Central bankers are warming us up for more inflation again

A feature of the credit crunch era is the repetition of various suggestions from governments and central banks. One example of this has been the issue of Eurobonds which invariably has a lifespan until the nearest German official spots it. Another has been the concept of central banks overshooting their inflation target for a while. It is something that is usually supported by those especially keen on ( even more) interest-rate cuts and monetary easing so let us take a look.

Last Wednesday European Central Bank President Mario Draghi appeared to join the fray and the emphasis is mine.

Well, on your second question I will answer saying exactly the same thing. We don’t tolerate too low inflation; we remain fully committed to using all necessary instruments to return inflation to 2% without undue delay. Likewise, our inflation aim doesn’t imply a ceiling of 2%. Inflation can deviate from our objective in both directions, so long as the path of inflation converges towards our medium-term objective. I believe I must have said something close to this, or something to this extent a few other times in the past few years.

Nice try Mario but not all pf us had our senses completely dulled by what was otherwise a going through the motions press conference. As what he said at the press conference last September was really rather different.

In relation to that: shouldn’t the ECB be aiming for an overshoot on inflation rather than an undershoot given that it’s been below target for so long?

Second point: our objective is an inflation rate which is below, but close to 2% over the medium term; we stay with that, that’s our objective.

As you can see back then he was clearly sign posting an inflation targeting system aiming for inflation below 2%. That was in line with the valedictory speech given by his predecessor Jean-Claude Trichet which gave us a pretty exact definition by the way he was so pleased with it averaging 1.97% per annum in his term. So we have seen a shift which leads to the question, why?

The actual situation

What makes the switch look rather odd is the actual inflation situation in the Euro area. Back to Mario at the ECB press conference on Wednesday.

According to Eurostat’s flash estimate, euro area annual HICP inflation was 1.4% in March 2019, after 1.5% in February, reflecting mainly a decline in food, services and non-energy industrial goods price inflation. On the basis of current futures prices for oil, headline inflation is likely to decline over the coming months.

So we find that inflation is below target and expected to fall further in 2019. This was a subject which was probed by one of the questions.

 It’s quite clear that the sliding of the five-year-to-five-year inflation expectations corresponds to a deterioration of the economic outlook. It’s also quite clear that as the economic outlook, especially the economic activity slows down, also markets expect less pressure in the labour market, but we haven’t seen that yet.

The issue of markets for inflation expectations is often misunderstood as the truth is we know so little about what inflation will be then. But such as it is again  the trend may well be lower so why have we been guided towards higher inflation being permitted.

It might have been a slip of the tongue but Mario Draghi is usually quite careful with his language. This leaves us with another thought, which is that if he is warming us up for an attitude change he is doing soon behalf of his successor as he departs to his retirement villa at the end of October.

The US

Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari suggested this in his #AskNeel exercise on Twitter.

Well we officially have a symmetric target and actual inflation has averaged around 1.7%, below our 2% target, for the past several years. So if we were at 2.3% for several years that shouldn’t be concerning.

Also he reminded those observing the debate on Twitter that the US inflation target is symmetric and thus unlike the ECB.

Yes, i think we should really live the symmetric target and not tap the brakes prematurely. This is why I’ve been arguing for more accommodative monetary policy. But we are undertaking a year long review of various approaches so I am keeping an open mind.

As you can see with views like that the Donald is likely to be describing Neel Kashkari as “one of the best people”.  If we move to the detail there are various issues and my initial one is that inflation tends to feed on itself and be self-fulfilling so the idea that we can be just over the target at say 2.3% is far from telling the full picture. Usually iy would then go higher. Also if your wages were not growing or only growing at 1% you would be concerned about even that seemingly low-level of inflation.

If we consider the review the US Fed is undertaken we see from last week’s speech by Vice Chair Clarida a denial that it has any plans to change its 2% per annum target and we know what to do with those! Especially as he later points out this.

In part because of that concern, some economists have advocated “makeup” strategies under which policymakers seek to undo, in part or in whole, past inflation deviations from target. Such strategies include targeting average inflation over a multiyear period and price-level targeting, in which policymakers seek to stabilize the price level around a constant growth path.

As the credit crunch era has seen inflation generally be below target this would be quite a shift as it would allow for quite a catch-up. Which of course is exactly the point!

Comment

Central bankers fear that they are approaching something of a nexus point. They have deployed monetary policy on a scale that would not have been believed before the credit crunch hit us. Yet in spite of the negative interest-rates, QE style bond purchases and in some cases equity and property buys we see that there has been an economic slow down and inflation is generally below target. Also the country that has deployed monetary policy the most in terms of scale Japan has virtually no inflation at all ( 0.2% in February).

At each point in the crisis where central bankers face such issues they have found a way to ease policy again. We have seen various attempts at this and below is an example from Charles Evans the President of the Chicago Fed from back in March 2012.

My preferred inflation threshold is a forecast of 3 percent over the medium term.

We have seen others look for 4% per annum. What we are seeing now is another way of trying to get the same effect but this time looking backwards rather than forwards.

There are plenty of problems with this. Whilst a higher inflation target might make life easier for central bankers the ordinary worker and consumer faces what economists call “sticky” wages. Or in simple terms prices go up but wages may not and if the credit crunch is any guide will not. My country the UK suffered from that in 2010/11 when the Bank of England “looked through” consumer inflation which went above 5% with the consequence of real wages taking a sharp hit from which they have still to recover.

