UK Real Wages have fallen by over 2% as the unemployment rate looks to have passed 5%

On Friday we got some insight into the state of play of UK output and GDP in April with the caveats I pointed out at the time. This morning has seen us receive the official figures on employment, unemployment and wages which shed with caveats further insight as to where we are. So let us take a look at the opening line.

Early indicators for May 2020 suggest that the number of employees in the UK on payrolls is down over 600,000 compared with March 2020. The Claimant Count has continued to rise, enhancements to Universal Credit as part of the UK government’s response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) mean an increase in the number of people eligible.

There is quite a bit going on in that paragraph and it is hard to avoid a wry smile at us being directed towards the Claimant Count that was first regarded as unreliable and manipulated back in the 1980s in the Yes Minister TV series,

Sir Humphrey: We didn’t raise it to enable them to learn more! We raised it to keep teenagers off the job market and hold down the unemployment figures.

There is also an episode where Jim Hacker tells us nobody actually believes the unemployment ( Claimant Count) numbers. The tweek to the Universal Credit system is welcome in helping people in trouble but does also add more smoke to the view.

Employment

We can dig deeper and let us start with a little more precision.

Experimental data of the number of payroll employees using HM Revenue and Customs’ (HMRC’s) Pay As You Earn Real Time Information figures show a fall in payroll employees in recent months. Early estimates for May 2020 from PAYE RTI indicate that the number of payroll employees fell by 2.1% (612,000) compared with March 2020.

Let me give our statisticians credit for looking at other sources of data to glean more information. But in this area there is an elephant in the room and it is a large one.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) definition of employment includes those who worked in a job for at least one hour and those temporarily absent from a job.

Regular readers of my work will be aware of this issue but there is more.

Workers furloughed under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS), or who are self-employed but temporarily not in work, have a reasonable expectation of returning to their jobs after a temporary period of absence. Therefore, they are classified as employed under the ILO definition.

As the estimate for them is of the order of 6 million we find that our employment fall estimate could be out by a factor of ten! Breaking it down there are all sorts of categories from those who will be unemployed as soon as the scheme ends to those who have been working as well ( sometimes for the same employer) who may be getting an official knock on the door. Also the numbers keep rising as HM Treasury has pointed out today.

By midnight on 14 June there’s been a total of: 9.1m jobs furloughed £20.8bn claimed in total

So the best guide we have comes from this in my opinion.

Between February to April 2019 and February to April 2020, total actual weekly hours worked in the UK decreased by 94.2 million, or 8.9%, to 959.9 million hours. A decrease of 91.2 million or 8.7% was also seen on the quarter.

In terms of a graph we have quite a lurch.

I doubt many of you will be surprised to learn this bit.

The “accommodation and food service activities” industrial sector saw the biggest fall in average actual hours; down 6.9 hours to 21.2 hours per week.

With hotels shut and restaurants doing take out at best I am in fact surprised the numbers have not fallen further.

Unemployment

The conventional measures are simply not cutting it.

For February to April 2020: the estimated UK unemployment rate for all people was 3.9%; 0.1 percentage points higher than a year earlier but unchanged on the previous quarter.

We can apply the methodology I used for Italy on the 3rd of this month where we discovered that a flaw  meant that we found what we would regard as unemployed in the inactivity data.

The single-month estimate for the economic inactivity rate, for people aged 16 to 64 years in the UK, for April 2020, was 20.9%, the highest since August 2019. This represents an increase of 0.7 percentage points on the previous month (March 2020) and a record increase of 0.8 percentage points compared with three months ago (January 2020).

If we count the extra inactivity as unemployed we have some 349,000 more or if you prefer an unemployment rate of 5.1%. This begins to bring the numbers closer to reality although we are not allowing for those who will be unemployed as soon as the furlough scheme ends. Also we are not allowing for the scale of underemployment revealed by the hours worked figures.

Wages and Real Wages

I doubt anyone is going to be too surprised by the fall here.

Estimated annual growth in average weekly earnings for employees in Great Britain in the three months to April 2020 was 1.0% for total pay (including bonuses) and 1.7% for regular pay (excluding bonuses).

It is quite a drop on what we had before.

Annual growth has slowed sharply for both total and regular pay compared with the period prior to introduction of the corona virus lockdown measures (December to February 2020), when it was 2.9%.

We see that bonuses plunged if we throw a veil over the double negative below.

The difference between the two measures is because of subdued bonuses, which fell by an average negative 6.8% (in nominal terms) in the three months February to April 2020.

If we look at April alone we get an even grimmer picture.

Single month growth in average weekly earnings for April 2020 was negative 0.9% for total pay and 0% for regular pay.

Already real wages were in trouble.

The 1.0% growth in total pay in February to April 2020 translates to a fall of negative 0.4% in real terms (that is, total pay grew slower than inflation); in comparison, regular pay grew in real terms, by 0.4%, the difference being driven by subdued bonuses in recent months.

So even using the woeful official measure driven by Imputed Rents we see a real wages decline of 1.8% in April. A much more realistic measure is of course the Retail Prices Index or RPI which shows a 2.4% fall for real wages in April.

On this subject there has been some research from my alma mater the LSE giving more power to the RPI’s elbow.

Aggregate month-to-month inflation was 2.4% in the first month of lockdown, a rate over 10 times higher than in preceding months.

I will look at this more when we come to the UK inflation data but it is another nail on the coffin for official claims and if I may be so bold a slap on the back for my arguments.

 

Comment

Today’s journey shows that with a little thought and application we can do better than the official data. Our estimate of the unemployment rate of 5.1% is more realistic than the official 3.9% although the weakness is an inability to allow for what must be underemployment on a grand scale. Shifting to real wages we fear that they may have fallen by over 3% in April as opposed to the official headline of a 0.4% fall. So we get closer to reality even when it is an unattractive one.

Staying with wages the numbers are being influenced by this.

Pay estimates are based on all employees on company payrolls, including those who have been furloughed under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS).

Also Is it rude to point out that we are guided towards the monthly GDP statistics but told that the monthly wages ones ( a much longer running series) are less reliable?. Someone at the UK Statistics Authority needs to get a grip and preferably soon .

 

 

 

 

Where next for UK house prices?

Today we are going to start by imagining we are central bankers so we will look at the main priority of the Bank of England  which is UK house prices. Therefore if you are going to have a musical accompaniment may I suggest this.

The only way is up, baby
For you and me now
The only way is up, baby
For you and me…  ( Yazz0(

In fact it fits the central banking mindset as you can see below. Even in economic hard times the only way is up.

Now we may not know, huh,
Where our next meal is coming from,
But with you by my side
I’ll face what is to come.

From the point of view of Threadneedle Street the suspension of the official UK house price index is useful too as it will allow the various ostriches to keep their head deep in the sand. This was illustrated in the Financial Stability Report issued on the 7th of May.

As a result, the fall in UK property prices incorporated in
the desktop stress test is less severe than that in the 2019 stress test.

Yes you do read that right, just as the UK economy looked on the edge of of substantial house price falls the Bank of England was modelling weaker ones!

Taking these two effects together, the FPC judges that a fall of 16% in UK residential property prices could be
consistent with the MPR scenario. After falling, prices are then assumed to rise gradually as economic activity in the
UK recovers and unemployment falls in the scenario.

Whether you are reassured that a group of people you have mostly never heard of forecast this I do not know, but in reality there are two main drivers. The desire for higher house prices which I will explain in the next section and protection of “My Precious! My Precious!” which underpins all this.

Given the loan to value distribution on banks’ mortgage books at the end of 2019, a 16% house price fall would not be likely to lead to very material losses in the event of default.

So the 16% was chosen to make the banks look safe or in central banking terms “resilient”

Research

I did say earlier that I would explain why central bankers are so keen on higher house prices, so here is the latest Bank Underground post from yesterday.

