Posts Tagged ‘capital economics’

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George Osborne recently tried to assure us. “I don’t think in the current environment a house price bubble is going to emerge in 18 months or three years,” or so he told parliament this week. The Bank of England governor promises us he won’t let it happen – no bubble here, thank you, not today, tomorrow, or for as long as he is boss. Yet a poll among economists found that around half reckon a new bubble in the market is likely. The latest survey from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) may even provide evidence that such a bubble is underway right now. Why then, do we see such complacency? And how dangerous is it?

Actually the no bubble here argument seems to come from two different sides of the spectrum of economic thought. There are those, such as Capital Economics, who tend to be on the bearish side. House prices won’t shoot up in price, it suggests, because prospective new home owners can’t afford higher prices, and real wages are, after all, still falling. From the other side of the spectrum seems to come the view that there is no bubble because the very word bubble seems to suggest something negative. It may be true to say that this other side of the spectrum sees rising house prices as a good thing.

Okay, let’s look at the surveys. The latest Residential Market Survey from RICS may or may not provide evidence of a bubble but it certainly seems to provide evidence of a boom. The headline index, produced by taking the percentage number of surveyors who said prices fell in their region from the percentage number who said they rose, hit plus 40 – that’s for the month of August. It was the highest reading for the index since November 2006. The survey also found a rise in supply as more properties come on the market, but that the rise in demand was even greater.

As has been pointed out here before, the RICS index is not only a good guide to the housing market, it seems to provide a good barometer reading of the UK economy. The trajectory of history of this chart, and its correlation with the GDP a few months later, suggests the UK economy is set to see growth accelerate.

Now let’s turn to the other survey. This one comes courtesy of Reuters. A total of 29 economists were surveyed and asked about the prospects of another housing bubble. Nine said the chances are small, seven said the chances were even; 11 said likely; two said very likely.

Mark Carney suggests, however, that he won’t let it happen. He recently told the ‘Daily Mail’: “I saw the boom-bust cycle in the housing sector, the damage it can do, the length of time it took to repair.” These are encouraging words. He is saying trust me. Just bear in mind however that a housing bubble appears to have developed in Canada during his time as boss of the country’s central bank.

George Osborne turned his attention to the topic. On the subject of loan to value ratios, and the way in which first time buyers have had to find such enormous deposits in recent years, he said: “This change is not something we should welcome. It is both a market failure and a social problem – imagine if you’d had to find twice as big a deposit for your first home. 90 per cent and 95 per cent LTV mortgages are not exotic weapons of financial mass destruction. They are a regular part of a healthy mortgage market and an aspirational society.”

Here are two observations for you to ponder.

Observation number one is the British psyche. It is as if it is hardwired into the DNA of the British public. They are driven by fear to jump on the housing ladder, driven by more fear to rise up it, yet without questioning the view they believe that when the equity in their homes rises, they are better off, have more wealth, meaning they don’t need to save so much for their retirement. In short the UK housing market is prone to bubbles. The UK economy can often boom when house prices rise, and the reason is deep rooted in the British psyche. Whether this is good thing or not is open to debate. However, this point about the psychology does not seem to be understood by many economists, the markets or the government.

Observation number two: The new governor of India’s central bank Raghuram G Rajan used to be the chief economist of the IMF. Between his stint at the IMF and his new role in India, he wrote a book called ‘Fault Lines’. In it he suggested that rising house prices was the way in which democratically elected government were able to compensate their electorate for the fact that their wages had only risen very modestly. Mr Rajan was not suggesting a conspiracy; merely that the economic fix found by authorities proved to be the path of least resistance.

A boom in which the UK economy becomes more dynamic, maybe one in which QE funds investment into infrastructure, entrepreneurs, and education, creating a work force better equipped to cope with the innovation age we now live in, would be a wonderful thing. A boom based on rising house prices, however, would be a much easier thing to create, so no wonder Mr Osborne is so keen on the idea.

