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richard_woolnough_100

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 M&G YouGov Inflation Expectations Survey – Q4 2013

The M&G YouGov Inflation Expectations Survey for November shows that consumers in all countries surveyed expect inflation to rise from current levels in both one and five years’ time. In the UK, short-term inflation expectations fell over the quarter to 2.8%, following recent downward pressure on UK CPI. It may also suggest that the shock from recent increases in utility bills may be fading. Over five years, however, inflation is once again expected to rise to 3.0%, suggesting expectations for future inflation remain well anchored above the Bank of England’s (BoE) CPI target of 2.0%. We did not see the same spike in inflation expectations as in other recent inflation expectations surveys such as the Bank of England’s own survey, possibly as ours is more recent and was conducted between November 22-25.

In Europe, all countries surveyed with the exception of Switzerland, expect inflation to be equal to or higher than the European Central Bank’s (ECB) CPI target of 2.0% on both a one- and five-year ahead basis. All European Monetary Union (EMU) countries expect inflation to be higher in both one and five years than it is currently, while only two countries – Spain and Switzerland – anticipate it being less than 3.0% in 5 years’ time.

Comparing the results with those from earlier surveys reveals a number of noteworthy observations. Inflation expectations for one year ahead have fallen in all surveyed EMU countries since the start of 2013. This is unsurprising given the weak macroeconomic environment and the fact that commodity prices have declined by roughly 5.6% in the past three months. Consumers have also benefitted from a stronger euro, which has gained around 6.6% over the past year on a real effective exchange rate (REER) basis. Notably, short-term inflation expectations in France, Spain and Italy are now running well above their current inflation rates.

Survey respondents in Hong Kong show no signs of moderating their inflation expectations, which remain at a high level of 5.0% and 5.5% over one and five years, respectively. In Singapore, inflation expectations over one year are double current inflation (2%) whilst the five-year reading remains stable at 5.0%, as it has done throughout the course of 2013.

The findings and data from our November survey, which polled over 8,500 consumers internationally, is available in our latest report here or via @inflationsurvey on Twitter.

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Eurozone inflation surprises to the downside. ECB will grudgingly be forced to cut rates.

Last week saw year-on-year core inflation in the euro area fall from just over 1% in September to a two year low of 0.7% in October (see chart). Such a level is entirely inconsistent with the ECB’s definition of price stability as inflation “below but close to 2%”, and will likely be met with a downward revision to medium term inflation prospects and with it an ECB rate cut later this year.

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The ECB will no doubt have monitored the recent steady appreciation of the euro (see chart), which has effectively acted as a tightening of policy and will likely have a disproportionately negative effect on the periphery. Coupled with the latest inflation data, the strengthening of the euro will no doubt increase calls from the doves on the Governing Council (who should be acutely aware of the rising risks of a Japanese-style deflationary trap) to run a more stimulative policy.

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With little evidence of upward pressure on German wages, the internal devaluation required within the eurozone to facilitate a more competitive and balanced economic area has also been dealt a blow. Richard recently noted an improvement in euro area funding costs, and with it a stabilisation of broader economic data. However, this is from a very low base and the challenges that Europe continues to face should not be underestimated. Both unemployment and SME funding costs remain stubbornly high in the periphery and non-performing loans continue to move in the wrong direction (see chart). The ECB understandably wants to maintain pressure on politicians to deliver on structural reforms, and no doubt some harbour fears of leaving fewer policy tools at their disposal once they cut rates towards zero, but the risks of medium term inflation expectations becoming unanchored to the downside should be a wakeup call and a call to action!

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Will the Fed push EM over the edge?

We’ve been very worried about emerging markets for a couple of years, initially because of surging portfolio flows, better prospects for the US dollar and historically tight valuations (see The new Big Short – EM debt, not so safe, Sep 2011). But increasingly recently our concern has been driven by deteriorating EM fundamentals (see Why we love the US dollar, and worry about EM currencies, Jan 2013). A combination of miscommunicated and misconstrued Fed speak in May brought things to a head, and EM debt crashed in May to July (see EM debt funds hit by record daily outflow – is this a tremor, or is this ‘The Big One’? Jun 2013), although the asset class has since recovered roughly half of the losses. So where are we at now?

First up, fund flow data. Outflows from EM debt funds abated in July and August, briefly turned into inflows in mid September immediately following the non-tapering decision, but have since broadly returned to outflows (see chart below). Outflows from EM debt funds since May 23rd have been a very chunky $28bn, over $3bn of which have come since September 23rd.

