Higher bond yields and higher inflation mean higher national debt costs

The last week or so has brought a theme of this blog back to life and reminds me of the many years I spent working in bond markets. They have spent much of the credit crunch era being an economic version of the dog that did not bark. Much of that has been due to the enormous scale of the QE ( Quantitative Easing) sovereign bond buying policies of many of the major central banks. The politicians who came up with the idea of making central banks independent and then staffing them with people who were anything but should be warmly toasted by their successors. The successors would never have got away with a policy which has benefited them enormously in terms of ability to spend because of lower debt costs.

Italy

However the times are now a-changing and this morning has brought more bad news on this front from Italy. The BTP bond future for December has fallen to 120 which means it has lost a bit over 7 points over the last ten or eleven days. Putting that into yield terms it means that the ten-year yield has reached 3.5% which has a degree of symbolism. A factor in this is described by the Financial Times.

The commission issued its warning to the Five Star and League governing coalition after Rome deviated from the EU’s fiscal rules by proposing a budget deficit equivalent to 2.4 per cent of gross domestic product instead of the 1.6 per cent previously mooted by the finance minister Giovanni Tria. Although the new plans keep Italy under the EU’s 3 per cent deficit threshold, the country’s high debt levels — the highest in the eurozone after Greece — means Rome is required to cut spending to bring debt levels gradually lower.

However the chart below tells us that in fact you can look at it from another point of view entirely.

Actually I think that the situation is more pronounced than that as the ECB has bought 356 billion Euros worth. But you get the idea. It is hard not to think that a major factor in the recent falls is the halving of ECB QE purchases since the beginning of this month and to worry about their end in the New Year. In case you were wondering why the share prices of Italian banks have been tumbling again recently? The fact they have been buying in size in 2018 when one of the trades of 2018 has been to sell Italian bonds gives quite a clue.

If we switch to the consequences for debt costs then a rough rule of thumb is to multiply the 3.5% by the national debt to GDP ratio of 1.33 which gives us 4.65%. In practice this takes time as there is a large stock of debt and the impact from new debt takes time. For example Italy issued 2 billion Euros of its ten-year on the 28th of last month at 2.9%. So a fair bit less than now although much more expensive that it had got used too. This below from the Italian Treasury forecasts gives an idea of how the higher yields impact over time.

The redemptions in 2018 are approximately €184 billion (excluding BOTs) including approximately
€3 billion in relation to the international programme……..the average life of the stock of
government securities, which was 6.9 years at the end of 2017.

Oh and the tipping point below has been reached. From the Wall Street Journal.

Harvinder Sian, a bond strategist at Citigroup, thinks a 10-year yield of 3.5%-4% is now the tipping point, after which yields jump toward the 7% reached at the height of the last euro crisis

Personally I am not so sure about tipping point as the “gentlemen of the spread” ( with apologies to female bond traders) have been selling it at quite a rate anyway.

 

The United States

Here bond yields have been rising recently and let us take the advice of President Trump and look at what has happened during his term of office. Whilst back then Newsweek was busy congratulating Madame President Hilary Clinton my attention was elsewhere.

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%.

We see that it has risen in the Trump era to 3.4% although maybe not by as much as might have been expected. However if we look to shorter maturities we see a much stronger impact.For example the two-year now yields some 2.9% and the five-year some 3.07%. So if you read about flat yield curves this is what is meant although it is not (yet) literally true as there is a 0.5% difference. Thus the US now faces a yield of circa 3% or so looking ahead. This does have an impact as the New York Times has pointed out.

The federal government could soon pay more in interest on its debt than it spends on the military, Medicaid or children’s programs.

In terms of numbers this is what they think.

Within a decade, more than $900 billion in interest payments will be due annually, easily outpacing spending on myriad other programs. Already the fastest-growing major government expense, the cost of interest is on track to hit $390 billion next year, nearly 50 percent more than in 2017, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

If we switch to the Congressional Budget Office it breaks down some of the influences at play here.From its September report.

Outlays for net interest on the public debt increased by $62 billion (or 20 percent), partly because of a higher rate of inflation.

The CBO points out a factor the New York Times missed which is that countries with index-linked debt are also hit by higher inflation. As the US has some US $1.38 trillion of these it is a considerable factor.

Also the US is borrowing more.

The federal budget deficit was $782 billion in fiscal year 2018, the Congressional Budget Office estimates,
$116 billion more than the shortfall recorded in fiscal year 2017………The 2018 deficit equaled an estimated 3.9 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), up from 3.5 percent in
2017. (If not for the timing shifts, the 2018 deficit would have equaled 4.1 percent of GDP.)

Higher bond yields combined with higher fiscal deficits mean more worries about this factor.

At 78 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), federal
debt held by the public is now at its highest level since
shortly after World War II. If current laws generally
remained unchanged, the Congressional Budget Office
projects, growing budget deficits would boost that
debt sharply over the next 30 years; it would approach
100 percent of GDP by the end of the next decade and
152 percent by 2048 . That amount would
be the highest in the nation’s history by far.

I counsel a lot of caution with this as 2048 will have all sorts of things we cannot think of right now. But the debt is heading higher in the period we can reasonably project and I note the CBO is omitting the debt held by the US Federal Reserve so that QE would make the figures look better but the current QT makes it look worse.

