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The UK electoral cycle is alive and kicking

Yesterday’s UK Budget had one major surprise, the relaxation of rules regarding drawing down your pension. This means that from April 2015 you can draw down your pension pot in one go, to do with it as you wish. This policy move chimes with the coalition’s beliefs that one should take responsibility over one’s own finances. However, like all political decisions there may well be an ulterior motive behind the timing of this decision.

We talked previously about why a dovish central banker appointment at the Bank of England was politically expedient two years ahead of the May 2015 election. The current government had its last opportunity yesterday to add a last feel-good give away Budget to enhance the economy and its own electoral prospects. At first glance, what has it achieved with its surprise change in pension policy?

It has potentially released a huge wave of spending commencing April 2015. This will obviously make people feel wealthy as the cash literally becomes theirs as opposed to being locked away for a rainy day. The economic effect looks as though it would be too late to boost the economy ahead of the 2015 general election. However it is highly likely that the forthcoming pension pot release will be taken into account. Holidays would be booked ahead of the windfall, cars could be purchased, redecorating done, and Christmas presents bought as the promise of money tomorrow means you can run down saving and consume today. This pension release scheme will spur growth in the UK ahead of the election.

The particular neat trick of this policy change is that it is a giveaway Budget measure at no cost. This is because it is not the government giving away money, but it is simply giving people access to their own money. Fiscal stimulus at no cost, combined with low rates and a strong government sponsored housing market means the UK will continue to have a relatively strong economy.

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Deflating the deflation myth

There is currently a huge economic fear of deflation. This fear is basically built on the following three pillars.

First, that deflation would result in consumers delaying any purchases of goods and services as they will be cheaper tomorrow than they are today. Secondly, that debt will become unsustainable for borrowers as the debt will not be inflated away, creating defaults, recession and further deflation. And finally, that monetary policy will no longer be effective as interest rates have hit the zero bound, once again resulting in a deflationary spiral.

The first point is an example of economic theory not translating into economic practice. Individuals are not perfectly rational on timing when to buy discretionary goods. For example, people will borrow at a high interest rate to consume goods now that they could consume later at a cheaper price. One can also see how individuals constantly purchase discretionary consumer goods that are going to be cheaper and better quality in the future (for example: computers, phones, and televisions). Therefore the argument that deflation stops purchases does not hold up in the real world.

The second point that borrowers will go bust is also wrong. We have had a huge period of disinflation over the last 30 years in the G7 due to technological advances and globalisation. Yet individuals and corporates have not defaulted as their future earnings disappointed due to lower than expected inflation.

The third point that monetary policy becomes unworkable with negative inflation is harder to explore, as there are few recent real world examples. In a deflationary world, real interest rates will likely be positive which would limit the stimulatory effects of monetary policy. This is problematic, as monetary policy loses its potency at both the zero bound and if inflation is very high. This makes the job of targeting a particular inflation rate (normally 2%) much more difficult.

What should the central bank do if there is naturally low deflation, perhaps due to technological progress and globalisation? One response could be to head this off by running very loose monetary policy to stop the economy experiencing deflation, meaning the central bank would attempt to move GDP growth up from trend to hit an inflation goal. Consequences of this loose monetary policy may include a large increase in investment or an overly tight labour market. Such a policy stance would have dangers in itself, as we saw post 2001. Interest rates that were too low contributed to a credit bubble that exploded in 2008.

Price levels need to adjust relative to each other to allow the marketplace to move resources, innovate, and attempt to allocate labour and capital efficiently. We are used to this happening in a positive inflation world. If naturally good deflation is being generated maybe authorities should welcome a world of zero inflation or deflation if it is accompanied by acceptable economic growth. Central banks need to take into account real world inflationary and deflationary trends that are not a monetary phenomenon and set their policies around that. Central bankers should be as relaxed undershooting their inflation target as they are about overshooting.

Under certain circumstances central banks should be prepared to permit deflation. This includes an environment with a naturally deflating price level and acceptable economic growth. By accepting deflation, central banks may generate a more stable and efficient economic outcome in the long run.

