places. In terms of the headline players we have the 60 billion Euros a month of the European Central Bank and the yield curve control of the Bank of Japan which it expects to be around 80 trillion Yen a year. I raise these points as a bond yield rally in these areas would require these to be substantially reduced or stopped. We expect little substantive change from the ECB until the election season is over but some were expecting a reduction from it as the Euro area economy improved. As time passes it will have to make some changes as its rules suggest it will run out of German bonds to buy next spring and the more it shuffles to avoid that the more likely it will run out of bonds to buy in France, Spain and even Italy.

Added to this are the sovereign wealth funds as for example Norway which seems to be rebalancing in favour of US Euro and UK bonds. There are also the investment plans of the Swiss National Bank.

Comment

So we see a dog that has little bark and has not bitten. Some of this is really good news as unlike the central banker cartel I am pleased that so far inflation has for them disappointed. Although as we look ahead there may be issues from some commodity prices. From Mining.com

December copper futures trading on the Comex market in New York made fresh highs on Tuesday after the world’s number one producer of the metal reported a sharp drop in production.
Copper touched $3.1785 a pound ($7,007 per tonne) in morning trade, the highest since September 2014. Copper is now up by more than 50% compared to this time last year.

So Dr,Copper may be giving us a hint although I also note that hedge funds are getting involved so this may be a “financialisation” move as opposed to a real one.

Another factor which would change things would be some real wage growth. Perhaps along the lines of this released by the German statistics office last week.

The collectively agreed earnings, as measured by the index of agreed monthly earnings including extra payments, increased by an average 3.8% in the second quarter of 2017 compared with the same quarter of the previous year. This is the highest rise since the beginning of the time series in 2011. The Federal Statistical Office (Destatis) also reports that, excluding extra payments, the year-on-year increase in the second quarter of 2017 was 3.4%.

If we move to my home country then it remains hard to believe with our penchant for inflation we have a ten-year Gilt yield of 1.01% as I type this. Even worse a five-year Gilt yield of 0.43% as you will lose the total yield in inflation this year alone. I can see how a “punter” might buy at times front-running events or the Bank of England but how can it be an investment unless you expect quite an economic depression?

 

 

 

Whatever happened to savers and the savings ratio?

A feature of the credit crunch era has been the fall and some would say plummet in quite a range of interest-rates and bond yields. This opened with central banks cutting official short-term interest-rates heavily in response to the initial impact with the Bank of England for example trimming around 4% off its Bank Rate to reduce it to 0.5%. If we go to market rates the drop was even larger because it is often forgotten now that one-year interest-rates in the UK rose to 7% for around a year or so as the credit crunch built up in what was a last hurrah of sorts for savers. Next central banks moved to reduce bond yields via purchases of sovereign bonds via QE ( Quantitative Easing) programmes. In the UK this was followed by some Bank of England rhetoric heading towards the First World War pictures of Lord Kitchener saying your country needs you.

Here is Bank of England Deputy Governor Charlie Bean from September 2010.

“What we’re trying to do by our policy is encourage more spending. Ideally we’d like to see that in the form of more business spending, but part of the mechanism … is having more household spending, so in the short-term we want to see households not saving more but spending more’.

Our Charlie was keen to point out that this was a temporary situation.

“It’s very much swings and roundabouts. At the current juncture, savers might be suffering as a result of bank rate being at low levels, but there will be times in the future — as there have been times in the past — when they will be doing very well.

Mr.Bean was displaying his usual forecasting accuracy here as of course savers have seen only swings and no roundabouts as the Bank Rate got cut even further to 0.25% and the £79.6 billion of the Term Funding Scheme means that banks rarely have to compete for their deposits. This next bit may put savers teeth on edge.

“Savers shouldn’t see themselves as being uniquely hit by this. A lot of people are suffering during this downturn … Savers shouldn’t necessarily expect to be able to live just off their income in times when interest rates are low. It may make sense for them to eat into their capital a bit.”

In May 2014 Charlie was at the same game according to the Financial Times.

BoE’s Charlie Bean expects 3% interest rate within 5 years

There is little sign of that so far although of course Sir Charlie is unlikely to be bothered much with his index-linked pension worth around £4 million if I recall correctly plus his role at the Office for Budget Responsibility.