© Investment & Business News 2013

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The ONS revised again. It always does, but it can be hard to keep up. You may recall, back at the end of 2011 the UK fell back into recession, suffering what we called a double dip — except it didn’t. Subsequent revisions of the ONS data on GDP revised the contraction away. You may also recall that the UK grew by 0.6 per cent in Q2 of this year, which was good, but working against this was that much of the growth came on the back of rising consumption, or falling savings. Given the high level of UK household debt, some might say that this development was a tad worrying — except that they didn’t. The data has been revised, and this time the story revealed is much more encouraging.

The first revision was to the headline figure. The ONS is now saying the UK economy expanded by 0.7 per cent in Q2. To put that in context, the US expanded by 0.4 per cent and the Eurozone by 0.3 per cent in the quarter. On an annual basis the economy expanded by 1.5 per cent.

Drill down, however, and the data looks more encouraging still.

It turns out – or at least this is what the latest data says – that investment jumped by 1.7 per cent quarter on quarter and net trade rose by 0.3 per cent. Okay, the poor old indebted consumer spent more too, largely by adding to his and her debt. Consumer spending was up 0.4 per cent – boosting retail sales in the process, but then again, it is all the more encouraging that at a time of growing consumer spending, net trade provided a positive contribution to growth.

As another story today shows that there has been a gradual rise in the UK’s export sector at a time when global trade is seeing only modest growth and this provides reason to hope that this time the UK recovery is for real. See: The UK’s export-led recovery

Drill down further still in the UK GDP data, and it emerges that both manufacturing and construction grew faster than services – or to remind you of the caveat, so says the latest data, which may get changed again.

Vicky Redwood, chief UK economist at Capital Economics, said: “Looking ahead, the economy still faces some serious constraints (including the fiscal squeeze and weak bank lending), so it may struggle to keep growing at quite such robust rates.”

It is not hard to be cynical about the data. Sure, manufacturing and construction are growing, but from very low levels. Considering where we are in the economic cycle, a growth rate of 0.7 per cent is pretty modest, and there are reasons to think growth will slow later in the year.

The point is, however, that the UK does appear to be recovering. The recovery is slower than we might like and there are reasons for caution, but compared to what we have seen over the last half a decade, the growth rate is pretty good. Relative to what we are used to, the UK is booming. In China, growth is around three times faster, but relative to what China is used to, it feels like a crisis. This time, unlike in 2010, the recovery does fell a little more real.

Let us finish on a qualified positive note. Other recent data from the ONS reveals that UK total net worth at the end of 2012 was estimated at £7.3 trillion; this was equivalent to approximately £114,000 per head of population or £275,000 per household. The estimated increase in UK net worth between 2011 and 2012 was £74 billion. Okay, the increase in wealth was largely down to rising house prices and equity values and they can fall as well as rise. The jump in asset values goes some way to justify rising consumer spending.

One question remains, however. How sustainable are rises in consumption at a time of high household debt on the back of rising house prices, at a time when they already seem too high?

© Investment & Business News 2013

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There are two types of haircuts people dread. One involves a barber called Sweeny Todd and pies. The other involves debt. Of the two types of haircuts, the former never seems to be justifiable, the latter can be. And would you believe it, the latter may be back on again for the euro area. It is the story that the powers that be in the euro region want to die. It is the story that won’t die because when it comes to facing up to reality, euro leaders are as clueless as Bruce Willis’s pate is hairless.

Wolfgang Schaeuble, Germany’s finance minister, has owned up to a truth. Hard data tells an even more unpalatable truth, but the great and good in the euro area seem to be unable to spot this truth even when it is staring them in the face

Elections are difficult, and for those at the top in politics they are especially challenging. You can feel sorry for Wolfgang Schaeuble. The German election is but weeks away, and Mr Schaeuble was on the campaign trail. No doubt he was pressed hard; no doubt he would rather have kept quiet, but it spilled out anyway. Greece, admitted Mr Schaeuble, will need more money. But, he added, it won’t have any more of its debt cancelled. It won’t, to use the emotive word that has come to mean debt write-off, experience a haircut. Meanwhile, Capital Economics has done some number crunching and drawn conclusions to make the hairs stand up on the most follically challenged person.