Our results also suggest that the behaviour of house prices affects how monetary policy feeds through. When house prices rise, homeowners feel wealthier and are more able to refinance their mortgages and release housing equity in order to spend money on other things. This can offset some of the dampening effects of an increase in interest rates. In contrast, when house prices fall, this channel means an increase in interest rates has a bigger contractionary effect on the economy, making monetary policy more potent.

Just in case you missed it.

Our findings also suggest that the overall impact of monetary policy partly depends on the behaviour of house prices, and might not be symmetric for interest rate rises and falls.

So even the supposedly independent Bank Underground blog shows that “you can take the boy out of the city but not the city out of the boy” aphorism works as we see it cannot avoid the obsession with house prices. The air of unreality is added to by this.

 we look at the response of non-durable, durable and total consumption in response to a 100bp increase in interest rates.

The last time we had that was in 2006/07 so I am a little unclear which evidence they have to model this and of course many will have been in their working lives without experiencing such a thing. Actually it gives us a reason why it is ever less likely to happen with the present crew in charge.

When the share of constrained households is large, interest rate rises have a larger absolute impact than interest rate cuts.

Oh and is that a confession that the interest-rate cuts have been ineffective. A bit late now with Bank Rate at 0.1%! I would also point out that I have been suggesting this for some years now and to be specific once interest-rates go below around 1.5%.

Reasons To Be Cheerful ( for a central banker )

Having used that title we need a part one,two and three.

1.The UK five-year Gilt yield has gone negative in the last week or so and yesterday the Bank of England set a new record when it paid -0.068% for a 2025 Gilt. As it has yet to ever sell a QE bond that means it locked in a loss. But more importantly for today’s analysis this is my proxy for UK fixed-rate mortgages. So we seem set to see more of this.

the average rate on two and five year fixed deals have fallen to lows not seen since Moneyfacts’ electronic records began in July 2007. The current average two year fixed mortgage rate stands at just 2.09% while the average rate for a five year fixed mortgage is 2.35%. ( Moneyfacts 11th May)

2. The institutional background for mortgage lending is strong. The new Term Funding Scheme which allows banks to access funding at a 0.1% Bank Rate has risen to £11.9 billion as of last week’s update. Also there is the £107.1 billion remaining in the previous Term Funding Scheme meaning the two add to a tidy sum even for these times. Plus in a sign that bank subsidies never quite disappear there is still £3 billion of the Funding for Lending Scheme kicking around. These schemes are proclaimed as being for small business lending but so far have always “leaked” into the mortgage market.

3. The market is now open. You might reasonably think that a time of fears over a virus spreading is not the one to invite people into your home but that is apparently less important than the housing market.  Curious that you can invite strangers in but not more than one family member or friend.

News

Zoopla pointed out this earlier.

Buyer demand across England spiked up by 88% after the market reopened, exceeding pre-lockdown levels in the week to 19th May; this jump in demand in England is temporary and expected to moderate in the coming weeks

Of course an 88% rise on not very much may not be many and the enthusiasm seemed to fade pretty quickly.

Some 60% of would-be home movers across Britain said they plan to go ahead with their property plans, according to a new survey by Zoopla, but 40% have put their plans on hold because of COVID-19 and the uncertain outlook.

Actually the last figure I would see as optimistic right now.

Harder measures of market activity are more subdued – new sales agreed in England have increased by 12% since the market reopened, rising from levels that are just a tenth of typical sales volumes at this time of year.

Finally I would suggest taking this with no just a pinch of salt but the full contents of your salt cellar.

The latest index results show annual price growth of +1.9%. This is a small reduction in the annual growth rate, from +2% in March.

Comment

So far we have been the very model of a modern central banker. Now let us leave the rarified air of its Ivory Tower and breathe some oxygen. Many of the components for a house price boom are in place but there are a multitude of catches. Firstly it is quite plain that many people have seen a fall in incomes and wages and this looks set to continue. I know the travel industry has been hit hard but British Airways is imposing a set of wage reductions.

Next we do not know how fully things will play out but a trend towards more home working and less commuting seems likely. So in some places there may be more demand ( adding an office) whereas in others it may fade away. On a personal level I pass the 600 flats being built at Battersea Roof Garden on one of my running routes and sometimes shop next to the circa 500 being built next to The Oval cricket ground. Plenty of supply but they will require overseas or foreign demand.

So the chain as Fleetwood Mac would put it may not be right.

You would never break the chain (Never break the chain)

We should finally see lower prices but as to the pattern things are still unclear. So let me leave you with something to send a chill down the spine of any central banker.

Chunky price cut for Kent estate reports
@PrimeResi as agent clips asking price from £8m to £5.95m (26%). (£) ( @HenryPryor)

Me on The Investing Channel

What has happened to the UK consumer?

One of the apparent certainties of economic life is that the British consumer will take the advice of the Pools winner from many years ago and “Spend! Spend! Spend!”. This has led to another feature of our economic life because it seems to have been forgotten by many economists but before the credit crunch there were calculations that out marginal propensity to import from this was of the order of 40%. So there was a clear link to the trade deficit as well. Oh and for millennials reading this the Pools was gambling before there was a lottery, mostly in my experience by older people as for example my grandfather did but my father did not.

However last month provided a counterpoint to such certainty as the slowing in growth that we saw in the latter part of 2019 turned into something more.

In the three months to December 2019, the quantity bought in retail sales decreased by 1.0% when compared with the previous three months……..The quantity bought in December 2019 fell by 0.6% when compared with the previous month; the fifth consecutive month of no growth.

There was still some annual growth just not much of it ( 0.9%). This led to some sill headlines across the media as they used the British Retail Consortium claim that we had seen the worst year since 1995 for retail sales as click bait. That ignored the fact that its numbers are invariably much weaker than the official ones suggesting it id wedded to the bricks and mortar style retail sales which we know is troubled and not enough of the online world. Indeed there was far less reporting of this month’s effort from the BRC as the equivalent of tourists saw fewer easy pickings.

On a Total basis, sales increased by 0.4% in January, against an increase of 2.2% in January 2019. This is above both the 3-month and 12-month average declines of 0.4% and 0.2% respectively.

So weaker than last year but up and should it continue would end the decline in the averages. Actually we now know that the BRC was confused in this area as the inflation numbers did not pick this up.

We have to remember, this semi-positive performance will also be the result of aggressive discounts and consumers’ preoccupation with bagging a bargain.

Labour Market

This brings a contrasting theme as it should be supporting retail sales just as growth has faded away.

Between October to December 2018 and October to December 2019, the level of employment increased by 336,000 (or 1.0%) to a record high of 32.93 million.

There was also some real wage growth over the year just not as much as reported.

In the year to December 2019, nominal total pay (not adjusted for change in prices) grew by 2.9% to £544. Nominal regular pay grew by 3.2% to £512 over the same period. The recorded growth rates show that wage growth is decelerating.

Sadly many places fell for the real regular wages are back to the pre crisis peak spinning of our official statisticians as they cherry-picked from the very top of the tree. But even using more realistic inflation measures than the official imputed rent driven CPIH we still had some real wage growth.

Payment Protection Insurance

I have long argued this has been like a form of QE for the consumer and retail sales so this caught my eye earlier.

The bill for PPI claims in 2019 would be about £2.5bn, but Lloyds said no further provisions were needed as it had already set aside enough money.

It brings the total paid out by Lloyds over the mis-selling saga to £21.9bn. ( BBC )

Today’s Data

As suggested above we had a better month in January.

Retail volumes increased by 0.9% in January 2020, recovering from the falls in the previous two months; the increase was mainly because of moderate growth in both food stores (1.7%) and non-food stores (1.3%).

Actually if we look into the detail the underlying position is stronger and I am pleased to report that my main theme in this area was clearly in play.