Next comes the issue that in the modern era 2% per annum may be too high as a target anyway. In spite of all the effort it has been mostly undershot and as 2% in itself has no reason for existence why not cut it? Then we might make progress in real wage terms or more realistically reduce the falls. That is before we get to the issue of inflation measures lacking credibility in the real world as things get more expensive but inflation is officially recorded as low.

Meanwhile central bankers sing along to Marvin Gaye.

‘Cause baby there ain’t no mountain high enough

Podcast

 

 

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What is happening with US house prices and its economy?

Sometimes it helps to look back so let us dip into Yahoo Finance from the 17th of December last year.

Home price growth has slowed for six consecutive months since April, according to the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller national home price index. And for the first time in a year, annual price growth fell below 6%, dropping to 5.7% and 5.5%, in August and September, respectively. October home price results will be released later this month.

So we see what has in many places become a familiar pattern as housing markets lose some of their growth. There was and indeed is a consequence of this.

“A couple of years of home prices running twice the rate of home income growth leads to affordability challenges,” said Mortgage Bankers Association Chief Economist Mike Fratantoni. “If you’re a buyer in 2019, you won’t see home price running away from you at the same speed in 2018.”

I think he means wages when he says “home income growth” but he is making a point which we have seen in many places where house price growth has soared and decoupled from wage growth. This has been oil by the way that central banks slashed official interest-rates which reduced mortgage-rates and then also indulged in large-scale bond buying which in the US included Mortgage-Backed Securities to further reduce mortgage-rates. This meant that affordability improved as long as you were willing to look away from higher debt burdens and the implication that should interest-rates rise the song “the heat is on” would start playing very quickly.

Or if you wish to consider that in chart form Yahoo Finance helped us out.

That is a chart to gladden a central bankers heart as it shows that the policy measures enacted turned house prices around and led to strong growth in them. The double-digit growth of late 2013 and early 2014 will have then scrambling up into their Ivory Towers to calculate the wealth effects. But the problem is that compared to wage growth they moved away at 8% per annum back then and the minimum since has been 2% per annum. That means that a supposed solution to house prices being too high and contributing to an economic crash has been to make them higher again especially relative to wages.

What about house price growth now?

Yesterday provided us with an update.

CoreLogic® (NYSE: CLGX), a leading global property information, analytics and data-enabled solutions provider, today released the CoreLogic Home Price Index (HPI) and HPI Forecast for February 2019, which shows home prices rose both year over year and month over month. Home prices increased nationally by 4 percent year over year from February 2018. On a month-over-month basis, prices increased by 0.7 percent in February 2019.

So there has been a slowing in the rate of growth which is reflected here.

“During the first two months of the year, home-price growth continued to decelerate,” said Dr. Frank Nothaft, chief economist for CoreLogic. “This is the opposite of what we saw the last two years when price growth accelerated early.

Looking ahead they do however expect something of a pick-up.

“With the Federal Reserve’s announcement to keep short-term interest rates where they are for the rest of the year, we expect mortgage rates to remain low and be a boost for the spring buying season. A strong buying season could lead to a pickup in home-price growth later this year.”

That gives us another perspective on the change of policy from the US Federal Reserve. So far its U-Turn has mostly been locked at through the prism of equity prices partly due to the way that President Trump focuses on them. But another way of looking at it is in response to slower house price growth which was being influenced by higher mortgage rates as the Federal Reserve raised interest-rates and reduced its bond holdings. This saw the 30-year mortgage-rate rise from just under 4% to a bit over 4.9% in November, no doubt providing its own brake on proceedings.

What about now?

If we look at monetary policy we see that perhaps something of a Powell Put Option is in place as at the end of last week the 30-year mortgage rate was 4.06%. Now bond yields have picked up this week so lets round it back up to say 4.15%. Even so that is quite a drop from the peak last year.

There is also some real wage growth according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Real average hourly earnings for all employees increased 1.9 percent, seasonally adjusted, from February 2018 to February 2019. The change in real average hourly earnings, combined with a 0.3-percent decrease in the average workweek, resulted in a 1.6-percent increase in real average weekly earnings over this 12-month period.

In terms of hourly earnings the situation has been improving since last summer whereas the weekly figures were made more complex by the drop in hours worked meaning we particularly await Friday’s update for them.

Moving to the economy then recent figures have been a little more upbeat than when we looked at the US back on the 22nd of February but not by much.

The New York Fed Staff Nowcast stands at 1.3% for 2019:Q1 and 1.6% for 2019:Q2..News from this week’s data releases left the nowcast for 2019:Q1 unchanged and decreased the nowcast for 2019:Q2 by 0.1 percentage point.

Of the main data so far this week we did not learn an enormous amount from the retail sales numbers from the Census Bureau.

Advance estimates of U.S. retail and food services sales for February 2019, adjusted for seasonal variation
and holiday and trading-day differences, but not for price changes, were $506.0 billion, a decrease of 0.2
percent (±0.5 percent)* from the previous month, but 2.2 percent (±0.7 percent) above February 2018.

As these are effectively turnover rather than real growth figures a monthly fall is especially troubling but January had been revised higher.