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The European monetary zone getting back on course ?

In my last blog I focused on the transition mechanism of financial policy in the UK, with government actions targeting the housing market, thus having the effect of loosening monetary policy. This encouraged us to look once again at the situation in Europe. Is the ECB any nearer making the monetary transmission system actually work?

Back in May 2011 we wrote about how the monetary system in the eurozone was not working effectively because different nations faced different interest rates in the private and public sector. One central bank rate was not being transmitted across the whole eurozone.

By using official money market rates as depicted by Euribor and adding bank CDS spreads as a proxy for the real cost of borrowing, we illustrated the difficulty the ECB was having in transmitting a single policy through a fractured financial system. We have brought the chart up to date below, and as you can see, the situation is no longer as extreme.

Estimate of marginal funding cost for peripheral banks

Thankfully, some semblance of order is being returned. The drag on growth from the massive fiscal adjustment that most of Europe has been through over the past few years could be petering out. Hopefully, less restrictive policy will point to future economic growth across the region. Although some progress has been made and funding costs have come down, access to credit remains restricted for many in the real world (see for example Ana’s blog from August). But if the ECB and the authorities can continue to heal the banking system then a virtuous circle of confidence could return to the eurozone, once again making loose monetary policy set by the ECB flow into the real world in the periphery.

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Mortgage intervention – the UK government’s unconventional attempt to ease monetary policy

Since we started writing these blogs almost 7 years ago we have spent an understandably great deal of time discussing Bank of England monetary policy in the UK, initially with regard to conventional interest rate policy and now in the context of the unconventional policies we see today.

The most recent unconventional twist for monetary policy is not emanating from the Bank of England itself, but is effectively coming directly from the government. The Help to Buy home ownership scheme is a direct attempt to make the monetary transmission system more effective, with its supporters claiming it is a way to get free markets working so that good borrowers can access appropriate funding, while its detractors claim it’s stoking a housing boom and fuelling the next crisis.

One of the ways that monetary policy in the UK works is through the housing market. Interest rate changes reduce the cost of financing, which increases disposable income, or allows an individual to own a larger house for the same mortgage payments. This creates immediate wealth via higher disposable income, economic activity via the associated services and goods consumption that occurs with house moves, and a wealth effect as house prices rise.

It has been pretty plain that the connection between official interest rates and rates available in the real world has broken down during the financial crisis, as the banking system has been repressed from a capital, confidence, and regulatory point of view. The authorities have tried to counteract this by providing capital, encouraging the raising of capital, and providing huge amounts of liquidity. However, the traditional mechanism of rates feeding into the real economy in the UK via the housing channel was limited.

The Help to Buy and other schemes such as Funding for Lending are attempts to mend the disconnect between official rates, the banking system, and the real economy. Therefore they should be welcomed as an attempt to make monetary policy work again. This unconventional policy appears to be working. The UK housing market is strong. This week’s RICS survey showed that home sales in September reached a near four year high and the market is improving across the country, not just in London. As the chart below shows, there is potential for further strength in the future too, with sales expectations for the next three months reaching new highs.

RICS Sales Expectations at multi-year highs

My next chart shows 2 year fixed mortgage rates plotted against 2 year swap rates. As you can see, although swap rates plummeted from late 2008, when official interest rates were slashed in the height of the credit crisis, these falls were not passed on to the same degree in the real world through mortgage rates. But they are now becoming slowly more aligned, as swap rates have been gradually rising recently and mortgage rates continue to fall. This is obviously good for the housing market and the economy. This effect is about to get bigger as the availability of low deposit mortgages should provide a strong boost to all the activity associated with housing.

Mortgage rates are slowly reducing

Why has it taken so long to introduce this unconventional measure? It could have been a reluctance to stoke the housing market following the last crash, a belief that these kind of non-standard measures would not be needed, or it could be that it has been timed now in an attempt to push the economic cycle in line with the UK political cycle. The latter seems to be a consequence of the measures. They have been introduced in time to boost the housing market and the economy, and are set to expire before the election to encourage a rush of buying, as occurred with the removal of mortgage interest tax relief in the 1980s.