However, as explained in the blog comment from June, EPFR’s now much-quoted fund flow data only apply to mutual funds, and while you get an idea of what the picture looks like, it’s only a small part of the picture. Just to emphasise this point, it has now become apparent that a significant part of the EMFX sell was probably due to central banks. The IMF’s quarterly Cofer database, which provides (limited) data on reserves’ currency composition, stated that advanced economy central banks’ holdings of “other currencies” fell by a whopping $27bn in Q2, where much of this ‘other’ bucket is likely to have been liquid EM currencies. Maybe half of this fall was driven by valuation effects, but half was probably dumping of EM FX reserves. Limitations of the EPFR data are also apparent given that there has been a slow bleed from EMD mutual funds this month, but that doesn’t really tally with market pricing given that EM debt and EM FX have been edging higher in October. An increase in risk appetite among EMD fund managers could account for this differential, although it’s more likely that institutional investors and other investors have been net buyers.

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A relative stabilisation in fund flows doesn’t mean that planet EM is fine again. The recent IMF/World Bank meetings had a heavy EM focus, which followed on from the negative tone towards EM in the latest editions of the IMF’s flagship World Economic Outlook and Global Financial Stability Report (GFSR). The IMF again voiced concerns about the magnitude of the EM portfolio flows, and the chart below suggests that flows have deviated substantially from what the IMF believes is a gentle trend upwards in investors’ allocation to EM. A reversal of recent years’ inflows back towards the long term trend level would cause considerable pain, and while $28bn of outflows since May 23rd may sound like a lot, this is only equivalent to the inflows in the year up to May 23rd, let alone the inflows from the preceding years. As explained in Chapter 1 of the GFSR, which is highly recommended reading, foreign investors have crowded into local emerging markets but market liquidity has deteriorated, making an exit more difficult.

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What now for EM debt? Your outlook will likely depend on how you weight and assess the different performance drivers for the asset class. There has been a heated debate in recent years on whether emerging market portfolio flows are driven primarily by so called ‘push factors’ (eg QE and associated negative developed country real interest rates pushing capital into countries where rates are higher), or whether flows are driven by ‘pull factors’ (eg domestic factors such as reforms or financial liberalisation). EM countries have tended to argue that push factors dominate, with Brazilian Finance Minister Mantega going as far as to accuse G3 policymakers of currency manipulation, while Fed Chairman Bernanke and future Chairman (Chairperson?) Yellen have argued that EM countries should let their currencies appreciate, although a recent Federal Reserve paper highlights both push and pull factors.

Number crunching from the IMF suggests that it is the EM policy makers who have the stronger arguments. In April’s GFSR, the IMF’s bond pricing model indicated that stimulative US monetary policy and lower global risk (itself partly attributable to the actions of advanced economy central banks) together accounted for virtually all of the 400 basis point reduction in hard currency sovereign debt from Dec 2008-Dec 2012, as measured by JP Morgan EMBI Global Index. Meanwhile, external factors were found to have accounted for about two thirds of the EM local currency yield tightening over this period. ‘Push factors’ therefore appear to dominate ‘pull factors’, something I agree with and have previously alluded to.

The relevance of external factors shouldn’t be a major surprise for EM investors given that the arguments are not remotely new. Roubini and Frankel have previously argued that macroeconomic policies in industrialised countries have always had an enormous effect on emerging markets. Easy monetary policy and a low global cost of capital in developed countries (as measured by low real interest rates) in the 1970s meant that developing countries found it easy to finance their large current account deficits, but the US monetary contraction of 1980-2 pushed up nominal and real interest rates, helping to precipitate the international debt crisis of the 1980s. In the early 1990s, interest rates in the US and other industrialised countries were once again low; investors looked around for places to earn higher returns, and rediscovered emerging markets. Mexico received large portfolio inflows, enabling it to finance its large current account deficit, but the Fed’s 1994 rate hikes and subsequent higher real interest rates caused a reversal of the flows and gave rise to the Tequila Crisis.