Comment

We are observing concurrent contradictory waves at the moment. The effect from 2018 was of a slowing economy combined with monetary tightening in terms of higher mortgage-rates. More recently after the policy shift we have seen mortgage-rates fall pretty sharply and since last summer a pick-up in wage growth. So we can expect some growth and maybe we might even see a phase where wage growth exceeds house price growth. But it would appear that the US Federal Reserve has shifted policy to keep asset (house and equity) prices as high as it can so it may move again,

As to the overall picture this from Corelogic troubles me.

According to the CoreLogic Market Condition Indicators (MCI), an analysis of housing values in the country’s 100 largest metropolitan areas based on housing stock, 35 percent of metropolitan areas have an overvalued housing market as of February 2019. The MCI analysis categorizes home prices in individual markets as undervalued, at value or overvalued, by comparing home prices to their long-run, sustainable levels, which are supported by local market fundamentals (such as disposable income).

Only 35% overvalued? Look again at the gap between house price rises and wage rises in the Yahoo chart above. So if we look backwards very few places must have been overvalued just before the crash. Also times are hard for younger people.

Frank Martell, president and CEO of CoreLogic. “Our research tells us that about 74 percent of millennials, the single largest cohort of homebuyers, now report having to cut back on other categories of spending to afford their housing costs.”

I am not sure that goes with the previous research. Also if the stereotype has any validity times for millennials in the US are grim or should that be toast?

The price for Hass avocados from Michoacán, Mexico’s main avocado producing region, increased 34 percent on Tuesday amid President Trump’s calls to shut down the U.S.-Mexico border ( The Hill).

Let me end with a reminder from CoreLogic that averages do not tell us the full story.

Annual change by state ranged from a 10.2 percent high in Idaho to a -1.7 percent low in North Dakota

 

 

 

 

Money Supply data suggest it will be a weak start to 2019 for the US economy

We have an opportunity to take a look in detail at the US economy which stands out at the moment at a time of slowing economies elsewhere. Partly of course that is due to the shut down of government offices which means that we do not have economic growth or GDP data for the last quarter of 2018, but also because it had a better trajectory anyway that Europe or Japan. We get some clues from the Minutes of the January meeting of the US Federal Reserve and let me open with some old friends that rarely get a mention these days.

Standing dollar liquidity swap arrangements with
the following foreign central banks: Standing foreign currency liquidity swap arrangements with the following foreign central banks:

Bank of Canada
Bank of England
Bank of Japan
European Central Bank
Swiss National Bank

That sets the background as although we are supposedly out of crisis the measures enacted in response to the credit crunch never seem to go away. Another powerful point was the way that if you read between the lines the existence of a Powell Put Option for equity markets is confirmed.

Early in the new year, market sentiment improved following communications by Federal Reserve officials emphasizing that the Committee could be “patient” in considering further adjustments to the stance of policy and
that it would be flexible in managing the reduction of
securities holdings in the SOMA. On balance, stock
prices finished the period up almost 5 percent while corporate risk spreads narrowed….

This is in many ways more significant than the rhetoric about possible future interest-rate increases which seem set to fade away. Also whilst this does not actually say that QT or Quantitative Tightening is toast it gives us that impression.

Almost all participants thought that it would be desirable
to announce before too long a plan to stop reducing the
Federal Reserve’s asset holdings later this year.

Whilst it has it faults as a website sometimes Zerohedge is on the money.

Dear is there a direct line for “market participants” to complain when stocks perform not as expected?

There is also the issue of the apparent way that the Federal Reserve capitulated under pressure from President Trump who only a day earlier had made his views clear yet again.

Had the opposition party (no, not the Media) won the election, the Stock Market would be down at least 10,000 points by now. We are heading up, up, up!

His favourite song must be that one by Yazz.

Monetary Developments

Sadly the Minutes ignore this issue although they do look at credit issues.

Staff continued to monitor developments in the leveraged loan market given the sharp rise in spreads and slowdown in issuance late last year. The build-up in overall nonfinancial business debt to levels close to historical highs relative to GDP was viewed as a factor that could amplify adverse shocks to the business sector.

We can do better than them on two counts firstly by looking at the narrow money data as a leading indicator and also we have the January and some February data which they did not. Doing so shows us that M0 growth is running at an annual rate of 2% over the past three months, 3.3% over the past 6 months and 2.3% over the year. As you can see it picked up for a bit but has fallen back.

If we look for perspective we see that it was over 15% in 2011 and 12 and in more recent years was between 7% and 8%. So we can expect a slowing economic effect from it as we note that some of the decline will be due to the QT programme. Looking into the detail of the narrow money numbers we see that the amount of cash in circulation is rising (6% in the year to January) and it is demand deposits (-2.5% over the past year) which have been the main factor in the rate of growth of narrow money falling,

So we move on with noting that a monetary brake for say the first half of 2019 has been applied to the economy.

Switching to broad money gives a different picture as we recall that it applies some two years or so ahead. That is because it has picked up in the last three months to an annual rate of 6% whereas over the past twelve months the annual rate of M2 growth was 4.3%. So assuming it works and the lags are variable the US economy should see either some growth or some inflation in a couple of years time. Also Americans have been saving and as an aside as I cannot recall a mention of them for some time they also have some US $1.7 billion of what they would call travellers checks.