Fuel saw a large fall of 5.7% in the quantity bought in January 2020 when compared with December 2019, which coincides with a rise in fuel prices of 2.3 pence per litre between December and January.

For newer readers I first wrote on the 29th of January 2015 that lower inflation boosted retail sales growth which you may note is not only true but the opposite of what central bankers keep telling us. I was involved in a debate with Danske Bank yesterday on this subject and in the end they agreed with me although that last sentence!

Higher than expected inflation makes people worse off, as it means people’s real wage growth is not as high as expected. That is why stable and predictable inflation is so important. Whether the target is 0%, 1% or 2% is less important.

Anyway returning to the data we see a corollary of my theme which is that higher prices should led to lower consumption which seems to be in play. It is probably also true that we are seeing the impact of the switch towards electric vehicles.

Perspective

The better number for January although it may not initially look like it helped the three month average.

In the three months to January 2020, both the amount spent and the quantity bought in the retail industry fell by 0.5% and 0.8% respectively when compared with the previous three months.

This is because November and December were so weak that even a better January was unlikely to fix it. The Underlying index was 108.5 in October then went 107.7 and 107.1 before now rising to 108.1. The index was set at 100 in 2016 so we see this area has seen more growth than others.

On an annual basis we have some growth just not very much of it.

When compared with a year earlier, both measures reported growth at 2.1% for the amount spent and 0.8% for the quantity bought.

Comment

Today gives an opportunity to look at how economics applies in real world events. Having just lost all readers from the Ivory Towers let me apologise to anyone who was disturbed by any screaming from them! They may have just have been able to laugh off the idea that higher inflation is bad but the next bit is too much. You see we have a favourable employment situation especially with real wage growth being added to employment growth but we are losing two factors.

The first is the impact of the PPI claim repayment money which looks as though much of it went straight to the retail sales bottom line. Next there is this from the Bank of England.

The annual growth rate of consumer credit rose to 6.1% in December, having ticked down to 5.9% in November. The growth rate for consumer credit has been close to this level since May 2019. Prior to this it had fallen steadily from an average of 10.3% in 2017.

Whilst it is still the fastest growing area of the economy I can think of my point is that growth has slowed and that seems to be affecting retail sales. A particular area must be what is going on with car sales and a few months back the Bank of England said that but since then it has decided that silence is golden on this subject. For fans of official denials there was of course this from Governor Carney back in the day.

This is not a debt fuelled expansion

 

UK Real Wages have not regained their previous peak

As we switch out focus to the UK labour market we see two contrasting forces being applied to it. The first comes from the better news being reported for the UK economy recently.

Financial wellbeing expectations hit survey-record high in
February ( IHS Markit )

That came only yesterday and according to it the outlook is brightening.

Looking ahead, UK households signalled positive expectations towards their financial health. The Future Household Finance Index – which measures expected change in financial health over the next 12 months – rose to 52.7 in February, from 49.6 in January. The level of optimism was at its highest since the data were first collected in February 2009, exceeding the previous
peak seen in January 2015.

This led according to the survey to a better labour market situation.

UK households recorded a lessened degree of pessimism
towards their job security during February, with the respective index rising (but remaining below 50.0) to a seven-month high. Meanwhile, the rate of growth in both workplace activity and income from employment accelerated from January.

This survey is a curious beast because the headline index which went from 44.6 to 47.6 in this report has never been in positive territory. Whilst in some ways that does cover out experience ( real wages for example) it does not cover the employment situation which has been pretty good.

This backed up the survey of the wider UK economy conducted by IHS Markit earlier this month.

At 53.3 in January, up from 49.3 in December, the seasonally adjusted IHS Markit/CIPS UK Composite Output Index posted above the neutral 50.0 mark for the first time since last August. The latest reading signalled a faster pace of growth than the earlier ‘flash’ estimate (52.4 in January) and was the highest for 16 months.

This too came with positive news for the labour market.

This uplift in success also created some business pressures
as the rush to increase staffing levels resulted in demands
for higher salaries.

Apple and HSBC

Last night, however, brought a reminder that on a world wide scale there is an ongoing economic impact from the Corona Virus.

Apple Inc become the latest company to flag lower revenue as a result of the epidemic, saying it would not meet its revenue guidance for the March quarter because of slower iPhone production and weaker demand in China. ( Reuters)

The main Apple market is not yet open due to yesterday being Presidents Day but more minor markets have suggested it will open more than 4% lower. I note that Reuters is also reporting this for the Chinese economy.

Analysts at Nomura again downgraded their China first-quarter economic growth forecast, to 3%, half the pace in the fourth quarter, and said there was a risk it could be even weaker.

This morning we have seen another consequence of the era of treating banks as The Precious.

HSBC posted plummeting profits for 2019 today as it outlined plans to get rid of $100bn (£77bn) of assets and dramatically downsize its investment banking arm in a restructure that will cost 35,000 jobs over the next three years. ( City-AM )

We know that the situation is really poor because the chief executive has deployed the word “resilient” which we have learnt means anything but.

Today’s Data

Employment

The long sequence of good news in this area continues.

The UK employment rate was estimated at a record high of 76.5%, 0.6 percentage points higher than a year earlier and 0.4 percentage points up on the previous quarter.

If we look further we see that such numbers are based on this.

There was a 180,000 increase in employment on the quarter. This was, again, mainly driven by quarterly increases for full-time workers (up 203,000 – the largest increase since March to May 2014), and for women (up 150,000 – the largest increase since February to April 2014). The quarterly increase for women working full-time (also up 150,000) was the largest since November 2012 to January 2013.

Actually this continues to be a remarkable performance and is a clear gain in the credit crunch era. However we do need context because there is for example an element of subjectivity in the definition of full-time work. Those completing the survey are guided towards 16 hours per week which is a bit low in itself but they can also ignore that. Also the rise in female employment is no doubt influenced by the rise in the retirement age for them.

The overall position is that on this measure things turned for the UK economy in 2012 a year earlier that GDP picked up. Regular readers will recall that back then we were worried about it being part-time but that has changed. Overall though there has been a pick-up in self-employment with ebbs and flows which is currently flowing.

Whilst there is an implicit rather than explicit link to unemployment ( as there is also the inactivity category) the good employment news has driven this.

the estimated UK unemployment rate for all people was 3.8%; this is 0.2 percentage points lower than a year earlier and 0.1 percentage points lower than the previous quarter…..For October to December 2019, an estimated 1.29 million people were unemployed. This is 73,000 fewer than a year earlier and 580,000 fewer than five years earlier.

Wages

Here the news has been less good. Let me explain using today’s release.

Estimated annual growth in average weekly earnings for employees in Great Britain slowed to 2.9% from 3.2% last month for total pay (including bonuses), and to 3.2% from 3.4% for regular pay (excluding bonuses).

This gives us two contexts. We have been in a better phase for wages growth but it has been slowing recently and that has continued. Things get more complex as we look at real wages as there are serious problems with the official representation of them.

In real terms (after adjusting for inflation), annual growth in total pay is estimated to be 1.4%, and annual growth in regular pay is estimated to be 1.8%.

The problem is that a simply woeful inflation measure is being used, via the use of fantasy imputed rents in the official CPIH inflation measure. This ensures that housing inflation is under-recorded and thus real wages are over recorded. A much better context is provided by this from Rupert Seggins.

UK real regular pay is now above its pre-crisis peak! If you like the CPIH measure of consumer prices. For CPI enthusiasts, it’s -1.8% below. For the RPI crew, it’s -7% below, for the RPIX hardcore, it’s -10.4%. If the household deflator’s your thing, then it happened in 2016 Q1.

Can anybody think why Her Majesty’s Treasury is trying to replace house prices in the RPI with Imputed Rents?! Actually trying to measure housing inflation stops the establishment claiming house prices are a Wealth Effect rather than the more accurate gains for existing owners but inflation for present and future buyers. Returning to real wages as you can see it makes a very large difference.