High real interest rates were maintained through the mid 1990s, the US dollar strengthened. Countries pegged to the US dollar lost competitiveness, saw external vulnerabilities grow and in 1997 we had the Asian financial crisis. In 1998, Russia succumbed to an artificially high fixed exchange rate, chronic fiscal deficits and low commodity prices (which were perhaps due in part to the high developed country real interest rates). A loosening of US monetary policy in the second half of 1998 alleviated the pressure on EM countries, but a sharp tightening in US monetary policy in 1999-2000 was arguably the final nail in the coffin for Argentina, and only IMF intervention prevented the burial of the rest of Latin America. The low US real interest rates/yields that have been in place ever since 2001-02 and particularly since 2009, together with the weak US dollar, have sparked not only large, but also uniquely sustained, portfolio flows into EM. [This is of course a gross simplification of the crises of the last 30 years, and there were also numerous domestic factors that explained why some countries were hit much harder than others, but it's difficult to dispute that US monetary policy has played a major role in the direction of capital flows on aggregate].

It’s starting to feel like Groundhog Day. Soaring US real and nominal yields from May through to August were accompanied by an EM rout. The tentative rally in EM over the last month has been accompanied by lower US real and nominal yields. Correlation does not imply causation, but investors should probably be concerned by the potential for US nominal and real yields to move higher as easy monetary policy is unwound. The date for the great monetary policy unwind is being pushed back, with consensus now for US QE tapering in March 2014, and if anything I’d expect it to be pushed back further given that it is hard to see how we’re going to avoid a rerun of the recent US political farce early next year. But this should only be a postponement of US monetary tightening, not a cancellation.

This year has been painful for EM, but it has been more a ‘spasmodic stall’ in capital flows rather than a fully fledged ‘sudden stop’. If, or perhaps when, the day of reckoning finally comes and US monetary policy is tightened, EM investors should be very concerned with EM countries’ growing vulnerability to portfolio outflows and ‘sudden stops’. [Guillermo Calvo coined the phrase 'sudden stop', and he and Carmen Reinhart have written extensively on the phenomenon, eg see 'When Capital Inflows Come to a Sudden Stop: Consequences and Policy Options (2000)']

History suggests that a good old fashioned ‘sudden stop’ would be accompanied by banking and particularly currency crises in a number of countries. There are numerous variables you can use to assess external vulnerabilities, and many people have been busy doing precisely that since May (eg see the Economist or a writeup on a piece from Nomura). In January I highlighted some of the lead indicators of EM crises regularly cited in the academic literature, namely measures of FX reserves, real effective exchange rates, credit growth, GDP and current account balances.

To be fair, a few of these crisis indicators are pointing to a slight improvement. Most notably, FX reserves are on the rise again – JP Morgan has highlighted that FX reserves of a basket of EM countries excluding China fell by $40bn between April and July, but that decline was fully reversed through August and September, even accounting for the fall in the US dollar (which pushes up the USD value of non-USD holdings).

Currencies of a number of EM countries have seen a sizeable and much needed nominal adjustment, although it’s important to highlight that while nominal exchange rates have fallen, the fact that inflation rates tend to be a lot higher in EM than in DM means that real exchange rates have dropped only perhaps 5% on average, which still leaves the majority of EM currencies looking overvalued and in need of significant further adjustment. In particular, Brazil has much further to go to unwind some of the huge appreciation of 2003-2011. Venezuela looks in serious trouble, which is what you expect given it is trying to maintain a peg to the US dollar at the same time as its official inflation rate has soared to 49.4% (Venezuela’s FX reserves have halved in five years, and are at the lowest levels since 2004).

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However some of these lead indicators are just as worrying as they were in January. While the rapid credit growth rates of 2009-2012 have eased a little in most countries, perhaps partly on the back of weaker portfolio flows, there’s no evidence of deleveraging. Indeed, China is as addicted to its credit bubble as ever, while Turkish credit growth is inexplicably re-accelerating. The charts below put China’s credit bubble into perspective, where the increase in China’s private debt/GDP ratio since 2008 is bigger than the US’ and the UK’s credit bubbles in the years running up to 2008, and China’s total debt/GDP ratio is approaching Japan’s ratio in 1988. A banking crisis in China at some point looks inevitable. Although a banking crisis will put a dent in China’s GDP growth, it shouldn’t be catastrophic for the economy in light of existing capital controls and high domestic savings (these savings will just be used to plug the holes in banks’ balance sheets). The pain will likely be felt more in China’s key trade partners, particularly in those most reliant on China’s surging and unsustainable investment levels, and of those, particularly the countries with growing external vulnerabilities (see If China’s economy rebalances and growth slows, as it surely must, then who’s screwed? Mar 2013).

