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Ana_Gil_100

The M&G YouGov Inflation Expectations Survey – Q3 2014

The results of the August 2014 M&G YouGov Inflation Expectations Survey suggest that inflation expectations have moderated across the UK, most European countries and Asia. Short-term inflation expectations in the UK have fallen from 2.3% to 2.2% after an upwards bounce in the May survey. However, over a five year period, expectations remain unchanged at 3.0% for the 7th consecutive quarter. UK consumers have modestly raised their confidence in the Bank of England, with 49% of respondents now expecting Mark Carney to deliver on price stability.

In Europe, short-term inflation expectations remain unchanged at 2.0% in Spain, Italy and Germany. However, in France, the expected rate of inflation for the next 12 months has dropped a full percentage point over the quarter and is now just 1.0%, the lowest level in the history of the survey. Notably, a larger proportion (48%) of French respondents believe their net income will decrease over the next 12 months, despite the fall in inflation expectations.

M&G YouGov inflation expectations - 1 year ahead

Over the long term, inflation expectations in all Eurozone countries surveyed except France remain above the European Central Bank (ECB) target, although there are signs of moderation in some countries. Compared to last quarter, inflation expectations have fallen across Austria, France and Italy, although not in Germany and Spain, where they have held steady at 3.0%. The downward pressure is most evident in Italy and France where long-term expectations have fallen to 2.5% and 2.0% respectively, amid an increasingly challenging political environment. The number of Italians in disagreement with their government’s current economic policy has increased notably over the quarter from 44% to 53%. Switzerland stands out as being the only country to report a rise in short-term inflation expectations (from 1.1% to 1.3%) and also for the high level of confidence that Swiss consumers continue to place on their central bank (54%).

M&G YouGov inflation expectations - 5 years ahead

In Asia, the gauge for inflation over the short term has fallen to the lowest level since the inception of the survey (Singapore 3.4% and Hong Kong 4.0%). Interestingly, despite reporting a reasonably high level (45%) of confidence in their central bank’s ability to achieve its inflation target, consumers in Singapore nevertheless expect inflation to more than triple to 4.6% over the next five years.

The findings and data from our Q3 survey, which polled almost 8,500 consumers internationally, is available in our latest report here or via @inflationsurvey on Twitter.

M&G YouGov Inflation Expectations Survey 

 

Ana_Gil_100

Are wages at the tipping point in the US labour market?

Five years into the US recovery, the labour market is quickly returning to full health. Hiring activity is picking up, employers have added a robust 1.3 million jobs over the past 6 months and the unemployment rate is rapidly approaching a level that could prompt the Fed to start thinking about raising interest rates.  All labour market indicators seem to have improved except for the one that workers should care most about: wages.

Indeed wage inflation has been the key missing piece of the recovery puzzle, and the lack of it appears somehow contradictory in the context of a rapidly improving economy. A valid reason could be that wages are widely known to be a pro-cyclical lagging indicator. An alternative, as Federal Reserve chairwoman Janet Yellen recently pointed out, is that wages didn’t quite adjust enough during the deep recession and will only rise once employers catch up for the “overpayments”.

As the US economic recovery marches on and corporates continue strengthening, the labour market could soon see wage growth begin to accelerate. Economic history has always been a great place to search for clues to future economic performance with the added benefit of hindsight. A look into 30 years’ worth of US labour market data reveals an interesting relationship between headline unemployment and wages, measured by hourly earnings of all employees on private nonfarm payrolls. As is shown in the chart below, wages seem to have historically accelerated whenever the US unemployment rate has touched, or come close to, a 6% level. History may not repeat itself, but it could well rhyme.

Wages seem to have historically accelerated as the unemployment rate has approached a 6% level

With unemployment sinking to 6.1% and nominal wages heading upwards, the US economy could be approaching full employment faster than the Fed may think. What unemployment rate is consistent with full employment is a subject very much open to debate. The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) estimates the current non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment(NAIRU i.e. the level unemployment can fall to without causing capacity problems and demand pull inflation) to be at around 5.4% with concerns around labour underutilisation, but rising wages would suggest it is higher.