Having established that I have been disappointed to see so many news sources copy and paste this part of the release.

In real terms, regular pay is now at its highest level since the series began in 2000, whereas total pay is still 3.7% below its peak in February 2008.

As The Zombies pointed out.

And if she should tell you “come closer”
And if she tempts you with her charms
Tell her no no no no no-no-no-no
No no no no no-no-no-no
No no no no no

If we look into the monthly data we see that the UK chemicals sector is doing well and wage growth has picked up to 8.9%. Care is needed with such detail but it has been around 7% for over 6 months. However other areas of manufacturing are more troubled with the clothing and textiles sector seeing no increase at all. Whilst I am all for higher wages I have to confess that fact that the real estate sector is seeing consistent rises above 6% has a worrying kicker.

Comment

We find ourselves in broadly familiar territory where the quantity news for the UK economy is again very good but the quality news is not as good. At least these days the real wages position is improving a little. But to claim we are back to the previous peak is frankly a case of people embarrassing themselves.

The numbers themselves always need a splash of salt. For example I have pointed out already the growth of the self-employed, so their omission from the wages data is increasingly significant. Also whilst we are employing more people this time around hours worked was not as strong.

Between October to December 2018 and October to December 2019, total actual weekly hours worked in the UK increased by 0.8% (to 1.05 billion hours), while average actual weekly hours decreased by 0.2% (to 31.9 hours).

I look at such numbers because out official statisticians have yet to cover the concept of underemployment adequately. There is an irony here in that productivity will be boosted by a shorter working week. Maybe even by this.

In October to December 2019, it was estimated that there were a record 974,000 people in employment on a “zero-hour contract” in their main job, representing a record 3.0% of all people in employment. This was 130,000 more than for the same period a year earlier.

Are falling real wages the future for us all?

The issue of wage growth is something we have found ourselves returning to time and time again. The cause is in one sense very simple there has been a lack of it. There are two components of this of which the first is just simply low numbers but the second is another reversal for the economics establishment . This is where we have seen employment gains and in some cases record low levels of unemployment but the wage growth fairy has turned out to be precisely that. As an example if we look back we see that the UK Office for Budget Responsibility opened with equations that would have UK wage growth above 5% in today’s environment rather than the 3% we have.

Japan

The leader in the pack in this regard continues to be Japan so let us go straight to the data released at the end of last week.

The inflation-adjusted average monthly wage fell 0.9 percent from a year earlier in 2019, dragged down by an increase in part-time workers, the labor ministry said Friday.

Average monthly cash earnings per worker, including bonuses, fell 0.3 percent to ¥322,689 ($2,900) on a nominal basis, the first decline in six years, according to preliminary data by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. ( Japan Times)

If we for the moment stick with the fact that wages fell we can then note that this happened in spite of this.

The unemployment rate was unchanged in December from the previous month, at 2.2 percent, reflecting an ongoing labor shortage due to the rapidly graying population, government data showed Friday.

In the reporting month the number of unemployed was 1.45 million, down 140,000 from a year earlier, according to the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry. ( Japan Times January 31)

Although they do not mention it this equals the record low for the unemployment rate and we get more detail on the labour shortage below.

The number of people with jobs grew for the 84th straight month, up 810,000 from a year earlier at 67.37 million in December. Of those, 30 million were women, up 660,000 from a year earlier, and 9.02 million were 65 or over, up 470,000.

This is a success for the Japanese economy which has reached I think what economists used to call “full employment”. Actually if they saw the numbers below they would be predicting it would be party time for wage growth.

Separate data from the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry showed that the job availability ratio in December stood at 1.57, unchanged since September. The ratio indicates that there were 157 job openings for every 100 people seeking jobs.

But reality has not been kind to that particular and it has discombobulated some Ivory Towers so much that they believe in it regardless. A case of Restaurant at the end of the Universe thinking.

Reality is frequently inaccurate

If we go back to the wages data we started with there were two components beginning with a real fall but also a nominal one. The latter I point out because when we look at Japan’s public debt burden it is not going to be solved with income taxes with nominal incomes falling. It is the opposite of what we call inflating away the debt.

The situation is so troubling that a scapegoat is required which are part-time workers.

The proportion of workers that are part-time reached a record 31.53 percent, up 0.65 percentage point from the previous year.

For those who want to know how much the Japanese get paid here you are.

Average monthly wages for full-time workers increased 0.3 percent, to ¥425,288, while those of part-time workers stayed flat at ¥99,758.

December wages are especially important in Japan as they are the main bonus season meaning they are around 175% of the average. So bonuses are low and whilst we do not get much of a sectoral breakdown we see that total manufacturing wages were 2.6% lower in December in real terms.

The index for real wages is now 99.9 or slightly lower than the 2015 average. This is quite a critique of the official policy of Abenomics which was supposed to raise wages in both nominal and real terms but as you can see has not done so.

Regular readers will know I have been concerned since the advent of Abenomics that it was really just another version of Japan Inc under the covers. Well in that scenario Japanese companies would be doing well but not raising wages.

The retained earnings of Japanese companies combined hit a record ¥463 trillion last year. Corporate earnings — which remain near record levels despite the setbacks of the past two years — have clearly not been invested enough in manpower.  ( Japan Times )

Whereas according to the Nikkei Asian Review the longer-term picture is this.

The growing ranks of nonregular workers puts pressure on average nominal wages, which remain 13% below their peak in 1997. From 2012 to 2018 nominal wages grew only 2.6%, labor ministry figures show.

United States

Friday lunchtime in the UK produced this.

Total nonfarm payroll employment rose by 225,000 in January, and the unemployment rate was little changed at 3.6 percent, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Notable job gains occurred in construction, in health care, and in transportation and warehousing.

This continued a pretty strong picture especially at this stage in the cycle.

After revisions, job gains have averaged 211,000 over the
last 3 months.

Now if we switch to wage growth we see this.

In January, average hourly earnings for all employees on private nonfarm payrolls rose by 7 cents to $28.44. Over the past 12 months, average hourly earnings have increased by 3.1 percent. Average hourly earnings of private-sector production and nonsupervisory employees
were $23.87 in January, little changed over the month (+3 cents).

In nominal terms this is much better than in Japan but if we switch to real terms then we need to compare with this.

From 2018 to 2019, consumer prices for all items rose 2.3 percent.

I am taking the numbers as a broad sweep because we do not have the January data yet, But we see that whilst there is some real wage growth it is a bit under 1% per annum so not much.

Comment

The difference between the US and Japan is that there is some real wage growth in the former there is none in the latter. Can we explain that? There are two possible causes of which the first is demographics where Japan has a shrinking and ageing population whereas the US is growing. Also there is a structural issue where the Japanese are very resistant to price rises which in a reversal of the wages and prices spirals of the 70s and 80s in my home country seems to have infected wage growth too. The fear as Lily Allen would put it might be a case of the vapors.

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

For the economics establishment there is only pain because they continue to plough ahead with “output gap” style theories. Even worse because they failed in the GDP or economic output arena they switched to the labour market. It has turned out to be like playing 3 at the back in football and losing 3-0 and thus switching to 4 at the back and losing 5-0. That is because the labour market has is some places gone beyond what was called full employment and yet real wage growth is weak at best and has gone backwards in Japan which has a stellar employment situation at least according to conventional metrics.

Moving to the UK we finally got some real wage growth but we need to cross our fingers and there is still some distance to travel before we get right back where we started from. Hopefully we can at least regain the previous peak.

Podcast

 

The UK Labour Market continues to look strong

This week has already seen a fair flurry of new information on the UK economy, so let us start with what will have caught the eye of Mark Carney and the Bank of England.