Let’s assume that Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Italy can maintain their future fiscal deficits at their expected 2013 level. Then, according to Capital Economics, in order for each country to reduce government debt to 90 per cent of GDP within 20 years they must average annual growth of 5.4 per cent, 6.5 per cent, 6.0 per cent, 7.5 per cent and 3.0 per cent respectively. If they could somehow find a way of moving their primary fiscal budget into balance (primary in this case means before interest), the required growth would be 5.4 per cent, 2.3 per cent, 4.7 per cent, 4.1 per cent and 3.0 per cent.

In other words, the only way they can realistically bring their debt down is if the economies manage a pretty remarkable 20 years of impressive growth. What they really need, of course, is one of those haircuts, and investment. Or do they?

The EU’s economic and monetary commissioner Olli Rehn said that what Greece needs is more time. No new money, no haircut, just more time to repay its debts.

Angela Merkel chose to avoid the topic, and just to answer the question: will Greece need more money? she said, again on the campaign trail: “Greece has been making very, very good progress in recent months and we want that progress to be continued.”

Well is it making progress? Most of us had that written about us in our reports when we were at school. “Making good progress,” may be appropriate when applied to a seven year old, but it seems a tad patronising when applied to Greece.

The truth is that the Greek crisis just goes on and on. And it will continue to go on and on, because its targets are impossible. What it needs is a cheaper currency, less debt and more investment. Maybe it can get away without the cheaper currency if there were more money transfers between Germany and Greece. Then again, you only need to look at how some regions of the UK are impoverished to see how even full political union cannot fix the problem of regional economic disparity.

Sorry, to repeat a message that was stated here three years ago. But the euro is very much a part of Greece’s problem, and no matter how many haircuts it receives; no matter how much investment it obtains, without a cheaper currency the recovery may never happen.

© Investment & Business News 2013

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The numbers say what the numbers say. It may not feel right; it may defy reason, but there are reasons to think the Eurozone may be set to exit recession.

The latest flash Purchasing Managers’ Index tracking Eurozone manufacturing and services hit an 18 month high.

That is good, but especially encouraging was that the July index was 50.00, which is good news because 50 is seen as the key level. Anything below 50 is supposed to correspond with contraction; anything above signifies growth. Okay, a reading of 50 is not that remarkable, and this is just the flash reading, meaning that it is an early estimate. But it is a good sign, nonetheless.

Markit, which compiles the data, said: “Manufacturers reported the largest monthly increase in output since June 2011, registering an expansion for the first time since February of last year. Service sector activity meanwhile fell only marginally, recording the smallest decline in the current 18-month sequence and showing signs of stabilising after the marked rates of decline seen earlier in the year.”

In Germany output rose at the fastest rate for five months. Service sector growth hit a five-month high while manufacturers reported the steepest monthly increase in output since February of last year. Overall job creation hit the highest since March.
As for France, the PMI hit its highest level since March 2012. It’s not the only good news out of France of late. An index showing that morale in the industrial sector recently rose for the fourth month running, led the French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici to say: “Nous sommes en sortie de recession,” or “We are out of recession.”

On the other hand, the index measuring French industrial morale is still below the historic average. The PMI was up, but at 48.8 still pointed to contraction, and in any case, France has to enforce much more substantive reforms to its labour market before it can claim its struggle is over.

Ben May, European economist at Capital Economics, said: “There are some signs that the euro-zone economy is on the mend and might perhaps soon exit recession. Nonetheless, the PMI and other business surveys have signalled several false dawns in the recent past. What’s more, with banks still reluctant to lend and demand for credit remaining weak, it is still too soon to conclude that the region is in recovery mode.

© Investment & Business News 2013

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It has been a drip drip of okay news on Spain. There’s nothing sensational; nothing yet to quieten the euro-sceptics, but enough to offer some hope.

The latest PMI for Spanish manufacturing from Markit hit 50 in June, which is the highest reading in 26 months, and suggests the sector is no longer contracting; rather it is now flat. Spain posted its first trade surplus ever in March, with exports rising 2.7 per cent, and finally Spanish unemployment fell in May, with 98,286 joining the Spanish work-force.

Okay, none of this data provides a reason for the bulls of the investment world to start charging all over the market bull rings. A reading of 50 for the PMI still suggests the economy was flat, ie not growing. Sure the balance of trade went positive, but the main reason for this was falling imports, and Spanish unemployment remains at frightening levels.