Comment

Debt costs and the associated concept of the mythical bond vigilantes have been in a QE driven hibernation but they seem to be showing signs of waking up. If we look at today’s two examples we see different roads to the destination. If we look at the road to Rome we see that the longer-term factor has been the lost decades involving a lack of economic growth. This has made it vulnerable to rising bond yields and which means that the straw currently breaking the camel’s back has been what is a very small fiscal shift. It is also a case of bad timing as it has taken place as the ECB departs the bond purchases scene.

The US is different in that it has a much better economic growth trajectory but has a President who has also primed the fiscal pumps. Should it grow strongly then the Donald will win “bigly” as he will no doubt let us know. However should economic growth weaken or the long overdue recession appear then the debt metrics will slip away quite quickly. That is a road to QE4.

Returning back home I note that UK Gilt yields are higher with the ten-year passing 1.7% last week for the first time for a few years.So the collar is a little tighter.The main impact on the UK came from the rise in inflation in 2017 leading to higher index-linked debt costs. This was the main factor in our annual debt costs rising by around £10 billion between 2015/16 and 2017/18.

 

 

 

 

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Will real wage growth ever go back to “normal”?

A constant theme of the credit crunch era is the unwillingness of the establishment to accept that past economic theories need to be put as a minimum on the back burner. Two examples of that are the concepts of full employment and the related one of the output gap. If we start with the former that does not mean that everyone is employed as the “man from Mars” from Blondie’s song rapture might think. It involves allowing for what is not entirely pleasantly called frictional unemployment, for example of individuals temporarily between jobs. There is an obvious problem with measuring that but as we discover so often the Ivory Towers are seldom troubled by issues like that.

The output gap was something of a simple concept around comparing actual output with potential. However supporters were invariably in the group who argued there was a large amount of lost output from the credit crunch and this end gamed themselves as we are still well below that and may always be. The Bank of England Ivory Tower dropped that and instead kept telling us we had an output gap of circa 1.25% of GDP. In the end they decided to drop as it was always 1.25% or so and switched to employment as a measure. Why? Well in the UK like more than a few other places it boomed so they could shoehorn their theory into a different version of reality. Sadly for them they have made fools of themselves as their estimates began at 7% unemployment went very quickly to 6,5% and are now at 4.25%. Or if you prefer silly,sillier and so far at least silliest.

Reality

The problem for all of the above has been shown in Nihon or the land of the rising sun. There the unemployment rate has fallen as low as 2.2% this year and in August was 2.4% How can it be half the natural/full rate? Please address that question to Threadneedle Street. Whilst there are suspicions about the accuracy of unemployment rates there are also other signals of what in the past would have been called an overheating jobs market. From the Japan Times last week.

The percentage of working-age women with jobs in Japan reached a record high of 70 percent in August, government data showed Friday………The figure for women in work between ages 15 and 64 is at the highest level since comparable data became available in 1968 and compares with 83.9 percent for working-age men,

Other measures such as the job offers to applicant ratio going comfortably above 2 signal a very strong labour market and yet this morning we have seen this. From Reuters.

 Japanese workers’ inflation-adjusted real wages fell in August for the first time in four months……..The 0.6 percent decline in real wages in August from a year earlier followed a revised 0.5 percent annual increase in July, labor ministry data showed on Friday.

This is a rather awkward reality for those who have trumpeted a change in Japan in line with the two economic theories described above, and I note a lack of mentions on social media. If we look into the detail we see this.

Nominal cash earnings rose 0.9 percent year-on-year in August, slower than a revised 1.6 percent annual increase in July.

The average level of monthly earnings is 276,266 Yen or a bit under £1900. The highest paid industry was the utility sector at 438,025 Yen and the worst-paid was the hotel and restaurant sector at 123,405 Yen. The fall can be looked at  from two perspectives of which the first is a fall in bonuses of 7.4% and the next is that the numbers were pulled down by falls in the care sector (3.8%) and education (3.6%).

As to the surge ( real wages rose at an annual rate of 2.5% in June) it was as we believed.

Major Japanese firms typically pay bonuses twice a year, once during the summer and once near year’s end…….Summer bonuses boosted real wages in June.

This morning has also brought a confirmation of why this is good.

Japanese households increased their spending at the fastest rate in three years in August as consumers made more costly purchases, government data showed Friday.

Spending by households with two or more people rose 2.8 percent from a year earlier, after adjusting for inflation, to ¥292,481, the largest increase since August 2015, the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry said. ( Japan Times)

But that will now rend to fade away after the welcome bonuses are spent. Sadly the output gap style theories are unlikely to fade away as reality is always “Tis but a scratch” along the lines of the Black Knight in Monty Python.

The UK

In the UK we keep being told that wage growth is just around the corner. From the REC this morning.

Starting salaries for people placed into permanent
jobs increased at the quickest pace since April 2015
during September. Hourly rates of pay for temp staff
also rose at a faster pace than in the preceding
month.

The strongest area was this.

IT & Computing remained the most in-demand
category for permanent staff in September.

Perhaps it is the banks finally waking up to the all the online outages and problems. But the problem is that a sustained rise keeps being just around the corner. In its desperation to justify its theories the Bank of England switched to private-sector regular pay in its attempt to find any reality fitting the work of its Ivory Tower. But if you pick a sub-section it has to eventually fire up the overall numbers to be significant and the picture there is that total wage growth has surged from 2.8% in January to 2.6% in July. Oh hang on…..