LONDON (Reuters) – Asking prices for British houses put on sale in the five weeks to Jan. 11 rose by a record amount for the time of year, property website Rightmove said on Monday, adding to signs of a post-election bounce in consumer and business confidence…….Rightmove said average asking prices of property marketed between Dec. 8 and Jan. 11 jumped 2.3% in monthly terms, the biggest increase for that period since the survey started in 2002.

The cautionary note is that it is asking prices ( you can ask what you want…) and not sold or traded prices but those looking for a post election bounce will add it to the Halifax numbers.

Yesterday also brought positive news on UK household finances as well.

“Latest survey data certainly show some post-election
bounce for UK households, with the headline index up
to a one-year high and house price expectations at their
strongest since October 2018. That said, cooling inflation
was most likely the real driving force, propping up real
earnings and disposable incomes” ( Markit )

So there are various surveys suggesting optimism for house prices and one saying something similar for household finances. This is really rather awkward for a Bank of England not only warming up for a Bank Rate cut with Gertjan Vlieghe explicitly saying he will look at sentiment measures. Of course Friday’s Retail Sales showed weakness but they can be unreliable and erratic.

Employment

This morning has brought both good and not so good news on the employment situation. So let us start with the positive.

Facebook says it is to create 1,000 new jobs in the UK this year, delivering a vote of confidence in the UK economy ahead of Brexit.

The tech firm issued a long-term commitment to the country as it made the announcement, in the run-up to a speech to be made in London later on Tuesday by its chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg.

Facebook said the new roles would take its UK workforce beyond 4,000 people. ( Sky News)

Meanwhile the Financial Times is doing some scaremongering about HS2.

Hundreds of employees could face job cuts, while companies working on HS2 have been told to slow down work as uncertainty mounts over the fate of Britain’s most ambitious infrastructure project

I do not wish for people to lose their jobs but in this instance we have the issue of what are they actually producing?

UK Labour Market Release

We saw another in a long-running series where there was strong employment growth.

There was a 208,000 increase in employment on the quarter. This was, again, mainly driven by quarterly increases for full-time workers (up 197,000; the largest increase since September to November 2015) and for women (up 148,000; the largest increase since February to April 2014). The quarterly increase in women working full-time (up 126,000) was the largest since November 2012 to January 2013.

The tilt towards female employment was also to be found in the annual comparison where of an increase of 349,000 full-time jobs some 317,000 were for women.

This meant that there was another record.

The UK employment rate was estimated at a record high of 76.3%, 0.6 percentage points higher than a year earlier and 0.5 percentage points up on the previous quarter.

I will look at the broader consequences of this later but for the moment let us stay in the labour market and note the influence of what with apologies to those in it is something of a residual category.

The UK economic inactivity rate was estimated at a record low of 20.6%, 0.4 percentage points lower than the previous year and the previous quarter.

Okay so what is going on here?

Estimates for September to November 2019 show 8.51 million people aged between 16 and 64 years not in the labour force (economically inactive). This was 145,000 fewer than a year earlier and 587,000 fewer than five years earlier. The annual decrease was driven by women, with the level down 157,000 to reach a record low of 5.18 million.

So it is another case of let’s hear it for the girls where women have stopped being recorded as inactive and are now employed instead. There is a combination of good news and the influence of the raising of the state pension age at play here. As an aside the broad sweep has been women moving from inactivity to employment since these records began in 1971. The timing of the recent move also suggests that there was an influence from students as well.

There were fears of a rise in unemployment but as you can see below they were unfounded.

For September to November 2019, an estimated 1.31 million people were unemployed. This is 64,000 fewer than a year earlier and 618,000 fewer than five years earlier……The UK unemployment rate was estimated at 3.8%, 0.2 percentage points lower than a year earlier but largely unchanged on the previous quarter.

Wages

The previous release had seen a fall but this was not repeated.

Estimated annual growth in average weekly earnings for employees in Great Britain remained unchanged at 3.2% for total pay (including bonuses), and slowed to 3.4% from 3.5% for regular pay (excluding bonuses).

There was a switch towards bonus payments although slightly confusingly less than last year!

The annual growth in total pay was weakened by unusually high bonus payments paid in October 2018 compared with more typical average bonus payments paid in October 2019.

Let me now switch to the official view on real pay.

In real terms, annual pay growth has been positive since December 2017 to February 2018, and is now 1.6% for total pay (compared with 1.5% last month) and 1.8% for regular pay (unchanged from last month).

Sadly this relies on the woeful CPIH inflation measure and if we now switch from good news ( real wage growth) to the overall picture we get some bad news.

The equivalent figures for total pay in real terms are £503 per week in November 2019 and £525 in February 2008, a 4.1% difference.

Regular readers will be aware of my views on the inflation measure so let me present the issue another way today. The offiicial release points us towards the numbers for real regular pay. Can you guess which of the lines below that one is and no cheating?!

https://pbs.twimg.com/media/EOy_EsTXsAEsM8G?format=jpg&name=900×900

The chart was provided by Rupert Seggins and as you can see rather changes both the narrative and the perspective.

Comment

We find that if we look back the sequence of strong UK employment data started in 2012 and it is ongoing. There is a particular context to this though and let me illustrate with a tweet from Chris Dillow of the Investors Chronicle.

ONS also says hours worked rose 0.5% in Sep-Nov. With GDP rising only 0.1%, this means productivity fell. Might be partly a Brexit effect (uncertainty cut output but encouraged labour hoarding). But it reinforces the picture of long-term stagnation.

The issue here is that with the numbers we have productivity fell. But it is also true that last time the UK labour market and GDP diverged like we are seeing now it was the ( more positive) labour market which was correct as GDP later rose. It is another problem for the economics 101 view that the labour market responds in a lagged fashion as back then it led and GDP followed. More specifically we often see these days that employment is a driver of the economy rather than a follower.

Moving to wages we see that finally the employment growth gave us real wage growth but it took so long we have a bit of a mountain to climb. That is really quite a devastating critique of the Ivory Tower “output gap” thinking that has as many holes in it as I am hoping Arsenal’s defence will have tonight. Yet only last week Bank of England policymakers were repeating their output gap mantra. On that subject they have something of a problem again because they have got us ready for an interest-rate cut just in time for most of the data to be good. The bad bit was the retail sales numbers from Friday which now look out of phase with the employment numbers making me wonder if their seasonality algorithm has had a HAL-9000 moment? Whilst there is an intra-market shift in their favour as well maybe Aldi thinks do if this is any guide.

Aldi plans to increase pay for its staff by just over 3%, making it one of the best-paying supermarkets in the UK.

The discounter said its minimum hourly pay rates will rise from £9.10 an hour to £9.40, with workers inside the M25 getting £10.90 an hour instead of £10.55…….Aldi, Britain’s fifth-largest supermarket, also said it would be hiring 3,800 new employees for store level positions.

 

Will UK real wages and its banks ever escape the depression they seem trapped in?

Today brings the UK labour market into focus and in particular the situation regarding both real and nominal wage growth. Before we get to that there was news yesterday evening from the Bank of England on one of the highest paid categories.

The 2019 stress test shows the UK banking system is resilient to deep simultaneous recessions in the UK and global economies that are more severe overall than the global financial crisis, combined with large falls in asset prices and a separate stress of misconduct costs. It would therefore be able to withstand the stress and continue to meet credit demand from UK households and businesses.

Yes it is time for the results of the annual banking stress tests which of course are designed to look rigorous but for no-one to fail. So far the Bank of England has avoided the embarrassment of its Euro area peers who have seen a collapse quite soon after. In terms of the detail there is this.

Losses on corporate exposures are higher than in previous tests, reflecting some deterioration in asset quality and a more severe global scenario. Despite this, and weakness in banks’ underlying profitability (which reduces their ability to offset losses with earnings), all seven participating banks and building societies remain above their hurdle rates. The major UK banks’ aggregate CET1 capital ratio after the 2019 stress scenario would still be more than twice its level before the crisis.