But then this week (July 23 to be precise) the latest figures on Spanish GDP were out and they gave some reason for cheer.

In Q2 the Spanish economy contracted by 0.1 per cent, after contracting 0.5 per cent in Q1 and by 0.8 per cent in Q4 last year. Year on year growth was minus 1.8 per cent.

So Spain is still in recession, but it needs only a very modest improvement to leave recession and that surely has to be celebrated.

Ben May, European economist from Capital Economics, is not so sure, however. He said: “We expect weak demand in Spain’s major export destinations to mean that the boost from the external sector will fade over the coming quarters. And with the fiscal squeeze, housing slump and private sector deleveraging set to continue for some time to come, domestic demand is likely to contract significantly further.

Based on this, we still expect GDP to fall pretty sharply next year, perhaps by as much as 1.5 per cent.” If Capital Economics is right, and the recent good(ish) news proves to be a one-off, then expect another bond crisis, and more calls for help in 2014-15.

© Investment & Business News 2013

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“I think I should warn you,” said Ben Bernanke, “if you think I am making myself clear, then that means you have probably misunderstood me.” Witty, and a tad daft. It is just that actually those words were not spoken by Mr Bernanke at all; rather they were spoken by his predecessor as the Fed chairman Alan Greenspan.

In fact, when Ben took over at the Fed he went to great lengths to say he was not one for cryptic remarks. He would say it as he saw it. He promised to be something of a blunt speaker. (Ay up lad, I say wat I mean tha noes). Last week, however, he seemed to do an impressive impersonation of Mr Greenspan. His lips and eyes, or his statement and his inference, seemed all seemed out of sync.

Don’t get confused,” said the Fed Chairman, “The overall message [from the Fed’s rate setting committee] is accommodation.”

His words had been eagerly awaited. Last month Ben suggested the Fed may be tightening monetary policy soon. This time he said they will be doing no such thing. Rather that we may see a “gradual and possible change in the mix of [monetary] instruments.”

So what does that mean? A change in mix suggests the details are different but the overall thrust the same.

So that’s the headline.

What about the substance?

The latest minutes from the Fed said that many members of the FOMC – that’s the Federal Open Market Committee – “indicated that further improvement in the outlook for the labour market would be required before it would be appropriate to slow the pace of asset purchases.” Again this needs translating. “Many” is supposed to be code for slightly over half. Subsequent to the meeting of the FOMC to which these minutes relate, job data on the US has seen another big improvement. That rather suggests that more than half of the men and women who determine monetary policy are on the cusp of agreeing to “slow the pace of asset purchases.”

So Ben says one thing, and the minutes say something else.

The minutes also said that ‘some members’ wanted to see evidence that GDP growth was picking up before they agreed to tighten policy. So let’s decode that. In this case, “some” means fewer than half. The data on GDP is not expected to be so good in Q2. In other words, fewer than half are not ready to tighten policy.

Would you believe it? The markets loved all this. Somehow they concluded that the Fed is not going to tighten monetary policy as quickly as they had feared, so they went out and bought, pushing the Dow and S&P 500 to new all-time highs.

Capital Economics took a look at the Fed’s words and concluded that they suggest QE will be reduced somewhat in September, will cease altogether in 2014 and rates will rise in 2015. This is actually pretty much the same as what it was saying before the Fed released its minutes.

In other words, all that has really changed is that the Fed is saying much the same thing as it was a few weeks ago; it is just using more ambiguous words to say it.

And that was enough to get the markets all bullish again.

© Investment & Business News 2013

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The pound fell to a three year low against the dollar last week, and predictions of doom emanated from the UK’s more cynical press. ‘Oil will go,’ they cried, ‘the cost of holidaying abroad will shoot up,’ they moaned, ‘oh woe is us,’ they lamented. There are indeed strong disadvantages to having a cheaper currency. But there are advantages too, and there are reasons to think that the pound may fall a lot further yet – at least relative to the dollar.

There is one thing that Mark Carney, the Bank of England’s new governor, and Haruhiko Kuroda, the newish governor of the Bank of Japan, have a lot in common. Actually they probably have a lot in common but let’s just focus on this one obvious point today. They both seem to be in the process of enacting policies to weaken their respective currencies. In Japan where the governor has been in his post for a few months longer, the policy is advanced; in the UK it is only really being hinted at.