The UK economy looks set to be strong in the run up to the election as the disconnect between official rates and real activity gets resolved. The liquidity trap is being solved by government action. For better or worse, the UK housing market is going to be at the centre of UK economic activity once again.

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Full time, not part time, economic recovery

When meeting UK clients we obviously spend a lot of time discussing employment and the relative strength of the UK economy. The chart below from the Bank of England shows the recovery in employment in comparison to previous recessions. It actually looks quite good versus the other mega recessions.

UK employment is well above previous recession levels

One very good common question we often get is along the lines that the employment number is “not real” as part time employment has gone through the roof.

The chart below shows part time employment as a percentage of the total number of workers in the UK. There is obviously an ongoing trend to part time employment that has continued from the peak of the crisis. It appears that part time employment increased relatively rapidly through the recession. However, since 2010 the ratio has been declining. Therefore the recent recovery in employment appears genuine and not flattered by part time workers.

Part time employment has moved sideways since 2010

The UK economic recovery is real, and thankfully fiscal deficits, and interest rate policy have worked. The market’s fears of permanent recession are diminishing as reflected in the current bear market for UK gilts. The economic panic illustrated by very low yields where gilts became very dear (see this blog from January 2012), is over. The gilt market yield is returning towards better value, with ten year yields once again around three percent, as the UK economic recovery remains firmly on track.

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Jobless claims and Fed policy

Today’s release of jobless claims shows that the US economy is continuing its healthy response to the stimulus provided by the Fed. Momentum in the US labour force remains in a positive direction.

The very long term chart below shows today’s headline number of 331,000 to be relatively low historically. However, this is actually understating the current strength of the labour market.

Slide1

In order to interpret the jobless rate more effectively we need to look at it as a percentage of the ever increasing labour force, and not just the headline number. We have made those adjustments in the chart below.

Slide2

The fact that the economy has thankfully responded to low rates is good, though not new, news. However, the one thing that is very different this time is where we are in the interest rate cycle. At previous lows in jobless claims the Fed has typically been tightening to slow the market down. This time they are still in full easing mode with conventional and unconventional policy measures. This contrasts dramatically with the lows in jobless claims in the late ’80s and the beginning and the middle of the last decade, when the Fed was already in full tightening mode. This is highlighted in the chart below.

Slide3

As you would expect to see, interest rate policy works with a lag. Given that we are unlikely to see conventional tightening for a while, one would expect the US economy to remain in decent shape.

A bear market in bonds can be seen as predicting a future normalisation of rates. If, like the Fed, you recognise that this time around things are not all normal, then you could expect short rates to stay low and employment growth to continue. The extent of the current bear market in bonds is therefore limited by the new environment we are in, where conventional economic systems have been amended and changed by the financial crisis.

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Lower for longer – the path to Fed tightening

The disclosure of the latest Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting minutes last night has pushed the US bond market to new lows for the year, further extending the current bear market in world government bonds. Looking at what the Fed is doing is nothing new. Back in the day when I first started, we had dedicated teams of Fed watchers, trying to work out its next move, as rate changes were frequent and unpredictable. The current policy is to make less frequent changes and be more transparent. So what does the FOMC’s forward guidance by providing its internal thoughts tell us today?

The committee knows that what is discussed will affect the markets, so a stylised version of its discussion needs to be produced. The release of the minutes is a manufactured and glossy disclosure of its work presented to make the FOMC look good and influence its followers. So what was the message from last night?

Well, it is more of the same about the need to tighten as we previously blogged here. The Fed continues to follow the script. The basic scenario is that they need to get the party goers out of the bar with the minimum trouble. This is why the Fed is keen for us to see that they discussed reducing the unemployment threshold at the last meeting. This is akin to saying ‘drink up’ to a late night reveller, with the hint that once they’ve done so there is a chance the bar staff will pour them another drink.