Or real wage growth is somewhere around 0% on the official inflation measures or negative on the “discredited” RPI which gives a higher reading.

The US

Today brings the labour market data for September but until then we are left with this.

In August, average hourly earnings for all employees on private nonfarm payrolls rose by 10 cents to $27.16. Over the year, average hourly earnings have increased by 77
cents, or 2.9 percent.

August was a good month but if we switch to the annual rate but we see that even in an economy that according to the GDP nowcasts is keeping up its 4% per annum growth rate wages are struggling to break 3%. The US economy has recovered better than most and is doing well now and yet wage growth has not followed much. Real wage growth is as you can see minimal.

Over the last 12 months, the all items
index rose 2.7 percent before seasonal adjustment.

According to the Financial Post it is a case of O Canada as well.

Over the three years he’s been in power, real wages have averaged annual gains of just 0.3 per cent, versus 1 per cent the previous decade.

Comment

A feature of the credit crunch era continues to be the attempt to ignore the more uncomfortable aspects of reality. There is welcome news in the way that employment levels recovered but the price of that seems to have been weak wage growth and especially real wage growth. This afternoon that number from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics will be poured over again for that reason. The big picture though comes from David Bowie.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes
Turn and face the strange
Ch-ch-changes
Where’s your shame?
You’ve left us up to our necks in it

 

We have a serious problem with real wages

One of the features of the early days of this website was the fact that there were regular replies/comments suggesting that wages and earnings would continue to be a problem for some time. I doff my cap to those who first suggested it as it has become a theme of the credit crunch era. This means that your unofficial Forward Guidance was vastly more accurate and useful than those paid to do it. Here is an example from back then (Summer 2010) from the grandly named Office for Budget Responsibility or OBR.

Wages and salaries growth rises gradually throughout the forecast, reaching 5½ percent in 2014.

That to borrow from Star Wars seems like something from “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….”. It is even worse if we look at the situation in terms of real wages as the OBR forecast that it would be on target, so we see that real wage growth would be 3% per annum. Happy days indeed! But it was just an illusion.

The scale of that illusion was illustrated by this from Geoff Tily of the Trade Union Congress or TUC earlier this week.

So in the decade before the first TUC meeting in 1868, real wages had fallen by 0.1%. Since then, only the decade to 2018 has seen a worse performance, with real wages down by a whopping 4.4%.

So rather than the sunlit uplands suggested by the OBR we have seen a much more grim reality. As an aside this brings us back to the problem of “experts”. In my opinion you deserve that label if you get things right, for example aircraft designers as air travel is very safe. Whereas official economics bodies are regularly wrong and therefore in spite of the lauding they get from the media do not deserve such a label. I also note that those who debate that issue with me and claim that it does not matter the forecasts are wrong (!) are often from the group that have hopes of gaining employment in this area.

Discovering Japan

This morning has brought more news on wage growth in Japan but before we get to it we need to set the scene. This is because the land of the rising sun has been anything but in terms of wage growth. Or as Japan Macro Advisers put it.

Wages in Japan has been steadily falling in Japan since 1998. Between 1997 and 2012, wages have declined by 12.5%, or by 0.9% per year on average.

Japan has been the leader of the pack in a race nobody wants to win. It also provided a warning which has come in two guises. Firstly the concept of real wages falling in a first world industrialised country and secondly the very long period for which this has been sustained. This is one of the major players in the concept of the lost decade for Japan which in this regard has now lasted for two of them.

This was a driver between the original claims for Abenomics where ending the deflationary mindset was supposed involve higher wage growth. In reality the performance is shown by the official real wage index which was set at 100 in 2015 and was 100.5 last year. So very little growth and in fact a reduction on the 101 of 2014. But hope springs eternal and we know that May and especially June were much better so here is Reuters on this morning’s release of the July data.

Separate data showed Japanese workers’ inflation-adjusted real wages rose 0.4 percent in July from a year earlier, marking a third consecutive month of gains.

What this tells us is that as the bonus season is passing the better phase was for bonuses and nor regular wages or salaries. So whilst the news is welcome it is not the new dawn that some have tried to present it as. Indeed tucked away in the Reuters report is a major issue in this area.

 firms remain wary of raising wages, despite reaping record profits.

The link between companies doing well and wages rising in response has been broken for a while now. Earlier this week Japan Press Weekly was on the case.

Finance Ministry statistics released on September 3 show that in 2017, large corporations with more than one billion yen in capital increased their internal reserves by 22.4 trillion yen to a record 425.8 trillion yen.

Compared with the previous year, big businesses’ current profit was inflated by 4.8 trillion yen to 57.6 trillion yen, 2.3 times larger than that in 2012 when Prime Minister Abe made his comeback. The remuneration for each board member was 19.3 million yen a year, up 600,000 yen from a year earlier. Meanwhile, workers’ annual income stood at 5.75 million yen on average, down 54,000 yen from the previous year.

The section about the rise in profits for big businesses under Abenomics resonates because the critique of his first term was exactly that. He benefited Japan Inc and big business.