Consumer Credit

Earlier this month we were told this.

In 2018, consumer credit increased 5 percent, with revolving and nonrevolving credit increasing 2-3/4 percent and 5-1/2 percent, respectively. Consumer credit increased at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 6-1/2 percent in the fourth quarter and at a rate of 5 percent in December.

As you can see that is greater than economic growth but much less exposed than my own country the UK as not only is the rate of expansion lower but the rate of economic growth which was confirmed at an annualised 3.4% for the third quarter yesterday is higher.

However if we look into the detail we can note signs of trouble in the car loans sector which has grown to US $1.155 trillion. The growth rate has roughly halved in terms of annual dollar increases from the 75-80 billion it was in 2014-16 to 37 and 41 billion in the last two years respectively. We know that the industry has done its best to halt the decline with measures such as the “extend and pretend” methodology as some car loans last 8 years. So there are signs of the market signing along with Lyndsey Buckingham.

I think I’m in trouble,
I think I’m in trouble.

On that subject let me add get well soon to Lyndsey.

Comment

Whilst we do not have the numbers for the fourth quarter due to the government shut down we do have this from the Atlanta Federal Reserve.

The GDPNow model estimate for real GDP growth (seasonally adjusted annual rate) in the fourth quarter of 2018 is 1.4 percent on February 21, down from 1.5 percent on February 14. After this morning’s advance durable manufacturing report from the U.S. Census Bureau, the nowcast of fourth-quarter real nonresidential equipment investment growth declined from 4.5 percent to 3.9 percent.

As you can see that would be quite a lowing from what we saw earlier in 2018 and if we switch to the New York Fed its tracker for first quarter data released so far has US GDP growing at 1.1%. Putting all this another way this brings me back to my article on the 12th of this month as I mulled how the super massive black hole of QE to infinity seemed to be sucking us all in as we approach the event horizon. For us to avoid it we will need this from the Stranglers.

Something’s happening and it’s happening right now
You’re too blind to see it
Something’s happening and it’s happening right now
Ain’t got time to wait
I said something better change
I said something better change
I said something better change
I said something better change

This looks like the end of the interest-rates rising cycle

This feels like one of those days where there has been an epoch shift or to be more specific the morning after the night before. It is not as if we have been caught by surprise, as unlike so many have been ahead of the curve about the world economic slow down, and hence the implications for interest-rates and monetary policy. But there will be much wider implications from this as we go forwards and let us start from the fact that the biggest economic decision of 2019 may have just been made by a technocrat.

What happened?

The US Federal Reserve is significant on several counts. There is the ordinary significance of it being responsible for monetary policy in the world’s largest economy and for its reserve currency. There has recently been an additional one as it has been the standard-bearer for voluntarily raising interest-rates. Yet last night we got a combination of this.

 the Committee decided to maintain the target range for the federal funds rate at 2-1/4 to 2-1/2 percent……… In light of global economic and financial developments and muted inflation pressures, the Committee will be patient as it determines what future adjustments to the target range for the federal funds rate may be appropriate to support these outcomes.

No great surprise in the lack of a move last night but the promises that peaked at 3-4 interest-rate increases in 2019 have morphed into “will be patient” or perhaps 0. Then there was an additional statement which copied a part of what has become the European Central Bank model.

The Committee is prepared to adjust any of the details for completing balance sheet normalization in light of economic and financial developments. Moreover, the Committee would be prepared to use its full range of tools, including altering the size and composition of its balance sheet, if future economic conditions were to warrant a more accommodative monetary policy than can be achieved solely by reducing the federal funds rate.

So what has been called Quantitative Tightening or QT where some of the bonds bought previously are allowed to run off has run out of steam or “economic and financial developments”. The use of the word financial is significant as frankly it only reinforces the view that past falls in equity markets have driven this and we do get a flicker of democratic involvement ( I will leave readers to decide if that is good or bad) as of course they upset President Trump.

Next comes something which regular readers will know is something I have long suspected which is that in any slow down QE4 will come down the slipway. Or to be more specific the Federal Reserve balance sheet will no longer be contracting but will be expanded again. A particular significance of this will be that it could start with the balance sheet already being over US $4 Trillion in size.

There are various consequences of all of this. Two of them are major themes of my work with one of them being the earliest. As central banks went “all in” in terms of monetary policy I feared they would delay any exit policy and thus end up in the wrong cycle. The Fed deserves some credit for at least trying ( unlike so many others) but if not too little it was too late. Next is the issue of “junkie culture” where I feared we would be unable to wean ourselves off cheap credit and yields well that looks like where we are at right now. Some of you deserve credit for pointing out that the “new normal” would mean interest-rates would not go above 3% as that is looking rather en vogue today. That is in spite of the annualised economic growth rate being reported as 3.4% and the unemployment rate being reported as 3.9%.

Along this road the concept of independence of the US Federal Reserve and Chair Jerome Powell has folded like a deck chair, although some ( often ex-central bankers) retain a touching faith in the concept.

The Consequences

Equity Markets

The issue here is summarised to some extent by this tweet from James Mackintosh of the Wall Street Journal.

The FTSE 100 dividend yield ended 2018 3.5 percentage points above the 10-year Gilt yield, the most ever. One possibility: Market pricing risk of dividends being slashed after Brexit. Another: UK stocks are cheap. Or Gilt yields far too low.