As you can see the Bank of England is happy to slap itself on the back here as it notes capital ratios. Although of course higher capital ratios have posed their own problems abroad as we have seen in the US Repo crisis.

Major UK banks’ capital ratios have remained stable since year end 2018, the starting point of the 2019 stress test. At the end of 2019 Q3, their CET1 ratios were over three times higher than at the start of the global financial crisis. Major UK banks also continue to hold sizeable liquid asset buffers.

Actually the latter bit is also an explanation as to why banks struggle to make profits these days and why many think that their business model is broken.

Also I note that their view is that the highest rate of annual house price growth in the period 1987-2006 was 6.6% and the average 1.7%. I can see how they kept the average low by starting at a time that then saw the 1990-92 drop but only 6.6% as a maximum? Odd therefore if prices have risen so little that house prices to income seem now to have become house prices versus household disposable income and thereby often two incomes rather than one.

In terms of share prices this does not seem to have gone down that well with Lloyds more than 4% lower at 64 pence, Royal Bank of Scotland more than 3% lower at 252.5 pence and Barclays over 3% lower at 186 pence. Meanwhile it is hard not to have a wry smile at the fact that the UK bank which you might think needs a stress test which is Metro Bank was not included in the test. Although it has not avoided a share price fall today as it has fallen over 3% to 198 pence. Indeed, this confirms that it is the one which most needs a test as we note it was £22 as recently as January.

Labour Market

Let us start with what are a couple of pieces of good news.

The UK employment rate was estimated at 76.2%, 0.4 percentage points higher than a year earlier but little changed on the previous quarter; despite just reaching a new record high, the employment rate has been broadly flat over the last few quarters.

They get themselves into a little bit of a mess there so let me zero in on the good bit which is tucked away elsewhere.

There was a 24,000 increase in employment on the quarter.

There was also a favourable shift towards full-time work.

This was driven by a quarterly increase for men (up 54,000) and full-time employees (up 50,000 to a record high of 20.71 million), but partly offset by a 30,000 decrease for women and a 61,000 decrease for part-time employees.

I do not know why there was some sexism at play and suspect it is just part of the ebb and flow unless one of you have a better suggestion.

The next good bit was this.

the estimated UK unemployment rate for all people was 3.8%, 0.3 percentage points lower than a year earlier but largely unchanged on the previous quarter…….For August to October 2019, an estimated 1.28 million people were unemployed. This is 93,000 fewer than a year earlier and 673,000 fewer than five years earlier.

There were fears that the unemployment rate might rise. But the reality has been reported by the BBC like this.

UK unemployment fell to its lowest level since January 1975 in the three months to October this year. The number of people out of work fell  by 13,000 to 1.281 million.

Wages

This area more problematic and complex so let me start my explanation with the data.

Estimated annual growth in average weekly earnings for employees in Great Britain slowed to 3.2% for total pay (including bonuses) and 3.5% for regular pay (excluding bonuses).

The first impact is simply of lower numbers than we have become used to especially for total pay. Let us move to the explanation provided.

The annual growth in total pay was weakened by unusually high bonus payments paid in October 2018 compared with more typical average bonus payments paid in October 2019.

I have looked at the detail and this seems to have been in the finance and construction sectors where bonus pay was £12 per week and £6 per week lower than a year before. I have to confess I am struggling to think why October 2018 was so good as the numbers now are in line with the others? Anyway this should wash out so to speak in the next 2 months as October 2018 really stood out. Otherwise I would be rather troubled about a monthly increase this year that is only 2.4% above a year before.

So if we now switch to regular pay then 3.5% is a bit lower than we had become used to but in some ways is more troubling. This is because the spot figure for October was 3.2% and it looks as if it might be sustained.

This public sector pay growth pattern is affected by the timing of NHS pay rises which saw some April 2018 pay increases not being paid until summer 2018. As a result, public sector pay estimates for the months April to July 2019 include two NHS pay rises for 2018 and 2019 when compared with 2018. In addition, the single month of April 2019 included a one-off payment to some NHS staff.

Thus public-sector pay growth has faded away and is also now 3.2% on a spot monthly basis.

Anyway the peaks and troughs are as follows.

construction saw the highest estimated growth at 5.0% for total pay and 5.4% for regular pay…….retail, wholesale, hotels and restaurants saw the lowest growth, estimated at 2.3% for total pay and 2.5% for regular pay; this is the sector with the lowest average weekly pay (£339 regular pay compared with £510 across the whole economy)

Comment

There are elements here with which we have become familiar. The quantity numbers remain good with employment rising and unemployment falling although the rate of change of both has fallen. Where we have an issue is in the area of wage growth. The context here is that it did improve just not as much as we previously thought it did. However we still have this.

In real terms (after adjusting for inflation), annual growth in total pay is estimated to be 1.5%, and annual growth in regular pay is estimated to be 1.8%.

That is calculated using the woeful CPIH inflation measure but by chance it at CPI are pretty similar right now, so I will simply point out it would be lower but still positive using RPI.

Thus we see that wage growth and inflation seem both set to fall over the next few months as we wait to see how that balances out. But the underlying issue is that we have an area which in spite of the recent improvements is still stuck in a depression.

For October 2019, average regular pay, before tax and other deductions, for employees in Great Britain was estimated at £510 per week in nominal terms. The figure in real terms (constant 2015 prices) is £472 per week, which is still £1 (0.2%) lower than the pre-recession peak of £473 per week for April 2008.

The equivalent figures for total pay in real terms are £502 per week in October 2019 and £525 in February 2008, a 4.3% difference.

Fingers crossed that we can escape it…..

 

Where next for US house prices?

Yesterday brought us up to date in the state of play in the US housing market. So without further ado let us take a look.

The S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price NSA Index, covering all nine U.S. census divisions, reported a 3.2% annual gain in September, up from 3.1% in the previous month. The 10-City Composite annual increase came in at 1.5%, no change from the previous month. The 20-City Composite posted a 2.1% year-over-year gain, up from 2.0% in the previous month.

The first impression is that by the standards we have got used to that is a low number providing us with another context for the interest-rate cuts we have seen in 2019 from the US Federal Reserve. Of course it is not only the Fed that likes higher asset prices.

“DOW, NASDAQ, S&P 500 CLOSE AT RECORD HIGHS”

Another new Stock Market Record. Enjoy!

Those are 2 separate tweets from Monday from President Trump who not only loves a stock market rally but enjoys claiming it is all down to him. I do not recall him specifically noting house prices but it seems in the same asset price pumping spirit to me.

In my opinion the crucial part of the analysis provided by S&P comes right at the beginning.

After a long period of decelerating price increases, it’s notable that in September both the national and
20-city composite indices rose at a higher rate than in August, while the 10-city index’s September rise
matched its August performance. It is, of course, too soon to say whether this month marks an end to
the deceleration or is merely a pause in the longer-term trend.

If we look at the situation we see that things are very different from the 10% per annum rate reached in 2014 and indeed the 7% per annum seen in the early part of last year.That will concern the Fed which went to an extreme amount of effort to get house prices rising again. From a peak of 184.62 in July of 2006 the national index fell to 134.62 in February of 2012 and has now rallied to 212.2 or 58% up from the low and 15% up from the previous peak.

As ever there are regional differences.

Phoenix, Charlotte and Tampa reported the highest year-over-year gains among the 20 cities. In
September, Phoenix led the way with a 6.0% year-over-year price increase, followed by Charlotte with
a 4.6% increase and Tampa with a 4.5% increase. Ten of the 20 cities reported greater price increases
in the year ending September 2019 versus the year ending August 2019…….. Of the 20 cities in the composite, only one (San Francisco) saw a year-over-year price
decline in September

Mortgage Rates

If we look for an influence here we see a contributor to the end of the 7% per annum house price rise in 2018 as they rose back then. But since then things have been rather different as those who have followed my updates on the US bond market will be expecting. Indeed Mortgage News Daily put it like this.