The United States

Later today we get the non farm payrolls release from the US telling us more about wage growth. But as we stand in spite of the fact the US economy has had a good 2018 so far the state of play is a familiar one.

Real average hourly earnings decreased 0.2 percent, seasonally adjusted, from July 2017 to July 2018.
Combining the change in real average hourly earnings with the 0.3-percent increase in the average
workweek resulted in a 0.1-percent increase in real average weekly earnings over this period.

Indeed if we look back as Pew Research has done we see that real wage growth has been absent for some time.

A similar measure – the “usual weekly earnings” of employed, full-time wage and salary workers – tells much the same story, albeit over a shorter time period. In seasonally adjusted current dollars, median usual weekly earnings rose from $232 in the first quarter of 1979 (when the data series began) to $879 in the second quarter of this year, which might sound like a lot. But in real, inflation-adjusted terms, the median has barely budged over that period: That $232 in 1979 had the same purchasing power as $840 in today’s dollars.

There have been gains in benefits but not wages over these times.

The Euro area

The Czech National Bank has looked at this and we see an ever more familiar drumbeat.

 In the euro area, nominal wage growth was 1.7% in 2017 Q4, while real wages were broadly flat.

This comes with factors you might expect ( Italy) but also I note Spain which is doing well.

In Italy, by contrast, hourly wages dropped both in nominal terms and in real terms (i.e. adjusted for consumer price inflation). Spain and Austria also recorded wage decreases in real terms.

Also they are not particularly optimistic looking forwards.

However, the wage growth outlooks available for the euro area and especially for Germany do not see wages accelerating significantly any time soon.

We could apply that much wider.

Comment

The message today was explained by Bob Dylan many years ago.

There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’

The truth is that the economics profession has been slow to realise that not only would the credit crunch reduce wage growth, but that it was already troubled. Only last night in a reply to a comment I referred to Deputy Governor Wilkins of the Bank of Canada spinning the same old song.

Yet, wages were rising less quickly than we would expect in an economy that is near capacity.

The same old “output gap” mantra when in fact the reality is of inflation at 3% and wages growth at 2.5%.

To be fair some places do seem to be adjusting as the Czech National Bank faces up to an issue that the UK economics establishment continually assures us is not true.

Migration from Eastern Europe, Italy and Spain,3 which has increased mainly because of the financial and debt crisis, is playing a major role. Workers from these countries are increasing the labour supply and perhaps exerting less upward pressure on wages than incumbents. ( They are referring to German wage growth).

Some however seem to inhabit an entirely different universe as this op-ed from November last year in The Japan Times shows.

Thinning labor puts upward pressure on wages, increasing living standards……

 

Let me leave you with an optimistic thought. As I watched the AI documentaries on BBC Four this week I wondered if rather than fearing it we should have hopes for it. Maybe the rise of the machines will be fairer than our current overlords.

 

Where next for US monetary policy?

So much of the economic news in 2018 has related to developments in the US economy. In particular monetary policy as the world has found itself adjusting to what is called these days a “normalisation” of policy in the United States. To my mind that poses the immediate question of what is normal now? I am sure we can all agree that monetary policy has been abnormal over the past decade or so but along that path it has also begun to feel normal. People up to the age of ten will know no different and if we allow some time to be a child maybe even those at university regard what we have now as normal. After all they will have grown up in a world of low and then negative interest-rates. The media mostly copy and paste the official pronouncements that tell us it has been good for us and “saved” the economy.

I am thinking this because the US Federal Reserve last night gave a hint that it thinks something else may be the new normal.

The staff provided a briefing that summarized its analysis
of the extent to which some of the Committee’s monetary
policy tools could provide adequate policy accommodation
if, in future economic downturns, the policy
rate were again to become constrained by the effective
lower bound (ELB)

This begs various questions of which the first is simply as we have just been through the biggest trial ever of such policies surely they know them as well as they ever will? Next comes another troubling thought which is the rather odd theory that you need to raise interest-rates now so that you have room to cut them later. This is something which is not far off bizarre but seems to be believed by some. Personally I think you should raise interest-rates when you think there are good reasons for doing so as otherwise you are emulating the Grand Old Duke of York. Also there are costs to moving interest-rates so if you put them up to bring them down you have made things worse not better.

You may also note that the Zero Lower Bound or ZLB  has become the ELB with Effective replacing zero. Is there a hint here that the US would be prepared to move to negative interest-rates next time around? After all we exist in a world where in spite of the recorded recovery we still have negative interest-rates in parts of Europe and in Japan. Indeed the -0.4% deposit rate at the ECB has survived what the media have called the “Euroboom”.

Effective Lower Bound

There are some odd statements to note about all of this. For example.

Accordingly,in their view, spells at the ELB could become
more frequent and protracted than in the past, consistent
with the staff’s analysis.

Seeing as we have been there precisely once what does “more frequent” actually mean? Also considering how long we were there the concept of it being even more protracted is not a little chilling if we consider what that implies. Also this next bit is not a little breathtaking when we consider the scale of the application of the policy “toolkit”

They also emphasized that there was considerable uncertainty about the economic effects of these tools. Consistent with that view, a few participants noted that economic researchers had not yet reached a consensus about the effectiveness of unconventional policies.