The Fed wants a steady bear market in bonds in this tightening cycle as it is still fearful over economic strength and fortunately inflationary pressures remain benign. This is very different from major tightening cycles in the past such as 1994, when the Fed was more keen to create uncertainty and fear in the bond market as they wanted to tighten rapidly and were still fearful of inflation given the experience of the 70s and 80s.

So when will official interest rates go up? Strangely you could argue that the successful creation of a steady bear market in bonds extends the period they can keep rates on hold. Monetary tightening via the long end reduces the need for monetary tightening in the conventional way. For example, as you can see from the following chart, the 100bps or so sell-off in 30 year treasuries since May has translated into a similar move higher in mortgage costs for the average American.

22.08.14 30y mortgage costs

If the Fed has its way in guiding a steady bear market in bonds, then bizarrely short rates could indeed stay lower for longer.

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Mr 7 percent – exploring unemployment in the UK

The governor at the Bank of England stepped forward last week with guidance about its future plans and conditions regarding the tightening of monetary policy. Ben gave his views on the announcement here last week, but what I am going to focus on is the 7 percent unemployment rate ‘knockout’.

Firstly, why has the Bank of England decided to use the unemployment rate as an indicator of inflationary pressures? Well, in the press conference they expressed that this is a good indicator of excess capacity. This has some obvious logic to it, so let’s explore this knockout level in an historical context.

Below is a chart of UK unemployment going back 20 years. As you can see, the rate was below 7 percent from 1997 to 2009 – a period of good economic growth where the bank acted regularly to tighten policy to keep inflation under control. In fact this new knockout does not appear to be new news, as the bank rate has rarely increased when unemployment exceeded 7 percent over this period.

Rates have rarely been hiked with unemployment above 7%

Looking at the next chart you can see the regions that currently have unemployment at 7 percent or below and the ones that do not. This regional disparity is not as strong as in Europe, but is something one should take into account.

UK unemployment by region

Mobility of labour is needed for the rate to fall below 7 percent, with work relocated to labour and labour relocated to work. This is beyond the Bank of England’s remit, and is more of a central government economic project. The better regional labour mobility is, the quicker the UK can get unemployment below 7 percent. So, the easier it is to move house, or the quicker transport links are, the quicker unemployment can get below 7 percent. If regional labour mobility in the UK is very rigid then getting below 7 percent may not occur for years.

One new factor that we should take into account is the developing context of the wider European labour market. The UK workforce is not only competing as a whole internationally, but within the domestic economy it now also competes with international labour. The free movement of labour in the European Union combined with high rates of unemployment on the continent means that UK unemployment (spare labour capacity) can no longer be set with reference to our domestic borders. The huge pool of available labour could well dampen reductions in UK measured unemployment, aided by the UK’s tradition of welcoming foreign labour, its diversity of population (especially in areas seeking workers), and the fact that English is a well taught second language abroad. This could well act to reduce the ability of unemployment to fall in the UK despite low policy rates.

Even if the UK economy does respond to monetary policy and we reach escape velocity, labour immobility in the UK and or the supply of continental labour will have a baring on when the 7 percent unemployment rate is knocked out. Using this as a signal to raise rates could well mean that rates stay low for a long time even as the economy recovers.

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Time gentlemen please: the Fed prepares its exit from QE

The punch bowl of easy money that the US Federal Reserve has offered the market has been significant over the last 5 years: from low rates, to quantitative easing and benign regulation. The purpose of the party was to keep animal spirits high and prevent the gloomy cycle of recession from turning into depression. This generosity has been mirrored around the world in different guises, and so far the policy has worked with varying degrees of success. The net effect has been to avoid economic depression.

Low interest rates and deficit spending have worked in the USA. The two charts below show the long term trend in US interest rates (wow what a party!) and the trend in unemployment, with the annotations showing how long after the peak in unemployment the Fed waited before hiking rates. This time around, not only has the volume of liquidity that has been served been record breaking, but the extent of the party, in terms of how long we have been sitting at the bar enjoying ourselves, has been remarkable compared to other cycles. Unwinding this is obviously going to pose some challenges.