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And probably the biggest concern is the rapidly deteriorating current account balances for almost all EM countries, where a country’s current account is essentially a broad measure of its trade balance. If you look through historical financial crises, large and/or sustained current account deficits are a feature that appears time and time again. Current account deficits were a feature of the LatAm debt crisis of the early 1980s, the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) crisis in 1992-3, Mexico in 1994, Asia in 1997, (arguably) Russia in 1998, Argentina and LatAm generally in 1999-02, Eastern Europe and many developed countries in the run up to 2008, and the Eurozone periphery (2010-?). Current account deficits are not by themselves necessarily ‘bad’ since by definition a current account deficit in one country must be balanced by a current account surplus elsewhere, and a country ought to be running a current account deficit and therefore attracting foreign capital if it has a young population and superior investment prospects. Foreign investors will willingly fund a current account deficit if they expect their investment will result in future surpluses, but no country is able to run a current account deficit (which is the same as accumulating foreign debt) indefinitely – if foreigners see a deficit as unsustainable then a currency crisis is likely. Maybe Mongolia’s or Mozambique’s current account deficits of almost 40% last year can be justified by the high expected returns from the huge mining/energy investment in the countries. Or maybe not.

But consistently large deficits, or rapidly deteriorating current account balances, can be indicative that things aren’t quite right, and that’s how many EM countries look to me today. Morgan Stanley coined the catchy term the ‘fragile five‘ to describe the large EM countries with the most obvious external imbalances (Indonesia, South Africa, Brazil, Turkey and India), and this is a term I gather those countries understandably aren’t overly impressed with (BRICS sounded so much nicer…). Unfortunately the list of fragile EM countries runs considerably longer than just these five countries.

The chart below highlights a select bunch of EM countries that are running current account surpluses and deficits. Some countries look OK – the Philippines and Korea appear to be in healthy positions on this measure with stable surpluses. Hungary has moved from running a large deficit to a small surplus, although Hungary needs to run sustained surpluses to make up for the period of very large deficits pre 2009*.

Almost all the other surplus countries have seen fairly spectacular declines in their current account surpluses. Malaysia’s surplus has plummeted from 18% of GDP in Q1 2009 to 4.6% in Q2 2013, while Russia, which is regularly cited as being among the least externally vulnerable EM countries, has seen its current account surplus steadily decline from over 10% in 2006 down to 2.3% in Q2 this year, a number last seen in Q2 1997, a year before it defaulted. Russia’s deteriorating current account is all the more alarming given that the historically high oil price should be resulting in large surpluses. Financing even a small current account deficit (which by definition would need financing from abroad) could cause Russia serious problems, and a lower oil price could also result in grave fiscal stresses given that the breakeven oil price needed to balance Russia’s budget has soared from $50-55/ barrel to about $118/ barrel in the last five years.

Many (but not all) current account deficit countries are looking grimmer still. A number of countries are seeing current account deficits as large or larger than they have historically experienced immediately preceding their previous financial crises. Turkey has long had a very large current account deficit, and while it has improved from almost 10% of GDP in 2011 to 6.6% in Q2 this year, the central bank’s reluctance to hike rates in response to a renewed credit bubble suggests this will again deteriorate. Despite the sharp drop in the rand, South Africa’s economic data has not improved – its current account deficit was 6.5% of GDP, and Q3 is likely to be very weak given the awful trade data in July and August. I continue to think South Africa should be rated junk, as argued in a blog from last year (the modelled 10% drop in the rand actually turned out to be overly optimistic!). India’s chronic twin deficits have been well documented – its current account deteriorated sharply in recent years, hitting a record 5.4% in Q4 2012 and with only a marginal improvement seen since then. As previously highlighted, Indonesia’s current account is now back to where it was in Q2 1997, immediately before the outbreak of the Asian financial crisis. Thailand’s previously large current account surplus has moved into deficit. Latin American countries tend to run reasonable sized deficits (as they generally should, given their stage of development), although Brazil and Chile have moved right into the danger zone.**

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Another concern is contagion risk. If the Fed does tighten monetary policy next year, investors withdraw from EM en masse and capital flows back to the US, and/or China blows up and takes EM down with it, then an EM crisis this time around could look very different to previous ones. EM crises have historically been regional in nature – the international debt crisis of the early 1980s is a possible exception, but even then it was Latin America that bore the brunt. The big difference this time around is that a material portion of the portfolio flows are from dedicated global EM funds and large ‘Total Return’ style global bond strategies, as opposed to flows from banks. If these funds withdraw from EM countries, or to be more precise, if the end investors in these funds liquidate their holdings in the funds, then the funds will be forced sellers of not only the countries that may be in trouble at that point in time, but will also be forced sellers of those countries that aren’t necessarily in trouble. In fact, in a time of crisis, they may only be able to sell down the better quality more liquid positions such as Mexico in order to meet redemptions. So if a crisis does develop then you’ll probably see a correlation of close to one across EM countries. And not just between EM countries – the fate of, say, Ireland, may now be tied to that of Ukraine, Ghana, Mexico, and Malaysia.