I do not know about you but perhaps they might have given that a bit more thought before they expanded the Federal Reserve balance sheet to above 4 trillion dollars! As to possible consequences let me link two different parts of their analysis which would give me sleepless nights if I had implemented such policies.

A number of participants indicated that there might be significant costs associated with the use of unconventional policies……….. That decline was viewed as likely driven by various factors, including slower trend growth of the labor force and productivity as well as increased demand for safe assets.

Policy Now

This is the state of play for interest-rates.

The Committee expects that further gradual increases in the target range for the federal funds rate will be consistent with sustained expansion of economic activity,

How far? Well Robert Kaplan of the Dallas Fed gave a road map on Tuesday.

With the current fed funds rate at 1.75 to 2 percent, it would take approximately three or four more federal funds rate increases of a quarter of a percent to get into the range of this estimated neutral level.

At this stage, I believe the Federal Reserve should be gradually raising the fed funds rate until we reach this neutral level.

So circa 2.5% is the target and that seems to have been accepted by the bond market as we see the ten-year Treasury Note yield at 2.82% and the thirty-year Treasury Bond yield at 2.98%. When you read about the “yield curve” and in particular reports of it being flattish this is what they mean as we have a difference of a bit over 1% between the official interest-rate and the thirty-year bond.

There has been a lot of discussion about what this means but to my mind it simply means that the bond market has figured out where the US Federal Reserve intends to send interest-rates and has set prices in response. It will have noted the problems abroad that the interest-rate rises have contributed too and the discussions about possible future cuts and adjusted yields downwards. Whether that turns out to be right or wrong is a matter of opinion but to my mind whilst we have QT now ( the Federal Reserve balance sheet is being shrunk albeit relatively slowly) regular readers will be aware I think there are scenarios where interest-rates go up and the QE purchases begin again. Some such thoughts were perhaps on the mind of Robert Kaplan on Tuesday.

Despite the fact that the current economic expansion is the second longest in the postwar period, U.S. government debt held by the public now stands at 75.8 percent of GDP, and the present value of unfunded entitlements is estimated at approximately $54 trillion. The recent tax legislation and bipartisan budget compromise legislation are likely to exacerbate these issues. As a consequence of this level of debt, the U.S. is much less likely to have the fiscal capacity to fight the next recession.

Notice the reference to US debt held by the public which of course omits the holdings by the Fed itself.

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider here and so far I have left out two factors. The first is the Donald who has expressed a dislike for interest-rate rises but so far on a much more minor scale than say President Erdogan in Turkey. Next is the issue of the Dollar which is two-fold as in its exchange-rate and how many of them there are to go around. As to the dollar exchange rate then stormy times for the US President seem to have capped it for the short-term. But as to quantity the era of QT seems unsurprisingly to have reduced the supply around the world and therefore contributed to troubles in places which relied on there being plenty of them.

This brings us to the Jackson Hole symposium which starts today where central bankers gather to discuss what to do next. For example back in 2012 Micheal Woodford gave a speech about Forward Guidance which has now become an accepted part of the “toolkit”. Central bankers seem to inhabit a world where it is not a laughing-stock and instead is avidly received and listened to by an expectant population. This time around the official story is of “normalisation” as even the unreliable boyfriend has raised interest-rates albeit only a nervous once. Also the Swedes are again promising to reduce their negativity although that has become something of a hardy perennial.

But in the backrooms I suspect the conversation will shift to “what do we do next time?” when the next recession hits and for the market aware that may be added to by the recent price behaviour of Dr,Copper. On such a road the normalisation debate may suddenly become an Outkast.

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

The economic impact of the King Dollar in the summer of 2018

One of the problems of currency analysis is the way that when you are in the melee it is hard to tell the short-term fluctuation from the longer-term trend. It gets worse should you run into a crisis as Argentina found earlier this year as it raised interest-rates to 40% and still found itself calling for help from the International Monetary Fund. The reality was that it found itself caught out by a change in trend as the US Dollar stopped falling and began to rally. If we switch to the DXY index we see that the 88.6 of the middle of February has been replaced by 95.38 as I type this. At first it mostly trod water but since the middle of April it has been on the up.

Why?

If we ask the same question as Carly Simon did some years back then a partial answer comes from this from the testimony of Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell yesterday.

Over the first half of 2018 the FOMC has continued to gradually reduce monetary policy accommodation. In other words, we have continued to dial back the extra boost that was needed to help the economy recover from the financial crisis and recession. Specifically, we raised the target range for the federal funds rate by 1/4 percentage point at both our March and June meetings, bringing the target to its current range of 1-3/4 to 2 percent.

So the heat is on and looks set to be turned up a notch or two further.

 the FOMC believes that–for now–the best way forward is to keep gradually raising the federal funds rate.

One nuance of this is the way that it has impacted at the shorter end of the US yield curve. For example the two-year Treasury Bond yield has more than doubled since early last September and is now 2.61%. This means two things. Firstly if we stay in the US it is approaching the ten-year Treasury Note yield which is 2.89%. If you read about a flat yield curve that is what is meant although not yet literally as the word relatively is invariably omitted. Also that there is now a very wide gap at this maturity with other nations with Japan at -0.13% and Germany at -0.64% for example.

At this point you may be wondering why two-year yields matter so much? I think that the financial media is still reflecting a consequence of the policies of the ECB which pushed things in that direction as the impact of the Securities Markets Programme for example and negative interest-rates.