After last nights Powell U-Turn whilst Gilt yields are in my opinion too low the reality is that going forwards they look more likely to stay there than before. Therefore on that measure the equity market looks cheap. Or to express it in another form the Yellen put for equity markets which replaced the Bernanke put has not been replaced by the Powell put option. This does not mean that they cannot fall but it does mean that monetary policy will do its best to stop them falling.

This brings us to the concept of the Plunge Protection Team a phrase I do use and sometimes I am joking. But this monetary policy  U-Turn following the way that Treasury Secretary Mnuchin spoke to the largest banks just before Christmas looks like a concerted effort.

Fiscal Policy

That to my mind has just seen a shift too and it comes from bond yields. Pressure for them to rise has just ended at least from one source. If you take the view that bond yields are the sum of expected future interest-rates then the latter has been shifting lower. If we stay with the US forecasts of 4% bond yields now face a reality of a ten-year Treasury Note yield of 2.67% and a thirty-year yield of 3.02%.

Thus fiscal policy just got cheaper and in some places it is currently very cheap if we look at a 1.24% ten-year Gilt yield in my country the UK and ultra-cheap if we look at Germany with its ten-year Bund yield of 0.18%. Let me offer you some thoughts on this.

  1. I know people like to laugh at the Donald but his fiscal plan of tax cuts has coincided with an economic slow down and now has got less expensive via lower bond yields.
  2. The concept of us all turning at least partly Japanese gets another tick in the box as they have never fully escaped the easing cycle either.
  3. Was the original plan of central bank “independence” to allow policies the politicians could never get away with?
  4. Ironically the countries that can most afford a fiscal boost such as Germany are those most set against it. Of course an element of its lower yields is due to its fiscal surplus but to my mind only a small bit.
  5. Politicians seem to be more in favour of fiscal policy when it is more expensive (higher bond yields) rather than cheaper. I cannot fully explain that but it often happens, perhaps they are just slow on the uptake.

Comment

There is a lot to consider here and the truth is some of this we have been observing over the last month or two as markets have adjusted to a newer reality. I have developed a new theory in the credit crunch era which is that conventional thought once it believes something takes quite some time to change after the evidence has shifted or the complete opposite of the famous quote attributed to JM Keynes.

When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do sir?

In reality many have continued on with thoughts about interest-rate rises in 2019 perhaps most bizarrely in the case of the ECB. Whereas for now central bankers seem to have Taylor Swift on repeat to sooth away any such thoughts.

We are never ever ever getting back together,
We are never ever ever getting back together,
You go talk to your friends, talk to my friends, talk to me
But we are never ever ever ever getting back together

 

 

 

The shift towards lower rather than higher interest-rates is beginning again

Yesterday was another poor day for the Forward Guidance provided by central bankers as we note developments in the US and UK. There was a flurry of media activity around the statement from Bank of England Governor that the Chinese Yuan could challenge the US Dollar as the world’s reserve currency, but really he was saying that it is a very long way away. So let us start with the US Federal Reserve and look back to September for its Forward Guidance. From Reuters.

Fed policymakers did not jack up their expectations for rate hikes in coming years, as some analysts had thought, instead sticking closely to rate hike path forecasts outlined in June that envision short-term rates, now at 2.0 percent to 2.25 percent, to be at 3.1 percent by the end of next year.

This suggested a couple of rate hikes in 2019 and at the beginning of December Bill Conerly stepped up the pace in Forbes Magazine.

My forecast for interest rates remains higher than the Fed’s September 2018 forecast. I expect the Fed Funds rate to end 2019 at 3.9%, and to end 2020 at 4.5%.

Bill seemingly had not got the memo about a slowing word and hence US economy as he reflected views which in my opinion were several months out of date as well as being extreme for even then. But what we were seeing was a reining back of forecasts of interest-rate rises. Putting that in theoretical terms the so-called neutral rate of interest showed all the flexibility of the natural rate of unemployment in that it means whatever the central bankers want it to mean.

Last Night events took another turn with the publication of the US Federal Reserve Minutes from December.

With regard to the post meeting statement, members agreed to modify the phrase “the Committee expects that further gradual increases” to read “the Committee judges that some further gradual increases.” The use of the word “judges” in the revised phrase was intended to better convey the data-dependency of the Committee’s decisions regarding the future stance of policy; the reference to “some” further gradual increases was viewed as helping indicate that, based on current information, the Committee judged that a relatively limited amount of additional tightening likely would be appropriate.

As you can see they have chosen the words “judges” and “some” carefully and the prospect of interest-rate increases this year has gone from a peak of 4 with maybe more in 2020 to perhaps none. Or for fans of Carly Rae Jepson it has gone from ” I really,really,really,really” will increase interest-rates to “Call Me Maybe”

Why? Well some may mull the idea of there being a form of Jerome Powell put option for the stock market.

Against this backdrop, U.S. stock prices were down nearly 8 percent on the period.

Widening that out it also reflected an economic weakening which has mostly got worse since.

Forward Guidance

This is supposed to help the ordinary consumer and business(wo)man but letting them know what the central bank plans to do. But to my mind this is of no use at all if they keep getting it wrong as the US Federal Reserve just has. In fact in terms of fixed-rate mortgages and loans they have been given exactly the wrong advice. Whereas we had reflected the changing outlook as I quote from my opening post for this year.