But recently Mark Carney made it just about as clear as was possible. Even if the Fed starts to tighten monetary policy sooner rather than later, and the dollar rises as a result, putting the pound under pressure, the Bank of England will not necessarily follow suit.

The pound fell sharply on the news. At one point last week there were less than 1.49 dollars to the pound. That was a three year low. But then Fed chairman Ben Bernanke appeared to do something of a backtrack, and the pound rose back up, finishing last week with an exchange rate of 1.51, which actually was nothing out of the ordinary – not over the last year or so, anyway.

It may be worth making a few comments at this point. Firstly, the Fed’s attempt to clarify last week, and reassure us about monetary policy was about as unambiguous as a disco dancing sloth. Frankly, Bernanke didn’t really appear to say anything new, and it is clear that opinion is divided amongst his colleagues at the Fed. The timetable for the Fed tightening its policy – namely reducing QE later this year, removing it altogether next and upping rates in 2015 – seems to be unchanged. But because Ben used some nice reassuring words, the markets seemed to love his comments. Equities lifted, pushing the Dow and S&P 500 to new all-time highs and alleviating pressure on the pound, as they somehow concluded that there was something new in the Fed’s words and that monetary policy will not be tightened as quickly, after all.

Secondly, the pound may have fallen against the dollar, but the UK press missed the wider story. This was not so much a case of a falling pound as a rising dollar. The euro pound exchange rate has done nothing spectacular. However, look deeper, and it appears there are reasons to expect sterling to fall.

For one thing, a comparison of UK unit labour costs with the rest of the world suggests sterling is overvalued. The real effective exchange rate (based on IMF data) is 7 per cent above the level seen in the mid-1990s and 20 per cent above the level in the mid-1970s, or so says Capital Economics.

For another thing, something a little disturbing has happened to the UK’s balance of payments. We are used to seeing a deficit on trade in goods and services, but at least income from investments flowing into the UK tends to be greater than income flowing abroad. But there are signs that this is changing. The UK’s net investment income has been negative in three out of the last four quarters. The story here is complicated. The value of investments held by foreigners, but relating to the UK, is much greater than British investments abroad. But UK investments held abroad tend to be higher risk, and generally provide a much higher return. There are signs that this is changing, however, and that is a worrying development. To be clear, if net investment income continues to be negative this will put pressure on sterling relative to most foreign currencies, not just the dollar.

While is it the case that the real currency story of the last few weeks has been one of the dollar versus the rest of the world, across much of the global economy central banks have responded by upping interest rates themselves. For example, they rose last week in Brazil. China’s central bank is tightening, and rates were recently increased in Indonesia. The story is not clear cut – these things never are, but as rates rise in the US, leading to a stronger dollar, many other countries will probably follow suit. If the UK and Japan loosen monetary policy at such a time, they will be in the minority putting both the yen and sterling under pressure against a basket of international currencies – not just the dollar.

On the other hand, the prospects for the UK economy have been improving of late, and it would be odd if sterling tumbled just as UK plc began to show signs of pulling out of its downturn.

But supposing it happens and the pound falls much further, what then?

At a time when there are signs of improving exports, especially to the US and outside Europe; at a time when some anecdotal and some hard evidence (see car exports) points to a mini renaissance in the UK manufacturing industry and its exports, a cheaper pound will give exporters even more of a lift. On the other hand, a falling pound may lead to rising inflation, and in this respect the UK has previous. Think of 1967 and the pound being devalued and the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson saying it will “not affect the pound in your pocket.” In fact sterling’s devaluation did – UK inflation shot up soon afterwards.

And that brings us to the UK’s big dilemma.

Yes we need exports to help lead recovery, but we also need increases in average wages to start outstripping inflation again. A cheaper pound may help us achieve the former, but most certainly not the latter.

What the UK really needs is productivity to rise, and that needs more investment; more investment in business, in entrepreneurs, infrastructure and education – and, it may seem like a cliché, investment in education in creating more engineers, because that is where the real labour market shortage is likely to be.

There is a danger, however, and to read about that, see  What will happen to households as rates rise? 

© Investment & Business News 2013