A further sign of emerging wage pressure can be found in the forward-looking National Federation of Independent Business(NFIB) compensation plans index, which is best known for anticipating wage increases to small businesses over the next 12 months. This index seems particularly relevant given SMEs (i.e. those with fewer than 500 employees) are the true backbone of the American economy– responsible for creating two out of three net new jobs. The chart below shows the NFIB index has been gaining momentum over the past year and is now at levels last seen prior to the recession.

Uptrend in companies planning to raise compensation

The most recent Job Openings and Labour Turnover Survey (JOLTS) report conducted by the Labour Department shows job vacancies have risen back to pre-crisis levels as a high percentage of employers are having trouble finding skilled workers. To attract the needed candidates, employers are having to raise compensation. Interestingly, comparing the NFIB index with lagged earnings data reveals a strong correlation over time. With the number of firms expecting to raise compensation on a strong upward trend, wages are likely to follow through.

As the labour market continues to tighten, it will not be surprising to see further wage growth build up. Most wage measures (including the widely followed Employment Cost Index and Unit labour costs) are on a clear uptrend today which is likely to continue unless economic growth slows or we were to see a sudden leap in productivity. Back in 1994, when the Fed had just started a series of aggressive rate hikes, US wage growth was only 2.4% YoY. Today, wage growth is 2.5%. Yet, Fed speakers have argued some slack remains in the labour market, hence the need to maintain a very patient policy stance – but could the prospect of rising wages in an economy rapidly approaching full employment be the tipping point that prompts the Fed to change rhetoric?

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Wolfgang Bauer

Race to the Bottom: Eurozone Inflation Rates

In principle, the European Central Bank (ECB) is well in line with its price stability objective, which it defines as a “year-on-year increase in the Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices (HICP) for the euro area of below 2%”. Nonetheless, July inflation numbers released last week bring the currency union as a whole dangerously close to deflationary territory. The aggregate HICP annual rate of change for the Eurozone fell to 0.4%, its lowest inflation print since October 2009.

But what has been driving this development? To answer this question we broke down HICP headline inflation numbers into three components: (i) food, alcohol and tobacco (FAT); (ii) energy; and (iii) core inflation, i.e., the remainder when stripping out (i) and (ii) from the headline figure. In the chart below we plotted the contributions of each of these three components to the headline number, calculated by multiplying the annualised monthly changes of the component indices by their respective weights within the overall HICP.

Decomposition of Eurozone Inflation Numbers

Only a relatively small part of the substantial drop in HICP headline inflation from 3.0% in the end of 2011 to currently 0.4% can be attributed to core inflation. Admittedly, core inflation contribution has fallen from 1.1% to 0.6% in this time period but compared to the other two components it has been much more stable. This result intuitively makes sense as core inflation comprises very different items, such as clothing, healthcare and communications. The inherent diversification subdues core rate volatility as fluctuations in individual item levels are likely to balance out each other to a certain degree. The fall in Eurozone inflation has mainly been caused by FAT and energy. Whereas FAT and energy boosted headline inflation by 0.7% and 1.3%, respectively, in November 2011, by now both components have essentially become a drag, chipping off 0.1% each from the July 2014 aggregate figure. Declining inflation rates in the Eurozone can at least partially be explained by a strengthening of the Euro vs. USD (c. USD 1.27 per EUR in the beginning of 2012 to a peak level of c. USD 1.39 in early May 2014), having a deflationary effect on import prices. In recent months, when the exchange rate trend started to reverse, the oil price dropped sharply (c. USD 114 per barrel Brent in mid June 2014 to currently c. USD 102), which helped to put downward pressure on energy prices. It will be interesting to see how geopolitical developments in the Ukraine and the Middle East are going to affect energy inflation contributions in the months to come.