2019 has been the best year for mortgage rates since 2011.  Big, long-lasting improvements such as this one are increasingly susceptible to bounces/corrections……Fed policy and the US/China trade war have been key players.

But we see that so far a move that began in bond markets around last November has yet to have a major influence on house prices. If you wish to know what US house buyers are paying for a mortgage here is the state of play.

Today’s Most Prevalent Rates For Top Tier Scenarios

  • 30YR FIXED -3.75%
  • FHA/VA – 3.375%
  • 15 YEAR FIXED – 3.375%
  • 5 YEAR ARMS –  3.25-3.75% depending on the lender

More recently bonds seem to be rallying again so we may see another dip in mortgage rates but we will have to see and with Thanksgiving Day on the horizon things may be well be quiet for the rest of this week.

The economy

This has been less helpful for house prices.There may be a minor revision later but as we stand the third quarter did this.

Real gross domestic product (GDP) increased 1.9 percent in the third quarter of 2019, according to the “advance” estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. In the second quarter, real GDP increased 2.0 percent. ( US BEA ).

Each quarter in 2019 has seen lower growth and that trend seems set to continue.

The New York Fed Staff Nowcast stands at 0.7% for 2019:Q4.

News from this week’s data releases increased the nowcast for 2019:Q4 by 0.3 percentage point.

Positive surprises from housing data drove most of the increase.

Something of a mixture there as the number rallied due to housing data from building permits and housing starts.Mind you more supply into the same demand could push future prices lower! But returning to the wider economy back in late September the NY Fed was expecting economic growth in line with the previous 5 months of around 2% in annualised terms.But now even with a rally it is a mere 0.7%.

Employment and Wages

The situation here has continued to improve.

Total nonfarm payroll employment rose by 128,000 in October, and the unemployment rate was little
changed at 3.6 percent, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Notable job gains occurred in
food services and drinking places, social assistance, and financial activities……..In October, average hourly earnings for all employees on private nonfarm payrolls rose by 6 cents to $28.18. Over the past 12 months, average hourly earnings have increased by 3.0 percent.

But the real issue here is the last number. Yes the US has wage gains and they are real wage gains with CPI being as shown below in October.

Over the last 12 months, the all items index increased 1.8 percent before seasonal adjustment.

So this should be helping although it is a slow burner at just over 1% per annum and of course we are reminded that according to the Ivory Towers the employment situation should mean that wage growth is a fair bit higher and certainly over 4% per annum.

Moving back to looking at house prices then wage growth is pretty much the same so houses are not getting more affordable on this criteria.

Comment

As we review the situation it is hard not to laugh at this from Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell on Monday.

While events of the year have not much changed the outlook,

You can take this one of two ways.Firstly his interest-rate cuts are not especially relevant or you can wonder why he did them? Looking at the trend for GDP growth does few favours to his statement nor for this bit.

Fortunately, the outlook for further progress is good

Indeed he seemed to keep contradicting himself.

 The preview indicated that job gains over that period were about half a million lower than previously reported. On a monthly basis, job gains were likely about 170,000 per month, rather than 210,000.

But I do note that house prices did get an implicit reference.

But the wealth of middle-income families—savings, home equity, and other assets—has only recently surpassed levels seen before the Great Recession, and the wealth of people with lower incomes, while growing, has yet to fully recover.

As to other signals we get told pretty much every day that the trade war is fixed so there is not a little fatigue and ennui on this subject. Looking at the money supply then it should be supportive but the most recent number for narrow money M1 at 6.8% shows a bit of fading too.

So whilst we may see a boost for the economy from around the spring of next year we seem set for more of the same for house prices.Unless of course the US Federal Reserve has to act again which with the ongoing Repo numbers is a possibility. The background is this though which brings me back to why central bankers are so keen on keeping on keeping house prices out of consumer inflation measures.Can you guess which of the lines below goes into the official CPI?

https://www.bourbonfm.com/blog/house-price-index-vs-owners-equivalent-rent-residences-1990

Whilst it is not sadly up to date it does establish a principle….

 

 

Australia gets ready for QE but claims to reject negative interest-rates

So far the credit crunch era has been relatively kind to Australia. A major factor in this has simply been one of location as its huge natural resources have been a boon and that has been added to by its proximity to a large source of demand. Or putting it another way that is why we have at times given it the label of the South China Territories. However times are now rather different with the headlines being occupied by the subject of the various trade wars and as we have noted along the way this is particularly impacting on the Pacific region. Thus we find that the Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia has given a speech this morning on unconventional monetary policy as they too fear that the super massive black hole that was the impact of the credit crunch may be pulling them towards an event horizon.

Why?

If we look at the state of play as claimed by Philip Lowe you may be wondering why this speech is necessary at all?

The central scenario for the Australian economy remains for economic growth to pick up from here, to reach around 3 per cent in 2021. This pick-up in growth should see a reduction in the unemployment rate and a lift in inflation. So we are expecting things to be moving in the right direction, although only gradually.

This is straight out of the central banking playbook where you discuss such moves and then imply they will not be necessary. They think it is a way of deflecting blame and speaking of deflecting blame interest-rate cuts are nothing to do with them either.

low interest rates are not a temporary phenomenon. Rather, they are likely to be with us for some time and are the result of some powerful global factors that are affecting interest rates everywhere

If interest-rates are indeed set by “powerful global factors” then we could trim central banks down to a small staff surely?

Banks

As ever it turns out to be all about “The Precious! The Precious!” for any central banker.

At the moment, though, Australia’s financial markets are operating normally and our financial institutions are able to access funding on reasonable terms. In any given currency, the Australian banks can raise funds at the same price as other similarly rated financial institutions around the world, and markets are not stressed.

You might think that plunging into unconventional economic policy might be driven by the real economy but oh no as you can see there is a different driver. In spite of the effort below to say Australia is different this means that it has learnt nothing and will make the same mistakes.

We are not in the same situation that has been faced in Europe and Japan. Our growth prospects are stronger, our banking system is in much better shape, our demographic profile is better and we have not had a period of deflation. So we are in a much stronger position.

Again this is a central banking standard as they claim “this time is different” and then apply exactly the same policies!

QE it is then

We get various denials which I will come to in a bit but the crux of the matter is below.

My fourth point is that if – and it is important to emphasise the word if – the Reserve Bank were to undertake a program of quantitative easing, we would purchase government bonds, and we would do so in the secondary market.

The explanation of why he would choose this option will certainly be popular with Australia’s politician’s.

The first is the direct price impact of buying government bonds, which lowers their yields. And the second is through market expectations or a signalling effect, with the bond purchases reinforcing the credibility of the Reserve Bank’s commitment to keep the cash rate low for an extended period.

You may note that he has contradicted himself with the second point as he has already told us that low interest-rates are “are likely to be with us for some time”.  He then points out again that he has already acted this year.

It is important to remember that the economy is benefiting from the already low level of interest rates, recent tax cuts, ongoing spending on infrastructure, the upswing in housing prices in some markets and a brighter outlook for the resources sector.

That also gets awkward because having cut interest-rates by 0.75% already this calendar year Governor Lowe is implying we could get to his QE threshold quite quickly.

Our current thinking is that QE becomes an option to be considered at a cash rate of 0.25 per cent, but not before that. At a cash rate of 0.25 per cent, the interest rate paid on surplus balances at the Reserve Bank would already be at zero given the corridor system we operate. So from that perspective, we would, at that point, be dealing with zero interest rates.

Why QE?

Well he is clearly no fan of negative interest-rates.

More broadly, though, having examined the international evidence, it is not clear that the experience with negative interest rates has been a success.

Indeed he may even have read yesterday’s post on here.