US interest rates have been in a 30 year bull market

S unemployment continues to trend lower

Barman Ben Bernanke realises he is faced with this problem, as depression is now highly unlikely in his neighbourhood. The financial system is functioning, the housing market is in a new bull market, and unemployment is on a firm downtrend. The futures market is currently discounting the first rate hike from the Fed in early 2016, but growth could easily come in stronger than expected given the rebound in the housing market, which could also reduce unemployment faster than people anticipate (see Jim’s blog here for a discussion of how powerful the housing effect could be). So there’s a real risk that the Fed will have to move before the market expects. The attached chart shows that according to Unicredit, given the average pace of payroll gains over the past 6 months, the unemployment threshold could be reached as early as mid 2014, and possibly sooner if the housing market continues to strengthen.

Timeline for 6.5 unemployment under different scenarios

Given the jittery moves in the markets over the past couple of weeks on talk of tapering QE, Bernanke needs to decide how to wind down the party he has generously hosted, with the minimum of damage.

He does not want to upset his customers (the markets) too much, as the chaos that can ensue when a crowd of drunks is thrown out onto the street is never pleasant. He needs to gently guide his customers genially to the door.

This in effect is what Fed speak is currently doing. The Fed knows the economy is on a sound footing and that it needs to take some of the financial stimulus away. It is basically saying thanks for your custom, please finish up your drinks and leave the bar. And like any fine host, the Fed pats its drunk customers on the back and promises they will reopen tomorrow so the customer leaves smiling and hopeful.

Time gentleman, please.

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The King speech

Today is the last inflation report for Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England. He has served the bank for many years and has been the key figure at the bank for the past eight years.

King’s abdication (retirement) is a time to reflect on his achievements at the top. A keen football fan who happily uses soccer analogies, King would probably recognise his time as Governor has been a game of two halves.

The first half was great, with no apparent need to interfere with a perfectly balanced, strong growth, low inflation economy. The second half involved a great deal of stress and the need for intervention as the economy was weak, the inflation target was constantly missed, and he faced the financial equivalent of Chernobyl, as the banking sector began to meltdown.

King is not only a football fan but is also a regular sight at Wimbledon. Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’ is the guide to how players should play on its perfect English grass courts. It is fair to say that King has appropriately treated success and failure in the same way.  I would argue that his failures were in the first half of his term and his strength and ability shone through in the second half of his term. Although his critics may say that the seeds of the financial crisis were sown under his watch.

I think the seeds of the UK financial crisis were as follows:

Inappropriately low interest rates in the USA following the tragic events of September the 11th.

The removal of bank supervision from the Bank of England by Gordon Brown.

The need to hit a rigid inflation target when the world was enjoying low inflation because of world trade and productivity growth meant the use of over stimulative policy, causing a boom to keep inflation on target.

The euro creation resulted in an unstable financial system in Europe.

The first three of these have been resolved with the passage of time, a change in UK banking regulation back to the old ways, and a move around the world to more flexible inflation targeting. The last – the issue of banking in the eurozone – remains unresolved, but there are strong signs that potentially successful attempts are underway to solve the dichotomy of banking support from sovereign states within the eurozone.

We are avid watches of the inflation reports, and will be watching it today. The journalists get to ask questions. If I was there these are the three I would like to ask:

1. What do you think of the euro as an economic concept?

2. How close were we to financial Armageddon?

3. How does QE work?!

Sadly I think Mervyn will be as discreet as always in the press conference. Let’s hope that when he is allowed to speak freely, we get to see a little less candour and more transparency and insight into what has been an exciting time to be at the bank.

I think history will show that Mervyn King did a good job in handling the crisis. After all, that’s what central banks were created to do as lenders of last resort. From an economist’s point of view, what does his leadership prove? Well, Goodhart’s law was again proving itself to be correct. You aim to be a boring central banker and look what happens!

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