Now let’s turn towards inflation rates of individual countries. The two biggest Eurozone economies, Germany and France, showed July inflation rates clearly below 1% (0.8% and 0.6%, respectively). The periphery experienced either no inflation at all (Italy with 0%) or even deflation (Spain with -0.4%, Portugal with -0.7%, Greece with -0.8%). Undoubtedly, these numbers are low. But how do they compare with historical inflation rates? We took a look at the past ten years of inflation rate data (HICP annual rates of change, published monthly) for the Eurozone in total, its four main economies and, for comparison, the United States. For each entity, we ranked the numbers from smallest to largest and divided the range of inflation rates into three bands, containing the bottom 25%, middle 50% and top 25% of data points, respectively (see chart below). The white lines mark the border below which the bottom 10% of inflation rate prints are located for each data series. In addition, we highlighted the most recent inflation numbers as well as the figures from one and two years ago.

Current Inflation Numbers in Historic Context

We can draw a number of conclusions from this chart. For instance, inflation rate spans for Germany with 4.2% (-0.7% to 3.5%) and Italy with 4.3% (-0.1% to 4.2%) are significantly smaller than for Spain with 6.6% (-1.3% to 5.3%) and the U.S. with 7.7% (-2.1% to 5.6%). Most importantly, the chart puts the drop in European inflation rates over the past years into some statistical context. July 2012 inflation prints still rank within the middle 50%, or even in the top 25% in the case of Italy. Except for Germany, inflation rates exceeded the ECB’s upper limit of 2% back then. However, the most recent data points from July 2014 can all be found in the bottom 10% of the 10-year inflation rate ranges. German inflation is exactly at and the French figure slightly below their respective bottom 10% thresholds. Italy’s and Spain’s inflation rates have fallen deep into their bottom 10% ranges. Italy’s current 0% inflation figure marks in fact the country’s second lowest monthly reading within the past 10 years. In contrast, U.S. consumer price inflation is not on a downward trajectory but numbers have been bouncing back and forth between 1% and slightly above 2.0% over the past two years. The July 2012 print of 1.4%, for example, ranks in the bottom 25%, whereas inflation rates both for July 2013 and July 2014 sit with 2% within the middle 50%.

What does this mean for fixed income investors? For a start, the divergence of European and U.S. inflation rates, in combination with substantial differences in real GDP growth (Eurozone with -0.4% in 2013 and 0% in Q2 2014 vs. U.S. with 2.2% and 4.0%, respectively) and labour market strength (Eurozone with 11.9% unemployment rate in 2013 and 11.6% in Q2 2014 vs. U.S. with 7.4% and 6.2%, respectively), reinforces the argument of an on-going decoupling between the two economic areas. The progressive fall of Eurozone inflation rates well below the 2% level gives the ECB some room for manoeuvre. European interest rates are likely to stay at essentially zero for the time being, and we should not be surprised if more accommodative monetary policies, such as asset purchases, were implemented by the ECB going forward in an attempt to stimulate economic recovery.

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The Great British Austerity Myth

On the right is UK Chancellor George Osborne, the austerity axeman.  On the left was opposition leader Ed Miliband, the fiscal freedom fighter.  But it now appears that Miliband and co are so alarmed that Cameron and Osborne are better trusted by the electorate to run the now booming UK economy that they are quietly embracing Tory austerity. The Liberal Democrats have accused the Tories of pursuing austerity for austerity’s sake, but are still targeting eliminating the budget deficit in the next three to four years.  That essentially leaves the Scottish National Party, which is urging Scots to vote for independence so that Scotland can ”escape Westminster’s austerity agenda”.

The problem with all this austerity posturing is that it’s built on a completely phoney premise. As confirmed by data released today, there hasn’t been any UK austerity, at least not for a couple of years.  Indeed, that probably goes a long way to explaining why the IMF predicts that the UK will have the fastest growing economy in the developed world this year.

The chart below puts the UK’s budget balance into international context.  The US has seen immense fiscal consolidation, which was a major drag on growth in 2011-2013 but which will substantially fall hereafter, and is one of a number of reasons why we’re US economy bulls.  Eurozone fiscal consolidation was enforced by markets to an extent, although the Eurozone as a whole -  as per the US – is currently running a budget deficit akin to levels seen in 2004-05.  And Germany, a country under zero pressure from markets, expects to balance its budget this year. The UK economy grew almost three times faster than Germany’s in the year to Q2, and yet its deficit remains huge by historical standards.