House prices

I add this in because the UK saw an establishment move to get them back into buying houses. This involved subsidies such as the Bank of England starting the Funding for Lending Scheme in the summer of 2013 to reduce mortgage rates ( by around 1% initially then up to 2%) which continues with the Term Funding Scheme. Also there was the Help to Buy Scheme of the government. I raise these because why would you save when all you have to do is buy a house and the price accelerates into the stratosphere?

The picture on saving gets complex here. Some may save for a deposit but of course the official pressure for larger deposits soon faded. Also the net worth gains are the equivalent of saving in theoretical terms at least but only apply to some and make first time buyers poorer. Also care is needed with net worth gains as people can hardly withdraw them en masse and what goes up can come down. Furthermore there are regional differences here as for example the gains are by far the largest in London which leads to a clear irony as official regional policy is supposed to be spreading wealth, funds and money out of London.

There is also the issue of rents as those affected here have no house price gains to give them theoretical wealth. However the impact of the fact that real wages are still below the credit crunch peak has meant that rents have increasingly become reported as a burden. So the chance to save may be treated with a wry smile by those in Generation rent especially if they are repaying Student Loans.

Share Prices

This is a by now familiar situation. If we skip for a moment the issue of whether it involves an investment or saving as it is mostly both we find yet another side effect of central bank action. In spite of the recent impact of the North Korea situation stock markets are mostly at or near all time highs. The UK FTSE 100 is still around 7300 which is good for existing shareholders but perhaps not so good for those planning to save.

Number Crunching

There are various ways of looking at the state of play or rather as to what the state of play was as we are at best usually a few months behind events. From the Financial Times at the end of June.

UK households have responded to a tight squeeze on incomes from rising inflation, taxes and falling wages by saving less than at any time in at least 50 years. According to new figures from the Office for National Statistics, 1.7 per cent of income was left unspent in the first quarter of 2017, the lowest savings ratio since comparable records began in 1963.

This compares to what?

The savings ratio has averaged 9.2 per cent of disposable income over the past 54 years,

Some of the move was supposed to be temporary which poses its own question but if we move onto July was added to by this.

In Quarter 1 2017, the households and NPISH saving ratio on a cash basis fell to negative 4.8%, which implies that households and NPISH spent more than they earned in income during the quarter.

The above number is a new one which excludes “imputed” numbers a trend I hope will spread further across our official statistics. It also came with a troubling reminder.

This is the lowest quarterly saving ratio on a cash basis since Quarter 1 2008, when it was negative 6.7%.

As they say on the BBC’s Question of Sport television programme, what happened next?

The United States

We in the UK are not entirely alone as this from the Financial Times Alphaville section a week ago points out.

Newly revised data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis show that American consumers have spent the past two years embracing option 2. The average American now saves about 35 per cent less than in 2015……….Not since the beginning of 2008 have Americans saved so little — and that’s before accounting for inflation.

Comment

One of the features of the credit crunch was that central banks changed balance between savers and debtors massively in the latter’s favour. Measure after measure has been applied and along this road the claims of “temporary” have looked ever more permanent. Therefore it is hardly a surprise that savings seem to be out of favour just as it is really no surprise that unsecured credit has been booming. It is after all official policy albeit one which is only confessed to in back corridors and in the shadows. After all look at the central bank panic when inflation fell to ~0% and gave savers some relief relative to inflation. If we consider inflation there has been another campaign going on as measures exclude the asset prices that central banks try to push higher. Fears of bank deposits being confiscated will only add to all of this.

Meanwhile as we find so often the numbers are unreliable. In addition to the revisions above from the US I note that yesterday Ireland revised its savings ratio lower and the UK reshuffled its definitions a couple of years or so ago. I do not know whether to laugh or cry at the view that the changed would boost the numbers?! I doubt the ch-ch-changes are entirely a statistical illusion but the scale may be, aren’t you glad that is clear? We are left mulling what is saving? What is investment?

But we travel a road where many cheerleaders for central bank actions now want us to panic over an entirely predictable consequence. Or to put it another way that poor battered can that was kicked into the future trips us up every now and then.