That’s the rather lengthy ‘story’ for emerging markets, but what about the most important thing – valuations? In June I concluded that following the sharp sell-off, EM debt offered better value than a few months before, and it therefore made sense to be less bearish on an asset class that we have long argued has been in a bubble (but that didn’t mean I was bullish). As mentioned above, EMD has now recovered roughly half the sharp losses of May and June, but given very little has fundamentally changed over the period, it makes sense to be more concerned about valuations again.

The charts below illustrate the yield spread pick up over US Treasuries on hard currency (as shown by the JPM EMBI Global spread) and EM local currency (as shown by 10 year yields on Brazil, Indonesia and Mexico). Even though a number of EM macroeconomic indicators are at or approaching historical crisis levels, spreads on hard currency EM debt are not far off the tights (although at least you are exposed to the US dollar, whose valuation I like). EM local currency yields are also offering an unspectacular yield pick up over US treasuries, but here you have to contend with a lot of EM currencies with arguably shaky valuations, and you additionally face the risk of some countries being forced to run pro-cyclical monetary policy (i.e. EM central banks hiking rates in the face of weakening domestic demand in order to prevent a disorderly FX sell-off , the result of which sees local currency bond yields rising, as seen recently in Brazil, India, Indonesia).

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So rising EM external vulnerabilities, combined with what are now fairly unattractive valuations, means that EM debt could potentially be teetering over the edge. Would the Fed give EM the final shove though?

On the one hand, while US domestic demand was considerably stronger in the 1990s than today, it’s interesting that during the really bad EM crises in 1997 & 1998, US GDP didn’t wobble at all, not remotely. US GDP was 5% in 1998, the strongest year since 1984, and 1997 saw the US economy grow at a not too shabby 4.4%. The Fed Funds rate didn’t budge at all in 1997 through the Asian crisis, and it wasn’t until after the Russian crisis in September 1998 that the Fed cut interest rates from 5.5% to 5.25% (and then again in October and November down to 4.75%), although this was a combination of domestic and foreign factors. Rates were actually back at 5.5% by November 1999 and continued higher to 6.5% by May 2000.

On the other hand, EM countries now account for about half of global GDP, so a direct hit to EM could loop quickly back to the US. This is something that the Federal Reserve has become acutely aware of in recent months (in case they weren’t already) given the extreme moves in EM asset prices. And in both the June and September press conferences, Bernanke was keen to stress that the Fed has lots of economists whose sole job is to assess the global impact of US monetary policy, and what’s good for the US economy is good for EM. That said, if US growth hits 3% next year, which is possible, it’s tricky to see how the Fed won’t start tightening monetary policy regardless of what EM is up to.

But the deteriorating EM current accounts may mean that at least a few EM countries won’t have to wait for a push from the Fed; they may topple over by themselves. A deteriorating current account deficit means that a country needs to attract ever increasing capital from abroad to fund this deficit. If developed countries’ appeal as investment destinations improves at the same time that a country such as South Africa’s appeal is deteriorating due to deteriorating economic fundamentals or other domestic factors, then investors will begin to question the sustainability of the deficits, resulting in a balance of payments crisis. EM investors need to be compensated for these risks in the form of higher yields, but in the majority of cases, yields do not appear sufficiently high, which therefore makes me more bearish on EM debt valuations.

*A current account deficit is an annual ‘flow’ number; Hungary’s ‘stock’ still looks ugly thanks to years of deficits, as shown by its Net International Investment Position. Hungary’s current account surplus is one of the few things Hungary has going for it. For more see previous blog.

** I’m still slightly baffled as to why Mexico HASN’T had a credit bubble given the huge portfolio inflows, the relative strength of its banking sector and a very steep yield curve, and it remains a favoured EM play (see Mexico – a rare EM country that we love from Feb 2012, although I’d downgrade ‘love’ to ‘like’ now given the massive inflows of the last 18 months and less attractive valuations versus its EM peers).

richard_woolnough_100

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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How do house prices feed into inflation rates around the world? It’s important for central banks, and for bond investors.