Slide1

The primary reason for the UK’s unfrugal fiscal policy is an inability to cut back on government spending.  It’s not just overspending, however. Tax revenues in the first four months of this tax year are 1.9% below where they were in July 2013, and that’s in nominal terms, let alone real terms.  The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) will be able to provide more detail on this when they release their summary later today. It’s likely that part of this is due to the front loading of receipts last year, thus making like for like comparisons tricky, and the OBR will probably forecast a pick up in receipts towards the end of this year.

The chart below illustrates how government spending in the UK has increased every single year.

Slide2

An addiction to spending combined with weak tax revenue growth means that the Public Sector Net Borrowing figures are going nowhere fast. In the four months to July, Public Sector Net Borrowing (ex financial interventions) was actually higher than in 2011/12, 2012/13 and 2013/14.  Again, the OBR will have more to say about this later, but there’s no denying that the UK’s government finances make grim reading.

Slide3

Now all that said, I’m not suggesting that the UK government should necessarily adopt tighter fiscal policy.  While current fiscal policies aren’t sustainable in the long term, loose fiscal policy has recently been successful in generating strong economic growth, and more importantly it appears to have helped encourage the private sector to finally start investing.  Furthermore, you would traditionally expect countries that run sustained loose fiscal policy to have relatively steep yield curves, but the opposite is true in the UK at the moment, with some longer forward yields close to record lows.  In other words, the markets don’t care – yet – and a good argument can be made for the government to fund some much-needed and ultimately productive UK infrastructure investment. All I’m saying is that the UK electorate deserves a lot more honesty in the debate.

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French government should push for further tax and labour market reforms

France has a unique social model. It originates from the end of the Second World War, when the National Council of the Resistance (NCR) hastily put together a plan to rebuild the country after five years of Nazi occupation. Despite not having any official political affiliations, the NCR was in fact influenced by left wing individuals and the “National Front”, a communist party. The NCR’s “action plan” helped shape France in the aftermath of the war and is one of the reasons today that trade unions have such a prominent position in society and why the French are so fond of their “established social rights”.

Since then, reforming France has always been a difficult task. Given that it was announced last week that the country has experienced a second consecutive quarter of no growth, it seems obvious that some sort of change is urgently required. France has grown by only 0.1% in the past year. Despite extremely low interest rates and fiscal tightening, the government’s budget remains in structural deficit and the debt to GDP ratio has increased from 77% to 93%. More worryingly, despite French President Hollande’s very vocal claim that he would “invert the unemployment curve” by the end of 2013, the number of job seekers continues to rise at an alarming rate, hampering consumer confidence and business spending.

Slide1

So what can the Hollande government do in a country that is difficult to reform and where scope for public spending is limited?

First of all he should aim to simplify France’s highly complex tax regime, which over the years has become almost illegible. This toing-and-froing over taxes continues to hurt the French economy by creating uncertainty and hampering business investment. In the last 2 years alone, French legislators have created 84 new taxes, for a total of €60 billion Euros.

Second, the government must reduce the burden of social security contributions on the business sector. Today, France spends 17% of its GDP in social contribution taxes, the highest amount out of all of the 28 EU countries. While many people in the country believe that this is the price to pay to finance France’s generous welfare system, its financing relies too heavily on businesses.  In the rest of Europe the burden of social security payments is shared on average equally between employers and employees. In France, almost 70% of these payments are paid by employers. This has a direct effect on the cost of labour and diminishes companies’ abilities to compete in an increasingly globalised world. The French government has started to address this issue by granting a €20 billion tax credit (CICE) to all French businesses, but much more needs to be accomplished. Indeed, in order to put France on equal footing with its neighbour Germany, employer social security contributions would need to be reduced by a further €80 billion per year.