QT

QT or quantitative tightening is also likely to be a factor in the renewed Dollar strength but it represents something unusual. What I mean by that is we lack any sort of benchmark here for a quantity rather than a price change. Also attempts in the past were invariably implicit rather than explicit as interest-rates were raised to get banks to lend less to reduce the supply of Dollars or more realistically reduce the rate of growth of the supply. Now we have an explicit reduction and it has shifted to narrow ( the central banks balance sheet) money from broad money.

 In addition, last October we started gradually reducing the Federal Reserve’s holdings of Treasury and mortgage-backed securities. That process has been running smoothly.  ( Jerome Powell).

You can’t always get what you want

It may also be true that you can’t get what you need either which brings us to my article from March the 22nd on the apparent shortage of US Dollars. This is an awkward one as of course market liquidity in the US Dollar is very high but it is not stretching things to say that it is not enough for this.

Non-US banks collectively hold $12.6 trillion of dollar-denominated assets – almost as much as US banks…….Dollar funding stress of non-US banks was at the center of the GFC. ( GFC= Global Financial Crisis). ( BIS)

The issue faded for a bit but seems to be on the rise again as the Libor-OIS spread dipped but more recently has risen to 0.52 according to Morgan Stanley. What measure you use is a moving target especially as the Federal Reserve shifts the way it operates in interest-rate markets but they kept these for a reason.

In October 2013, the Federal Reserve and these central banks announced that their liquidity swap arrangements would be converted to standing arrangements that will remain in place until further notice.

Impact on the US economy

The situation here was explained by Federal Reserve Vice-Chair Stanley Fischer back in November 2015.

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.

Imports are affected but by less.

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.

And via both routes GDP

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.

The impact is slow to arrive meaning we are likely to be seeing the impact of a currency fall when it is rising and vice versa raising the danger of tripping over our own feet in analysis terms.

What happens to everyone else?

As the US Dollar remains the reserve currency if it rises everyone else will fall and so they will experience inflation in the price of commodities and oil. This is likely to have a recessionary effect via for example the impact on real wages especially as nominal wage growth seems to be even more sticky than it used to be.

Comment

Responses to the situation above will vary for example the Bank of Japan will no doubt be saying the equivalent of “Party on” as it will welcome the weakening of the Yen to around 113 to the US Dollar. The ECB is probably neutral as a weakening for the Euro offsets some of its past rise as it celebrates actually hitting its 2% inflation target which will send it off for its summer break in good spirits. The unreliable boyfriend at the Bank of England is however rather typically likely to be unsure. Whilst all Governors seem to morph into lower Pound mode of course it also means that people do not believe his interest-rate hints and promises. Meanwhile many emerging economies have been hit hard such as Argentina and Turkey.

In terms of headlines the UK Pound £ is generating some as it gyrates around US $1.30 which it dipped below earlier. In some ways it is remarkably stable as we observe all the political shenanigans. I think a human emotion is at play and foreign exchange markets have got bored with it all.

Another factor here is that events can happen before the reasons for them. What I mean by that was that the main US Dollar rise was in late 2014 which anticipated I think a shift in US monetary policy that of course was yet to come. As adjustments to that view have developed we have seen all sorts of phases and we need to remember it was only on January 25th we were noting this.

The recent peak was at just over 103 as 2016 ended so we have seen a fall of a bit under 14%

Back then the status quo was

Down down deeper and down

Whereas the summer song so far is from Aloe Blacc

I need a dollar, dollar
Dollar that’s what I need
Well I need a dollar, dollar
Dollar that’s what I need

Me on Core Finance

 

 

 

What is driving bond yields these days?

Yesterday brought us an example of how the military dictum of the best place to hide something is to put it in full view has seeped into economics. Let me show you what I mean with this from @LiveSquawk.

HSBC Cuts German 10-Year Bond Yield Forecast To 0.40% By End-2018 From 0.75% Previously, Cites Growth Worries, German Political Tensions Among Reasons – RTRS

Apart from the obvious humour element as these forecasts come and go like tumbleweed on a windy day there is the issue of how low this is. Actually if we move from fantasy forecasts to reality we find an even lower number as the ten-year yield is in fact 0.34% as I type this. This poses an issue to me on a basic level as we have gone through a period of extreme instability and yet this yield implies exactly the reverse.

Another way of looking at this is to apply the metrics that in my past have been used to measure such matters. For example you could look at economic growth.

Economic Growth

The German economy continued to grow also at the beginning of the year, though at a slower pace……. the gross domestic product (GDP) increased 0.3% – upon price, seasonal and calendar adjustment – in the first quarter of 2018 compared with the fourth quarter of 2017. This is the 15th quarter-on-quarter growth in a row, contributing to the longest upswing phase since 1991. Last year, GDP growth rates were higher (+0.7% in the third quarter and +0.6% in the fourth quarter of 2017). ( Destatis)

If we look at the situation we see that the economy is growing so that is not the issue and furthermore it has been growing for a sustained period so that drops out as a cause too. Yes economic growth has slowed but even if you assume that for the year you get ~1.2% and it has been 2.3% over the past year. Thus if you could you would invest any funds you had in an economic growth feature which no doubt the Ivory Towers are packed with! Of course it is not so easy in the real world.