After the collapse in real estate prices in many of the major developed nations during and after the Great Financial Crisis, housing is back in demand again. Strong house price appreciation is being seen in most areas of the US, in the UK (especially in London), and German property prices have started to move up. We’re even seeing prices rise in parts of Ireland, the poster child for the property boom and bust cycle. I wanted to take a quick look at what rising house prices do for inflation rates. Not the second round effects of higher house prices feeding into wage demands, or the increased cost of plumbers and carpets, but the direct way that either house prices, mortgage costs and rents end up in our published inflation stats. Also, the question about whether central banks should target asset prices is another debate too (there’s some good discussion on that here).

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There is no simple answer to the question “how do house prices feed into the inflation statistics”. It varies not just from country to country, but also within the different measures of inflation within one geographical area. But given central banks’ rate setting/QE behaviour is determined by the published inflation measures it’s important to understand how house prices might, or might not, drive changes in those measures.

The US

“Shelter” is around 31% of the CPI which is used to determine the pricing of US inflation linked bonds (TIPS), but just 16% of the Core PCE Deflator, the measure that the Federal Reserve targets. The PCE is a broader measure, with much bigger weights to financial services and healthcare, so shelter measures therefore have to have a smaller weight in that measure. The CPI shelter weight looks high by international standards. For the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the purchase price of a house is not important except in how it influences the ongoing cost of providing shelter to its inhabitants. The method that the BLS uses to determine what those costs might be is “rental equivalence”. It surveys actual market rents, and augments this data by asking a sample of homeowners to estimate what it would cost them to rent the property that they live in (excluding utility bills and furniture). You can read a detailed explanation of this process here. In both the CPI and PCE, pure market rents are given around a quarter of the weight given to OER, Owners’ Equivalent Rent. There are problems with this – and not just with the accuracy of the homeowners’ rental guesses. Having rents and rental equivalence in the inflation data rather than a house price measure means that you can have – simultaneously – a house price bubble, and a falling impact from house prices in the inflation data. We’ve seen times when a speculative frenzy means house prices rise, but the impact of that speculation is overbuilding of property (just before the 2008 crash there was 12 months of excess inventory of houses in the US compared to a pre-bubble level of around 5 months) leading to falling rents. The reverse happened as the US recovered. House prices continued to tank, but because of a lack of mortgage finance more people were forced to rent, pushing up rents within the inflation data.

The UK

How house prices feed into the UK inflation data depends on whether you care about CPI inflation (which the Bank of England targets) or RPI inflation (which we bond investors care about as it’s the statistic referenced by the UK index linked bond markets). House prices directly feed into the RPI, but because house prices have little direct input into the CPI, the recent trend higher in UK property will lead to a growing wedge between the two measures – good news for index linked bond investors! The RPI captures house price rises in two ways – through Mortgage Interest Payments (MIPs) and House Depreciation. Mortgage payments will increase as the price of property rises, but they will most quickly reflect changes in interest rates. For example Alan Clarke of Scotia estimates that a hike in Bank Rate of 150 bps would feed almost immediately into the RPI, adding 1% to the annual rate. This is despite the trend in the UK for people to fix their mortgage payments. Housing Depreciation linked to UK house prices with a lag, and is an attempt to measure the cost of ownership (a bit like the BLS’s aim with rental equivalence) but has been criticized as overstating the cost of ownership in rising markets as house price inflation is almost always about land values accelerating rather than the bricks and mortar themselves. Land does not depreciate like other fixed assets (no wear and tear). Housing is very significant in the UK RPI, making up 17.3% of the basket (8.6% actual rents, 2.9% MIPs, 5.8% depreciation).

The UK’s CPI is a European harmonised measure of inflation. It only takes account of housing costs through a 6% weight on actual rents. There has never been agreement within the EU about how wider housing costs should be measured! Countries with high levels of home ownership have different views from countries with a high proportion of renters. Housing is around 18% of the expenditure of a typical person in the UK, so the Office of National Statistics regards the current CPI weight as a “weakness”. They therefore are now publishing CPIH, which includes housing on a rental equivalence basis (the same idea that the ONS measures “the price owner occupiers would need to rent their own home” as a dwelling is a “capital good, and therefore not consumed, but instead provides a flow of services that are consumed each period”). CPIH has a 17.7% weight to housing, but remains an experimental series, and plays no part in the official monetary targets.