The problem is their starting point and for that all eyes turn to the central banks who have driven them there. Get ready for the claims that “it could not possibly have been expected” and “Surprise!Surprise!”

I find myself debating this on social media with supporters of central bank policy who mostly but not always are central banking alumni. They manage to simultaneously claim that Forward Guidance is useful but it does not matter if it is wrong, which not even the best contortionist could match.

Bank of England

The memo saying “the times they are a-changing” had not reached Bank of England Governor Mark Carney as he posted on the Future Forum yesterday afternoon.

 That’s why the MPC expect that any future increases in Bank Rate are likely to be at a gradual pace and to a limited extent.

He is still hammering away with his hints at higher interest-rates although he was also trying to claim that movements in interest-rates are nothing to do with him at all.

So in other words, low policy interest rates are not the caprice of central bankers, but rather the consequence of powerful global forces.

Makes you wonder why he and his 8 interest-rate setting colleagues are paid  some much if the main events are nothing to do with them doesn’t it? I somehow doubt that when a Bank of England footman handed a copy of Mark Carney’s Gilt-Edged CV to the World Bank that it was claiming that.

Governor Carney was in typical form in other ways too as he answered this question.

In your opinion, how likely is a large spike in Inflation in the near future?

For example in a lengthy answer he used the word inflation once but the word unemployment five times and did not mention inflation prospects/trends ( the question) at all! Better still the things which were apparently “the consequence of powerful global forces.” suddenly became due to his ilk.

Simulations using the Bank’s main forecasting model suggest that the Bank’s monetary policy measures raised the level of GDP by around 8% relative to trend and lowered unemployment by 4 percentage points at their peak. Without this action, real wages would have been 8% lower, or around £2,000 per worker per year, and 1.5 million more people would have been out of work.

As we note his slapping of his own back whilst blowing his own trumpet I zeroed in on the wage growth claim which appeared in another form much later.

Although it’s true that QE helped support asset prices, it also boosted job creation and wage growth.

There is a lot in that sentence but let us start with the wage growth issue. The reality is that real wage growth has been negative in the UK and worse than our economic peers. By propping up zombie banks and companies for example there are reasons to argue that the QE era has made things worse. But apparently in a stroke of magic it has made everything better! Now whilst correlation does not prove causation it is hard to argue you have made things better in a period where you have had a major impact and things have got worse.  Indeed  the more recent trend as the QE flow has slowed has been for wages to pick up.

Also there was the “helped support asset prices” point. This is welcome in its honesty but there have been times that the Bank of England ( in spite of its own research on the subject) has tried to deny this.

What about debt?

Back in 2016 Governor Carney told us.

This is not a debt-fuelled recovery.

Yesterday he changed his tune slightly.

 Recent growth in aggregate credit in the UK has been modest, growing a little faster than nominal GDP.

Notice the shift from real GDP to the invariably higher nominal GDP. Missing in action was any mention of unsecured credit which surged into double-digit annual growth in response to the Sledgehammer QE action of the Bank of England in the autumn of 2016 and is still growing at over 7%. Nor did the surge in student loans merit a mention unlike in this from Geoff Tily of the TUC last week.

Total unsecured debt has risen to £428 billion. At 30.4 per cent of household income, this is higher than before the financial crisis:

Comment

There is a fair bit to sweep up here but the main point is that we have developed bodies called independent that do the establishments bidding on a scale politicians themselves would never have got away with. Can you imagine politicians being able to buy trillions of their own debt?! Next we are told that they can help us with the future via Forward Guidance but that when it goes wrong it does not matter. The elastic of credibility just snapped.

In my own country the UK this was added to on LBC Radio where we were grandly told yesterday that someone who used to set UK interest-rates would be on air. When Ian McCafferty came on he seemed confused by the statement that the UK economy grew by 0.6% in the third quarter and sounded out of touch with events. For example in the early part of 2018 it was true that Germany and France were growing more quickly than the UK but as this morning has reminded us to say they are doing so now makes you look out of touch at best.

In November 2018, output slipped back sharply in the manufacturing industry (−1.4% after +1.4% in October) as well as in the whole industry (−1.3% after +1.3%). ( France-Insee ).

Perhaps he will offer a retraction like he had to do when he was on LBC last August. Meanwhile you know I often tell you never to believe anything until it is officially denied don’t you? From Governor Carney yesterday.

We have also made clear that we wouldn’t set negative interest rates – the Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee, which is responsible for setting Bank Rate, has said that the effective lower bound on Bank Rate is close to, but a little above, zero.

As a hint the lower bound was 0.5% until they cut to 0.25% ( and promised a cut to 0.1% in another Forward Guidance failure).

 

 

 

 

 

The US economy is slowing but how quickly?

A feature of recent times has been the way that economic growth forecasts have been trimmed somewhat. This morning has already seen two examples of that as the Swiss National Bank has suggested it will fall from 2.5% this year to 1.5% next, must be awkward that when your official interest-rate is already -0.75%. Next came the IFO Institute in Germany which did a little pruning to 1.5% this year and more of a short-back and sides to 1.1% in 2019. That provides some food for thought for the European Central Bank today as its largest economy slows.

The situation in the United States has been somewhat different, however, at least according to the official data. From the Bureau for Economic Analysis.