So we move on with an uncomfortable feeling and not just be cause we are abandoning and old metric. There is the issue that we may be missing something. Was the credit crunch such a shock that we have yet to recover? Putting it another way if Forbin’s Rule is right and 2% recorded growth is in fact 0% for the ordinary person things fall back towards being in line.

Inflation

Another route is to use inflation to give us a real yield. This is much more difficult in practice than theory but let us set off.

 The inflation rate in Germany as measured by the consumer price index is expected to be 2.1% in June 2018. ( Destatis)

So on a basic look we have a negative real yield of the order of -1.7% which again implies an expectation of bad news and frankly more than just a recession. Much more awkward is trying to figure out what inflation will be for the next ten years.

This assessment is also broadly reflected in the June 2018 Eurosystem staff macroeconomic projections for the euro area, which foresee annual HICP inflation at 1.7% in 2018, 2019 and 2020.  ( ECB President Draghi)

That still leaves us quite a few years short and after its poor track record who has any faith that the ECB forecast above will be correct? The credit crunch era has been unpredictable in this area too with the exception of asset prices. But barring an oil price shock or the like real yields look set to be heavily negative for some time to come. This was sort of confirmed by Peter Praet of the ECB on Tuesday although central bankers always tell us this right up to and sometimes including the point at which it is obviously ridiculous.

well-anchored, longer-term inflation expectations,

 

The sum of short-term interest-rates

In many ways this seems too good to be true as an explanation as what will short-term interest-rates be in 2024 for example? But actually maybe it is the best answer of all. If like me you believe that President Draghi has no intention at all of raising interest-rates on his watch then we are looking at a -0.4% deposit rate until the autumn of 2019 as a minimum. Here we get a drag on bond yields for the forseeable future and what if there was a recession and another cut?

QE

This has been a large player and with all the recent rumours or as they are called now “sauces” about a European Operation Twist it will continue. For newer readers this involves the ECB slowing and then stopping new purchases but maintaining the existing stock of bonds. As the stock of German Bunds is just under 492 billion Euros that is a tidy sum especially if we note that Germany has been running a fiscal surplus reducing the potential supply. But as Bunds mature the ECB will be along to roll its share of the maturity into new bonds. Whilst it is far from the only  player I do wonder if markets are happy to let it pay an inflated price for its purchases.

Exchange Rate

This is a factor that usually applies to foreign investors. They mostly buy foreign bonds because they think the exchange rate will rise and in the past the wheels were oiled by the yield from the bond. Of course the latter is a moot point in the German bond market as for quite a few years out you pay rather than receive and even ten-years out you get very little.

Another category is where investors pile into perceived safe havens and like London property the German bond market has been one of this. If you are running from a perceived calamity then security really matters and in this instance getting a piece of paper from the German Treasury can be seen as supplying that need. In an irony considering the security aspect this is rather unstable to say the least but in practice it has worked at least so far.

Comment

We find that expectations of short-term interest-rates seem to be the main and at times the only player in town. An example of this has been provided in my country the UK only 30 minutes or so ago.

Britain’s economic strength shows a need for higher interest rates, Mark Carney says. ( Bloomberg)

Mark Carney prepares ground for August interest rate hike from Bank of England with ‘confident’ economic view ( The Independent).

The problem for the unreliable boyfriend who cried wolf is that he was at this game as recently as May and has been consistently doing so since June 2014. Thus we find that with the UK Gilt future unchanged on the day that such jawboning is treated with a yawn and the ten-year yield is 1.28%. If you look at the UK inflation trajectory and performance than remains solidly in negative territory. So the view here is that even if he does do something which would be quite a change after 4 years of hot air he would be as likely to reverse it as do any more.

The theory has some success in the US as well. We have seen rises in the official interest-rate and more seem to be on the way. The intriguing part of the response is that US yields seem to be giving us a cap of around 3% for all of this. Even the reality of the Trump tax cuts and fiscal expansionism does not seem to have changed this.

Is everything based on the short-term now?

As to why this all matters well they are what drive the cost of fixed-rate mortgages and longer term business lending as well as what is costs governments to borrow.

 

 

Trade Wars what are they good for?

This week trade is in the news mostly because of the Donald and his policy of America First. This has involved looking to take jobs back to America which is interesting when apparently the jobs situation is so good.

Our economy is perhaps BETTER than it has ever been. Companies doing really well, and moving back to America, and jobs numbers are the best in 44 years. ( @realDonaldTrump )

This has involved various threats over trade such as the NAFTA agreement primarily with Canada and Mexico and of course who can think of Mexico without mulling the plan to put a bit more than another brick in the wall? Back in March there was the Trans Pacific Partnership or TPP. From Politico.

While President Donald Trump announced steel and aluminum tariffs Thursday, officials from several of the United States’ closest allies were 5,000 miles away in Santiago, Chile, signing a major free-trade deal that the U.S. had negotiated — and then walked away from.

The steel and aluminium tariffs were an attempt to deal with China a subject to which President Trump has returned only recently. From the Financial Times.

Equities sold off and havens firmed on Tuesday after Donald Trump ordered officials to draft plans for tariffs on a further $200bn in Chinese imports should Beijing not abandon plans to retaliate against $50bn in US duties on imports announced last week.