The Eurozone

The European Central Bank targets CPI inflation, at or a little below 2%. As mentioned above the harmonised measure that Eurostat produces does not include any measure of housing other than actual rents, with a weight of 6%. If you think house price inflation (or deflation) is important for policymakers this low weighting has probably never mattered since the Eurozone came into existence. Although there have been pockets of very high house price inflation (Spain, Ireland, Netherlands) because the Big 3, Germany, France and Italy have had very little house price movement I doubt that a CPIH measure would be terribly different. We are, however, now seeing some upwards movements in the German residential property market in “prime” regions – albeit it as Spanish and Dutch house prices continue to freefall. It’s also important to note the range of importance of rents within the individual countries’ CPI numbers. For Slovenians it makes up 0.7% of their inflation basket, but for the Germans it is 10.2%.

Japan

Housing makes up 21% of the headline CPI. Like the US CPI the Japanese statistical authorities use a measure of an “imputed rent of an owner-occupied house” as well as actual rental costs. Again the imputed rents from owner occupiers (15.6%) dwarf the actual numbers from renters (5.4%) – aren’t these large weightings to imputed rents here and elsewhere a bit worrying? How would you homeowners reading this go about guessing a rent for your property? I’d only get close by looking at websites for similar places to mine up for rent nearby. Is that cheating?

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So why does this matter? Well if there is no correlation between house price inflation and consumer price inflation then it probably doesn’t. But intuitively both the direct impact on wage demands of workers who see house prices going up, and the wealth effect on the consumption of those who see their biggest asset surging in value should be significant. Therefore central banks will be missing this if they use statistics where the relationship between house prices and their impact in those statistics is weak.

 

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The M&G YouGov Inflation Expectations Survey – Q3 2013

Despite high unemployment rates, excess capacity and a sanguine inflation outlook from the major central banks, it is important to keep an eye on any potential inflation surprises that may be coming down the line. For instance, we only need to look at ultra easy monetary policy; low interest rates and improving economic growth to see that the risk of an unwelcome inflation shock is higher than perhaps at any time over the past five years. The development of forward guidance measures is a clear sign that central banking has evolved substantially from 2008 in the form of Central Bank Regime Change. It appears that there is a growing consensus that inflation targeting is not the magical goal of monetary policy that many had once believed it to be and that full employment and financial stability are equally as important.  Given that monetary policy appears firmly focused on securing growth in the real economy – at perhaps the expense of inflation targets – we thought that it would be useful to gauge the short and long-term inflation expectations of consumers across the UK, Europe and Asia. The findings from our August survey, which polled over 8,000 consumers internationally, is available in our latest report here.

The results suggest consumers continue to lack confidence that inflation will decline below current levels in either the short or medium term. Despite evidence that short-term inflation expectations may be moderating in some countries, most respondents expect inflation to be higher in five years than in one year. Confidence that the European Central Bank will achieve its inflation target over the medium term remains weak, while confidence in the Bank of England has risen.

The survey found that consumers in most countries continue to expect inflation to be elevated in both one and five years’ time. In the UK, inflation is expected to be above the Bank of England’s CPI target of 2.0% on a one- and five-year ahead basis. All EMU countries surveyed expect inflation to be equal to or higher than the European Central Bank’s HICP target of 2.0% on a one- and five-year ahead basis. Long-term expectations for inflation have changed little in the three months since the last survey, with the majority of regions expecting inflation to be higher than current levels in five years. Five countries expect inflation to be 3.0% or higher in one year: Austria, Hong Kong, Italy, Singapore and the UK.

Consumers in Austria, Germany and the UK have reported an increase in one year inflation expectations compared with those of the last survey three months ago. This is of particular relevance for the UK, where the Bank of England has stated three scenarios under which the Bank would re-assess its policy of forward guidance. The first of these “knockouts” refers to a scenario where CPI inflation is, in the Bank’s view, likely to be 2.5% or higher over an 18-month to two-year horizon. Short-term inflation expectations in Singapore and Spain continued their downward trend in the latest survey results, registering their third straight quarter of lower expectations.

Inflation expectations - 12 months ahead

Over a five-year horizon, the inflation expectations of consumers in Austria, Germany, Italy, Spain and Switzerland have risen. Whilst inflation expectations in Switzerland remain at the lowest level in our survey at 2.8%, consumers have raised their expectations from 2.5% in February. Long-term inflation expectations in France and the UK remained stable at 3.0%. Meanwhile, consumers in Hong Kong and Singapore have the highest expectations, at 5.0%, although the Hong Kong number shows a decline from 5.8% three months ago.