Slide2

Finally, the government should also tackle the excessive bureaucracy in the labour market. For example, many small firms today refuse to grow beyond the threshold of 50 employees because exceeding this number triggers a raft of regulatory and legal obligations. It would make sense to push this threshold to 250 employees, and bring France in line with the European norm. The French Labour Code is 3500 pages long and weighs 1.5 kilo, while the Swiss Code, where unemployment is 3% rate, is 130 pages and weighs 150 grams (anecdotally comparing unemployment rates with the number of pages of labour codes for different countries could be the subject of a future blog).  This excessive bureaucracy is partially the reason why France’s competitiveness has been declining in recent years. In its latest Global Competitiveness report, the World Economic Forum ranked France 23rd overall, but 21st in 2013 and 18th in 2012. More alarmingly, the country is ranked 116th for “labour market efficiency” (out of a total of 148 countries), 135th for “cooperation in Labour-employer relations” and 144th in “hiring and firing practices”. When asked what the most problematic factor for doing business in the country, the number 1 answer provided by respondents was “restrictive labour regulations”.

As France teeters on the brink of recession, Hollande is today in a very difficult position. A complete overhaul of the French social model would create much civil unrest and probably push the country into recession. On the other hand, doing nothing is likely to have the same effect as France would continue to lose competitiveness on a global scale. In a recent study published by “Le Monde”, 60% of respondents said they were “satisfied” with the French social model, but 64% also declared that the model should be at least partially reformed. The French government should use this as a sign that it can make some adjustments to the French tax system and labour markets, without jeopardising its chance of being re-elected in two years. With its popularity at an all-time low and unemployment at an all-time high, there is no more time to waste.

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Falling soft commodity prices are a piece of cake

Higher agricultural commodity prices at the start of the year raised concerns about the impact these could have on retail food prices, should the trend prove persistent. Fortunately, the price of soft commodities (coffee, sugar, wheat etc) appears to have decoupled from that of hard commodities (gold, silver, platinum etc) in recent months. Indeed, data from the last seven quarters indicate that the price of many agricultural commodities have actually fallen, as the chart below shows.

Slide1

Coffee prices are now at a five month low, after fears of a shortage of coffee beans from Brazil have receded. The supply of sugar has increased year-on-year, while wheat prices have also fallen due to increased harvests and easing crop concerns.

In order to gauge the collective effect of these changing agricultural commodity prices and how they could potentially feed through into UK inflation, I have constructed a simple cake index, teaming up Global Commodity Price data with some basic recipes from the BBC Good Food website. Given that sponge and individual cakes are two of the representative items included in the CPI 2014 basket of goods – and that food and drink items make up 11.2% of the overall CPI index – combining the commodities in this way gives an indication of how future changes might affect the average consumer.

The graph below shows the results of the cake index, demonstrating the change in various cake costs (since October 2012) versus the UK CPI (yoy %). What’s interesting is the generally downward trend of all cake indices in the last seven quarters. Sponge cake and plain scones look particularly good value in recent months, owing to the high proportion of wheat in their recipes. Apple cake unsurprisingly provides a price signal for its key ingredient (the price of apples has fallen 4% YTD), while coffee cake gives a less pronounced but similar effect. The good news – particularly for lovers of chocolate cake – is that despite the persistent increase in the cost of cocoa, the price of other cake constituents such as sugar, wheat and palm oil (used as a proxy for butter) have all fallen sufficiently to offset this, bringing the price of chocolate cake lower in recent months.

Slide2

Despite the recent June increase in CPI to 1.9% yoy, due to the lag between raw commodity prices and their general price level, we should perhaps expect to see deflation feeding into cake prices and the overall food constituent of CPI in the coming months. Therefore although it is unclear who exactly was the first to declare “let them eat cake!”, this person may have been on to something. Personally, I’d recommend the (relatively cheap) scones.

Ana_Gil_100

The M&G YouGov Inflation Expectations Survey – Q2 2014

Today we are launching the next wave of the M&G YouGov Inflation Expectations Survey which aims to assess consumer expectations of inflation over the short and medium term.

With interest rates at multi century lows, central banks continue to inject large amounts of monetary stimulus into the global economy. Recent inflation rates in the US, UK and Germany have proved central to the current market focus, as actions from policymakers have become increasingly sensitive to inflation trends.  This is true for the Fed and the BoE, as markets assess their possible exit strategies/timing, but especially for the ECB, whose last round of action is perceived to have been largely motivated by disinflationary pressures in the Euro area. In that context, market focus on inflation expectations has increased.