Real gross domestic product (GDP) increased at an annual rate of 3.5 percent in the third quarter of 2018 , according to the “second” estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. In the second quarter, real GDP increased 4.2 percent.

Yes it has slowed but to a rate most first world countries would currently give their right arm for. We can use the Atlanta Fed now cast to see where we stand this quarter.

The GDPNow model estimate for real GDP growth (seasonally adjusted annual rate) in the fourth quarter of 2018 is 2.4 percent on December 7, down from 2.7 percent on December 6.

They updated it on the basis of this new information.

The nowcast of fourth-quarter real final sales of domestic product growth decreased from 2.9 percent to 2.7 percent after this morning’s employment report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The nowcast of the contribution of inventory investment to fourth-quarter real GDP growth decreased from -0.23 percentage points to -0.33 percentage points after the employment report and this morning’s wholesale trade release from the U.S. Census Bureau.

So we see that whilst the level of economic growth remains relatively good the US has not escaped the cooling winds blowing.

Money Supply

This has proved to be a good guide to economic trends in 2018 and even better it remains widely ignored. Shorter-term trends are usually best encapsulated by narrow money so let us investigate last week’s monetary base data from the Federal Reserve which incorporates this.

The release also provides data on the monetary base, which includes currency in circulation and total balances maintained.

On the 5th of this month it was US $3.444 trillion but we immediately know that as Alicia Keys would say it has been Fallin’ as it was US $3.508 trillion on the 7th of November. We need to switch to the monthly numbers for an annual comparison and when we do so we see that in November it was 11% lower than a year before. If the phrase was not in use elsewhere this would be a credit crunch or to be more specific a type of cash crunch. Not a pure cash crunch as the currency in circulation has risen to US $1.705 trillion but reserve balances at the banks.

The fall has been driven by this.

For payments of principal that the Federal Reserve receives from maturing Treasury securities, the Committee anticipates that the cap will be $6 billion per month initially and will increase in steps of $6 billion at three-month intervals over 12 months until it reaches $30 billion per month…….For payments of principal that the Federal Reserve receives from its holdings of agency debt and mortgage-backed securities, the Committee anticipates that the cap will be $4 billion per month initially and will increase in steps of $4 billion at three-month intervals over 12 months until it reaches $20 billion per month.

As you can see it is the central bank which is sucking reserve balances out of the system as indeed it was it who pumped them up. In a broad sweep we see that the QE era took the monetary base from a bit under US $0.9 trillion to US $4.1 trillion and now is pulling it back down.

Personally I think the main effect is coming from the reductions in holdings of mortgage-backed securities so if we pro rata that we get a monetary base reduction of say 5% but that is still a crunch.

Interest-Rates

These have been rising in the US another 0.25% still seems likely next week. An intriguing way of putting the international perspective on this has been provided by the Bond Vigilantes website.

 the de facto global discount rate, the 2-year US Treasury bond yield, has risen by almost 100 basis points (bps) over the year, and thus repriced global assets.

Higher US interest-rates effect the world economy and thus have a second order effect on the US economy via trade. Then there are the domestic effects.

the US 30-year mortgage rate hit 4.8% recently, up from 3.3% in 2016. Whilst most existing homeowners, like corporates, will have locked in those cheap rates, new borrowers face costlier loans, and this is already having an impact: US housing and real estate data is surprising to the downside at a rate that exceeds that seen even in 2008 and 2009:

So there has been something of a squeeze on the real economy from this source as well, although it will have weakened recently as US Treasury Bond yields have fallen back from their peaks.

Fiscal Policy

As we mull the developments above it seems that the fiscal stimulus provided by President Trump was not as ill-conceived as some have claimed. Of course views vary about fiscal stimuli as for example they are apparently good for France but bad for Italy. But the Donald has provided one into a slow down which has at least some of the textbook rationale. Where matters get more complex is the fact that the US has so far only really seen its boom slow and other countries such as Germany make a stronger case. But if we skip the absolute level argument the Donald does appear to have spotted the direction of travel.

Comment

We see that the US has not in fact escaped the economic changes in 2018 but it has had an advantage from starting at a higher level of economic growth. But the monetary data is applying a squeeze as are higher interest-rates and as ever we find it impacting in familiar places.

Whenever you saw the supply of unsold homes reach 7 months, a recession followed. It certainly did in 2008, despite the consensus of economic forecasters believing that economic growth would be 2.4% – it was actually negative. Why should we worry now? Well, the supply of unsold new homes is… 7.4 months (blue line).  (BondVigilantes )

That will trouble the US Federal Reserve as will this development.

BKX not far from yesterday’s low. There’s a real problem with the banks. And I don’t think I’m being an alarmist by simply saying something might be going on here that we don’t know about. ( @selling_theta )

Worries about the housing market and the banks? We know how central banks usually respond to those so no wonder the US Fed has cooled on future interest-rate rises. QE4 anyone?

 

 

 

 

The problematic nature of current bond yields

One of the features of the credit crunch era has been the falls in first world interest-rates and bond yields. The first phase saw the slashing of official short-term interest-rates and once that was seen to be inadequate, central banks directly purchased bonds to reduce yields further. It is seldom put like this but there was already an implied failure as according to the models back then the interest-rate cuts should have done the trick. Back then I was already looking ahead to when there would have to be ch-ch-changes and posted the view that central banks would delay what has become called policy normalisation.