Inflation expectations - 12 months ahead

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The Fed didn’t taper – what’s next for US monetary policy and bond markets?

Last night the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) delivered a massive surprise by deciding to not taper QE. For us, this isn’t a huge deal. Since May, the market has placed way too much emphasis and concern over tapering and lost focus on the fundamental economic situation that the US has now found itself in – an economy where unemployment has fallen to 7.3% (helped by a falling participation rate) and a central bank that remains dovish due to a declining trend in core inflation. Now we are through the Fed meeting, arguably the market will now re-focus on the economic data. With interest rate policy set to remain very accommodative for a long period of time – even after balance sheet neutrality has been achieved – the sell-off in government bonds may be close to coming to an end (as witnessed by the 19bps fall in the US 10 year yield from 2.89% yesterday afternoon to 2.70% this morning).

US 10yr bond yields during quantitative easing

Fed concern number 1: US core PCE inflation is flirting with historic low levels

It is well known that FOMC Chairman Ben Bernanke, a student of the US economic depression of the 1930s, has great concerns about deflation and in 2002 gave a speech outlining how the US could avoid a deflationary trap which gave him the moniker “Helicopter Ben”. In the speech, Bernanke makes the important statement that “…Congress has given the Fed the responsibility of preserving price stability (among other objectives), which most definitely implies avoiding deflation as well as inflation.”

The Fed’s preferred inflation measure, the core PCE, is exhibiting a worrying downward trend. This greatly concerns at least one member of the FOMC – St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank President James Bullard – who believes the FOMC should have more strongly signalled its willingness to defend its inflation target of 2 per cent in light of recent low inflation readings. The Fed minutes from the June meeting (at which Bullard dissented) showed that Bullard believed that the Fed was not doing enough to protect against the threat of deflation and that the FOMC must defend its inflation target when inflation is below target as well as when it is above target.

A key component of the Fed’s dual mandate – price stability – is clearly below where the FOMC wants it to be. There are big risks to reducing stimulatory monetary policy when core inflation is running at recessionary levels and on this measure suggests any interest rate hikes a long way away.

 

Inflation trending lower on both total and core PCE

Fed concern number 2: the labour market

The latest payroll report was weaker than market economists had become used to, with payroll growth averaging around 148,000 over the past three months. This is some way off the 200,000+ numbers that the consensus was expecting earlier in the year and confirms a deceleration in the trend in nonfarm payroll growth. Yes, the unemployment rate fell to 7.3%, but this was largely the result of the labour force shrinking and a decline in the participation rate in August. The labour market is not as strong as the headline number suggests.

Arguably, the fall in the unemployment rate has surprised most Fed members. Nonetheless, unemployment is not expected to fall to the 6.5% “think about raising interest rates” level until late 2014. It would have been a confusing message to start to implement tapering given the lower trend in job creation. The Fed reiterated that the economy and labour market have to be strong enough before in contemplates reducing asset purchases going forward. This helps to explain why the FOMC sat on its hands in September.

 

Unemployment rate quickly falling towards Fed thresholds

Fed concern number 3: the increase in mortgage rates

Following the moves in markets over the summer, the average rate for a 30-year fixed mortgage has now increased to around 4.5% from 3.4% in May. Essentially, the market has already tightened for the Fed. The housing market is a vital component of US economic growth, and this increase will cut into housing affordability. It could also force potential homebuyers out of the market. A slowing housing market means fewer jobs, less consumption, and lower growth. The increase in yields in the government bond market has been brutal, and does pose some risks to interest-sensitive sectors.

 

The rise in 30 year mortgage rates will concern the Fed

Given the above, it appears that the Fed refused to be bullied into tapering today by the bond markets, though tapering speculation may have reduced the “froth” that had developed in risk assets over the first half of 2013. It is likely that low inflation, a recovering labour market, and a slowing housing market will ensure that interest rate policy remains accommodative for the foreseeable future. The “Fed fake” suggests that tapering is truly data dependent and not predetermined. Macro matters.

As the market begins to refocus on the economic data, it is likely that government bonds may find some support. Additionally, the FOMC may reduce bond purchases slower than anyone currently expects. We expect that market concerns over the impact of tapering decisions will likely diminish over time as the Fed slowly and gradually moves towards a neutral balance sheet policy next year.

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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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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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