The results of the May 2014 M&G YouGov Inflation Expectations Survey suggest that both short and medium-term inflation expectations remain well anchored across most European countries.

Short-term expectations have risen from 2% to 2.3% in the UK as the country showed further signs of economic growth and reaccelerating wage pressure. On the other hand, inflation expectations for German consumers moderated in the last quarter as the downward trend in German HICP (1.1% YoY in April) may have added to the expectation that German inflation will remain subdued over the next year.

The general downward trend in short-term inflation expectations seems to have largely receded in all EMU countries and the UK. This may be somewhat surprising with much of Europe still experiencing low and falling inflation.

Inflation expectations – 12 months ahead

Over the medium term, inflation expectations remain above central bank targets in all countries surveyed, suggesting that consumers may lack confidence in policymakers’ effectiveness in achieving price stability. Over 5 years, UK inflation is expected to remain well anchored at a remarkably stable 3%. Despite recent low inflation rates across Europe, the majority of consumers in France, Italy and Spain continue to view inflation as a concern, and long-term expectations in those countries has risen back to 3%.

Inflation expectations – 5 years ahead

The findings and data from our May survey, which polled over 8,700 consumers internationally, is available in our latest report here or via @inflationsurvey on Twitter.

jim_leaviss_100

Why aren’t bund yields negative again?

Whether or not you believe that the ECB moves to full government bond purchase quantitative easing this week (and the market overwhelmingly says that it’s only a remote possibility) the fact that German bund yields at the 2 year maturity remain positive is a bit surprising. The 2 year bund currently yields 0.05%, lower than the 0.2% it started the year at, but higher than you might have expected given that a) they have traded at negative yields in 2012 and 2013 and b) that the market’s most likely expected outcome for Thursday’s meeting is for a cut in the ECB’s deposit rate to a negative level.

The chart below shows that in the second half of 2012, and again in the middle of 2013, the 2 year bund yield was negative (i.e. you would expect a negative nominal total return if you bought the bond at the prevailing market price and held it to maturity), hitting a low of -0.1% in July 2012.

2y bund yields chart

Obviously in 2012 in particular, the threat of a Eurozone breakup was at its height. Peripheral bond spreads had hit their widest levels (5 year Spanish CDS traded at over 600 bps in July 2012), and Target2 balances showed that in August 2012 German banks had taken Euro 750 billion of “safe haven” deposits from the rest of the euro area countries (mostly from Spain and Italy). So although the ECB refinancing rate was at 0.75% in July 2012 compared with 0.25% today, the demand for German government assets rather than peripheral government assets drove the prices of short dated bunds to levels which produced negative yields.

This time though, whilst the threat of a euro area breakup is much lower – Spanish CDS now trades at 80 bps versus the 600 bps in 2012 – the prospect of negative deposit rates from the ECB might produce different dynamics which might have implications for short dated government bonds. The market expects that the ECB will set a negative deposit rate, charging banks 0.1% to deposit money with it. Denmark successfully tried this in 2012 in an attempt to discourage speculators as money flowed into Denmark out of the euro area. Whilst the ECB refinancing rate is likely to remain positive, the cut in deposit rates might have significant implications for money market funds. David Owen of Jefferies says that there is Euro 843 billion sitting in money market funds in the euro area, equivalent to 8.5% of GDP. But what happens to this money if rates turn negative? In 2012, when the ECB cut its deposit rate to zero, several money market fund managers closed or restricted access to their money market funds (including JPM, BlackRock, Goldman Sachs – see FT article here). Many money market funds around the world guarantee, or at least imply, a constant or positive net asset value (NAV) – this is obviously not possible in a negative rate environment, so funds close, at least to new money. And if you are an investor why would you put cash into a money market fund, taking credit risk from the assets held by the vehicle, when you could own a “risk free” bund with a positive yield?

So whilst full blown QE may well be months off, if it ever happens, and whilst Draghi’s “whatever it takes” statement means that euro area breakup risk is normalising credit risk and banking system imbalances, the huge amount of money held in money market funds that either wants to find positive yields, or is forced to find positive yields by fund closures, makes it a puzzle as to why the 2 year bund yield is still above zero.