Negative interest rates also create problems for pension funds that need to fund long-term liabilities.

Or perhaps he has been a longer-term follower.

In addition, there is evidence that they can encourage households to save more and spend less, especially when people are concerned about the possibility of lower income in retirement. A move to negative interest rates can also damage confidence in the general economic outlook and make people more cautious.

Although this bit is quite a hostage to fortune and may come back to haunt Governor Lowe.

The second observation is that negative interest rates in Australia are extraordinarily unlikely.

Comment

It is hard not to have a wry smile as central bankers catch up with a point I was making about a decade ago.

Given these considerations, it is not surprising that some analysts now talk about the ‘reversal interest rate’ – that is, the interest rate at which lower rates become contractionary, rather than expansionary

I argued it was in the region of 1.5% and Australia is now well below it so it is I think singing along with 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

As to why the RBA is preparing the ground for even more monetary action then let me switch to Deputy Governor Debelle who also spoke today. This starts well.

Over much of the past three years, employment has grown at a healthy annual pace of 2½ per cent. This has been faster than we had expected, particularly so, given economic growth was slower than we had expected.

But in a reversal of the Meatloaf dictum that “two out of three aint bad” we get this.

But the unemployment rate has turned out to be very close to what we had expected and has moved sideways around 5¼ per cent for some time now………Then I will look at wages growth and show that the lower average wage outcomes of the past few years have reflected the increased prevalence of wages growth in the 2s across the economy.

The next issue is that does the mere mention of QE operate in the same manner as The Candyman in the film? If so that is at least 2 mentions in Australia so at the most we have 3 to go before it appears.

Finally with a ten-year bond yield already at 1.06% or about 1.5% lower than a year ago, what extra is there to be gained?

 

 

 

 

UK employment trends will worry the Bank of England

Today moves us on from the output situation of the UK economy to the employment and wages situation. On the latter we have already received some good news this week. From the BBC.

Thousands of UK workers will enjoy a pre-Christmas pay bump if their employer is a member of the “real living wage” campaign.

Businesses who have signed up to the voluntary scheme will lift their UK hourly rate by 30p to £9.30.

People living in London will see their hourly pay rise by 20p to £10.75.

The scheme is separate to the statutory National Living Wage for workers aged 25 and above which currently stands at £8.21 an hour.

The Living Wage Foundation said its “real” pay rate – which applies to all employees over 18 – is calculated independently and is based on costs such as food, clothing and household bills.

If we look at the wider pay picture we see from the Bank of England that it has been really rather good.

Pay growth has increased steadily over the past few years as the labour market has tightened. Private sector regular
pay growth was 4.0% in the three months to August, as high as it has been in over a decade. The
strength in pay growth has been broadly based, with growth picking up in both the private and public sectors in recent years.

I am not so sure about their “increased steadily” as they have been like the boy ( and occasional girl) who cried wolf on this subject. But we have seen a better phase and it is this that has been a major factor in keeping us away from recession and seeing some economic growth. The fear looking ahead is that it may fade.

A number of indicators suggest that pay pressures are no longer building, and pay growth may cool over the coming
months . The Bank’s settlements database suggests pay awards are clustering between 2% and 3%, slightly
lower than a year ago. Surveys by the REC and the Bank’s Agents also suggest pay growth is stabilising a little below
the pace of growth in the official data.

This may not be as bad for real pay growth as you might think because there are grounds for thinking inflation will decline. The rally in the UK Pound £ will help bring it lower and I note that having improved against the Euro to over 1.16 we should head towards the inflation rate there.

Euro area annual inflation is expected to be 0.7% in October 2019, down from 0.8% in September according to a
flash estimate from Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union.

Today’s Data

If we start with the wages data then maybe the Bank of England has been right for once. It does not happen often so let’s give them a little credit.

In the year to September 2019, nominal total pay (which includes bonus payments) grew by 3.6% to reach £542 per week. Over the same period, nominal regular pay (which excludes bonus payments) grew by 3.6% to reach £508 per week.

The nuance to this is that it was not so long ago we would be quite happy with this and there were suspicions that the numbers had been boosted by the timing of NHS settlements. The official view on the impact of this is shown below.

Total and regular pay can be expressed in real terms when they have been deflated. We deflate them using the Consumer Prices Index including owner occupiers’ housing costs (CPIH) (2015=100). After adjustment, real total pay increased by 1.8% over the year to £502 in September 2019. Real regular pay increased by 1.7% over the year to £470.

I am pleased they have switched to “we deflate them” which at least gives some sort of hint of the woeful inflation measure they use as it is driven ( 17%) by imputed rents. As it happens because house price growth has fallen back it is not as wrong as usual but is still an over estimate of real wage growth in my opinion.

There was a counter current in the detail because September wage growth at 3.6% was better than the 3.4% of August. The sector pulling it higher was construction at 6%.

A Wages Depression?

If we move to the bigger picture then even using such a flattering and favourable view of inflation cannot escape this reality.

real regular pay was £3 (or 0.63%) lower than the pre-downturn peak of reached in the three months to April 2008 (£473). The real total pay value of £502 in September was £23 (or 4.38%) lower than the peak reached in the three months to February 2008 (£525).

In spite of the recovery we have seen in other areas particularly output and employment those numbers are a stark reminder that the credit crunch era has brought ch-ch-changes. Even at the current rate of real wage growth it will be more than a couple of years before we do a Maxine Nightingale and get right back where we started from.

Employment

The Resolution Foundation have summed it up here.

it’s clear that there is no bigger change to our economy over this period than the employment boom. Over 3 million more people are in work and the working-age employment rate is around 3 percentage points higher than when we were last broadly at full employment in 2008.

They however find themselves in some theoretical quicksand highlighted by their use of “full employment” when it was a fair bit lower than now and the use of “broadly” does not cut it. They are in the same quicksand with wages as higher labour supply has apparently kept it low and yet in the past we recall being told that higher migration ( higher labour supply) did not affect wage growth.

But the picture here has been like the “Boom! Boom! Boom!” of the Black-Eyed Peas as we note that now the winds of change might be blowing.

The latest UK Labour Force Survey (LFS) estimates for Quarter 3 (July to Sept) 2019 saw employment decline by 58,000 to 32.75 million, the second rolling quarterly decrease. However, in the year to September 2019, employment increased by 323,000.

This is consistent with a slowing economy and high levels of employment. We will have to see if the numbers will ebb and flow or have now turned lower. Also the mixture has changed as recent years have been a case of let’s hear it for the girls.

The fall in employment in Quarter 3 was driven by the fall in the number of women in employment, down by 93,000 to 15.46 million. Over the same period, the number of employed men increased by 35,000 to 17.3 million.

Comment

Let me now switch to the best part of today’s report which is this.

The level of unemployment fell by 23,000 to 1.31 million in Quarter 3 2019, while the unemployment rate fell by 0.1 percentage point to 3.8%. Compared with Quarter 3 2018, the level of unemployment decreased by 72,000.

For newer readers unemployment and employment can both rise or as they have in this instance fall. It seems illogical but there is also an inactive category, but the specific move at this time of year is probably related to students.

The mixed picture we have today of slowing wage growth with employment falling will be noted at the Bank of England. Already 2 have voted for an interest-rate cut and more much of these will see that number rise. Of course the Bank of England is in quite a mess as Samuel Tombs of Pantheon inadvertently pointed out.

And at 3.8%, the u/e rate is well below the MPC’s estimate of its sustainable level, 4.25%.

So wage growth should be rising. Oh well! Also that is before we get to them thinking it was 4.5%, 5%, 5.5% and 6.5%. So they do not know what they are doing which usually in their case means another interest-rate cut is in the offing.

That would be curious as we are in a phase where bond yields generally have been backing up. The UK 5 and 2 year yields have risen in response to 0.55%, who said markets were always right? Or indeed always logical?