For example back on the 24th of February 2011 I pointed out this about a speech from David Miles of the Bank of England.

 My problem with this is that when you act as they have and you have in effect used what weapons the Bank of England has virtually to the maximum by cutting interest-rates by 4.75%% and spending some £200 billion on asset purchases then you have been extraordinarily interventionist. Accordingly it is then hard for you to blame events because some of them are the consequence of your own actions……

What that illustrates is that already the truth was being manipulated and also I am glad I wrote “virtually to the maximum” as of course the amount of asset purchases has more than doubled. In addition we have seen credit easing in the UK via such policies as the Term Funding Scheme and the start of full-scale QE from the European Central Bank as well as negative interest-rates.

But the point about delaying proved to be very accurate as the Euro area is still actively pursuing QE and in net terms the UK has managed to raise interest-rates by a measly 0.25%. The opportunity in 2014/15 was meant with promises via Forward Guidance but no action.

The US

This is the one country which has taken clear action on the path to normalisation. Here is the current state of play.

In view of realized and expected labor market conditions and inflation, the Committee decided to maintain the target range for the federal funds rate at 2 to 2-1/4 percent.

That is currently working out be be around 2.2% and more rises are promised. Also there is some reversing of the QE or Qualitative Tightening.

The Committee directs the Desk to continue
rolling over at auction the amount of principal
payments from the Federal Reserve’s holdings
of Treasury securities maturing during each
calendar month that exceeds $30 billion, and to
continue reinvesting in agency mortgage-backed
securities the amount of principal
payments from the Federal Reserve’s holdings
of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed
securities received during each calendar month
that exceeds $20 billion.

That combined with forecasts of another interest-rate rise in a fortnight and at least a couple next year seemed to put pressure on bond markets. However this sentence in a speech from Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell shook things up on the 28th of last month and the emphasis is mine.

We therefore began to raise our policy rate gradually toward levels that are more normal in a healthy economy. Interest rates are still low by historical standards, and they remain just below the broad range of estimates of the level that would be neutral for the economy‑‑that is, neither speeding up nor slowing down growth.

You may note we seem to have travelled from “policy normalisation” to neutral. But what the neutral interest-rate represents is an attempt to figure out what interest-rate would neither stimulate or contract the economy. Or a sort of measure of what we might aim for as a new normal. When they are trying to put a pseudo scientific gloss on things economist and central bankers call it r-squared.

However the “just below” dropped the expected path for US interest-rates by 0.5%.

Bond Markets

Let me take you to the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday.

This quarter, yields on longer-dated bonds have dropped and those on two-year Treasurys are flat. The gap between two and 10-year Treasury yields is now around 0.11 percentage point, compared with around 0.55 percentage point at the beginning of the year.

This is attracting a lot of attention in the financial media but the change of 0.44% is pretty much my 0.5% suggestion above. Now let us look at the US ten-year yield which is 2.9% as I type this and we see that in basic terms it is predicting a couple more 0.25% interest-rate rises. This will come in the next year or so if true so it is not very different to the two-year yield of 2.76%.

If we look beyond Federal Reserve policy we have seen a fall in the price of oil over the past month or two. If we look at it in Brent Crude terms then just above US $86 of early October has been replaced by below US $59 this morning as oil follows equity markets lower. The exact amount of the change varies but the path for inflation now seems set to be lower as it has been rare in 2018 for the oil price to be below where it was this time last year. That is another reason for lower bond yields.

Is this a signal of a recession? Here is the St.Louis Fed from last week.

Does the recent flattening of the yield curve portend recession? Not necessarily. The flattening of the real yield curve may simply reflect the fact that real consumption growth is not expected to accelerate or decelerate from the present growth rate of about 1 percent year over year. On the other hand, a 1 percent growth rate is substantially lower than the U.S. historical average of 2 percent. Because of this, the risk that a negative shock (of comparable magnitude to past shocks) sends the economy into technical recession is increased.

That is a fascinating way of looking at it and in my experience precisely zero bond market participants will look at it like that. It is also revealing that we seem to just assume growth will now be lower. Didn’t they save us?

Comment

I wanted to look at this subject today because of the clear changes which are happening. Now it looks much less likely that US interest-rates will pass 3% and if they do not by much. So “normalisation” will be at best about two-thirds of what it might have been considered to be pre credit crunch ( 4.5%). Some of you have suggested that we can no longer afford interest-rates and yields above 3% so well done at least if we stay where we are! If Italy folds you may get a second tick in that box.

But as we look wider we see even more extraordinary developments. Let me take a look at my own country the UK which is in political disarray yet the ten-year Gilt yield is below 1.3%. So those predicting a surge in Gilt yields are slipping back into the bushes whilst I note the extraordinary absolute level and the persistence of negative real yields which bust past metrics. Germany has a ten-year yield of 0.26% and a five-year one of -0.3% as we note again more metrics which are busted.

So my view is that we cannot rely on old recession metrics because another cause of all of this is that QE4 from the US Fed has got closer. I have worried all along that interest-rate rises might run into more QE and if they do we will be singing along to Coldplay.

Oh no I see
A spider web and it’s me in the middle
So I twist and turn
Here am I in my little bubble