According to the Peterson Institute there has been a shift in the composition of the original US tariff plan for China.

 Overall, 95 percent of the products are intermediate inputs or capital equipment. Relative to the initial list proposed by the Office of the US Trade Representative on April 3, 2018, coverage of intermediate inputs has been expanded considerably ……….Top added products are semiconductors ($3.6 billion) and plastics ($2.2 billion), as well as other intermediate inputs and capital equipment. Semiconductors are found in consumer products used in everyday life such as televisions, personal computers, smartphones, and automobiles.

The reason this is significant is that the world has moved on from even the “just in time” manufacturing model with so many parts be in sourced abroad even in what you might think are domestic products. This means that supply chains are often complex and what seems minor can turn out to be a big deal. After all what use are brakes without brake pads?

Thinking ahead

Whilst currently China is in the sights of President Trump this mornings news from the ECB seems likely to eventually get his attention.

In April 2018 the euro area current account recorded a surplus of €28.4 billion.

Which means this.

The 12-month cumulated current account for the period ending in April 2018 recorded a surplus of €413.7 billion (3.7% of euro area GDP), compared with €361.3 billion (3.3% of euro area GDP) in the 12 months to April 2017.

 

 

So the Euro area has a big current account surplus and it is growing.

This development was due to increases in the surpluses for services (from €46.1 billion to €106.1 billion) and goods (from €347.2 billion to €353.9 billion

There is plenty for the Donald to get his teeth into there and let’s face it the main player here is Germany with its trade surpluses.

Trade what is it good for?

International trade brings a variety of gains. At the simplest level it is access to goods and resources that are unavailable in a particular country. Perhaps the clearest example of that is Japan which has few natural resources and would be able to have little economic activity if it could not import them. That leads to the next part which is the ability to buy better goods and services which if we stick with the Japanese theme was illustrated by the way the UK bought so many of their cars. Of course this has moved on with Japanese manufacturers now making cars in the UK which shows how complex these issues can be.

Also the provision of larger markets will allow some producers to exist at all and will put pressure on them in terms of price and quality. Thus in a nutshell we end up with more and better goods and services. It is on these roads that trade boosts world economic activity and it is generally true that world trade growth exceeds world economic activity of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth.

Since the Second World War, the
volume of world merchandise trade
has tended to grow about 1.5 times
faster than world GDP, although in the
1990s it grew more than twice as fast. ( World Trade Organisation)

Although like in so many other areas things are not what they were.

However, in the aftermath of the global
financial crisis the ratio of trade growth
to GDP growth has fallen to around 1:1.

Although last year was a good year for trade according to the WTO.

World merchandise trade
volume grew by 4.7 per
cent in 2017 after just
1.8 per cent growth
in 2016.

How Much?

Trying to specify the gains above is far from easy. In March there was a paper from the NBER which had a go.

About 8 cents out of every dollar spent in the United States is spent on imports………..The estimates of gains from trade for the US economy that we review range from 2 to 8 percent of GDP.

Actually there were further gains too.

When the researchers adjust by the fact that domestic production also uses imported intermediate goods — say, German-made transmissions incorporated into U.S.-made cars — based on data in the World Input-Output Database, they conclude that the U.S. import share is 11.4 percent.

So we move on not enormously the wiser as we note that we know much less than we might wish or like. Along the way we are reminded that whilst the US is an enormous factor in world trade in percentage terms it is a relatively insular economy although that is to some extent driven by how large its economy is in the first place.

Any mention of numbers needs to come with a warning as trade statistics are unreliable and pretty universally wrong. Countries disagree with each other regularly about bilateral trade and the numbers for the growing services sector are woeful.

Comment

This is one of the few economic sectors where theory is on a sound footing when it meets reality. We all benefit in myriad ways from trade as so much in modern life is dependent on it. It has enriched us all. But the story is also nuanced as we do not live in a few trade nirvana, For example countries intervene as highlighted by the World Trade Organisation in its annual report.

Other issues raised by members
included China’s lack of timely and
complete notifications on subsidies
and state-trading enterprises,

That is pretty neutral if we consider the way China has driven prices down in some areas to wipe out much competition leading to control of such markets and higher prices down the road. There were plenty of tariffs and trade barriers long before the Donald became US President. Also Germany locked in a comparative trade advantage for itself when it joined the Euro especially if we use the Swiss Franc as a proxy for how a Deutschmark would have traded ( soared) post credit crunch.

Also there is the issue of where the trade benefits go? As this from NBC highlights there were questions all along about the Trans Pacific Partnership.

These included labor rights rules unions said were toothless, rules that could have delayed generics and lead to higher drug prices, and expanded international copyright protection.

This leads us back to the issue of labour struggling (wages) but capital doing rather well in the QE era. Or in another form how Ireland has had economic success but also grotesquely distorted some forms of economic activity via its membership of the European Union and low and in some cases no corporate taxes. Who would have thought a country would not want to levy taxes on Apple? After all with cash reserves of US $285.1 billion and rising it can pay.

So the rhetoric and actions of the Donald does raise fears of trade wars and if it goes further the competitive devaluations of the 1920s. But it is also true that there are genuine issues at play which get hidden in the melee a bit like Harry Kane after his first goal last night.