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Is Europe (still) turning Japanese? A lesson from the 90’s

Seven years since the start of the financial crisis and it’s ever harder to dismiss the notion that Europe is turning Japanese.

Now this is far from a new comparison, and the suggestions made by many since 2008 that the developed world was on course to repeat Japan’s experience now appear wide of the mark (we’ve discussed our own view of the topic previously here and here). The substantial pick-up in growth in many developed economies, notably the US and UK, instead indicates that many are escaping their liquidity traps and finding their own paths, rather than blindly following Japan’s road to oblivion. Super-expansionary policy measures, it can be argued, have largely been successful.

Not so, though, in Europe, where Japan’s lesson doesn’t yet seem to have been taken on board. And here, the bond market is certainly taking the notion seriously. 10 year bund yields have collapsed from just shy of 2% at the turn of the year and the inflation market is pricing in a mere 1.4% inflation for the next 10 years; significantly below the ECB’s quantitative definition of price stability.

So just how reasonable is the comparison with Japan and what could fixed income investors expect if history repeats itself?

The prelude to the recent European experience wasn’t all that different to that of Japan in the late 1980s. Overly loose financial conditions resulted in a property boom, elevated stock markets and the usual fall from grace that typically follows. As is the case today in Europe, Japan was left with an over-sized and weakened banking system, and an over-indebted and aging population. Both Japan and Europe were either unable or unwilling to run countercyclical policies and found that the monetary transmission mechanism became impaired. Both also laboured under periods of strong currency appreciation – though the Japanese experience was the more extreme – and the constant reality of household and banking sector deleveraging. The failure to deal swiftly and decisively with its banking sector woes – unlike the example of the US – continues to limit lending to the wider Eurozone economy, much as was the case in Japan during the 1990s and beyond. And despite the fact that Japanese demographics may look much worse than Europe’s do today, back in the 1990s they were far more comparable to those in Europe currently.

Probably the most glaring difference in the two experiences is centred around the labour market response. Whereas Eurozone unemployment has risen substantially post crisis, the Japanese experience involved greater downward pressure on wages with relatively fewer job losses and a more significant downward impact on prices.

With such obvious similarities between the two positions, and whilst acknowledging some notable differences, it’s surely worthwhile looking at the Japanese bond market response.

As you would expect from an economy mired in deflation, Japan’s experience over two decades has been characterised by extremely low bond yields (chart 1). Low government bond yields likely encouraged investors to chase yield and invest in corporate bonds, pushing spreads down (chart 2) and creating a virtuous circle that ensured low default rates and low bond yields – a situation that remains true some 23 years later.

Japan and Germany 10 year government bond yields

Japan and Germany corporate bond yields

As an aside, Japanese default rates have remained exceptionally low, despite the country’s two decades of stagnation. Low interest rates, high levels of liquidity, and the refusal to allow any issuers to default or restructure created a country overrun by zombie banks and companies. This has resulted in lower productivity and so lower long-term growth potential – far from ideal, but not a bad thing in the short-to-medium term for a corporate bond investor. With this in mind, European credit spreads approaching historically tight levels, as seen today, can be easily justified.

Can European defaults stay as low as for the past 30 years

Europe currently finds itself in a similar position to that of Japan several years into its crisis. Outright deflation may seem some way off, although the risk of inflation expectations becoming unanchored clearly exists and has been much alluded to of late. Japan’s biggest mistake was likely the relative lack of action on the part of the BOJ. It will be interesting to see what, if any response, the ECB sees as appropriate on June 5th and in subsequent months.

BoJ basic discount and ECB main refinancing rates

Though it is probably too early to call for the ‘Japanification’ of Europe, a long-term policy of ECB supported liquidity, low bond yields and tight spreads doesn’t seem too farfetched. The ECB have said they are ready to act. They should be. The warning signs are there for all to see.

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Video – Some thoughts on U.S. credit from our American research trip

A few of the M&G bond team recently visited New York and Chicago on a research trip. We put together a short video to share some of our thoughts regarding US credit markets. A particular focus is the U.S. high yield market where we highlight some sector themes. We also consider the potential impact on U.S. credit spreads when the Fed starts to raise interest rates.


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