Posts Tagged ‘quantitative easing’

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It was November 2012 when Jens Weidmann, President of the Bundesbank, likened quantitative easing, or QE, to a Faustian pact with the devil.  But it was even earlier, back in 2010, when Brazil’s finance minister talked about currency wars.

It was during that era that QE was seen as leading a kind of race to the bottom, as countries fell over themselves to try and achieve a cheaper currency.  It didn’t work out like that, of course. It is no more possible for every country to have a cheaper currency then it is for every Premiership football team to win on the same day.

The critics of QE were legion. They said QE was behind currency wars, and that the inevitable result would be hyperinflation. And they saw the words of Jens Weidmann as a kind of official endorsement of that view.

It was in this environment that the buy gold bandwagon got moving. BUY GOLD, they said. It was the only safe refuge in a world gone mad under QE.

They overlooked that across the world there was a chronic shortage of demand, a savings glut and that the west was suffering from a balance sheet recession.

There are lots of things wrong with QE, the main critique might be that it is a blunt weapon. But it was never likely to lead to hyperinflation, not in a world starved of demand.

But what it did do was lead to a cheaper dollar. And when the dollar fell, so gold rose.

Back in 1999, when UK chancellor Gordon Brown sold the UK government’s gold supply, the yellow metal was trading at less than $300 an ounce. In the summer of 2009 it was trading at just shy of $900. Those two years stood either end of the great gold market, when it rose in value by around 300 per cent.

Gold continued to rise in the aftermath of the crisis of 2008. In September 2009 it was trading at $1,000 and in August 2011 it finally passed $1,900. That was when the gold hype was at its peak.

But in 2015, currency wars has turned to currency normality and inflation stands at close to zero across the developed world. QE didn’t create hyperinflation, it was not even enough to fight the threat of deflation.

In 2015 the US economy began to improve, the Fed made noises about increasing interest rates, the dollar rose, the euro fell, and gold went out of fashion.

As of this moment (21 July 2015) it is trading at $1,108 an ounce.

Why didn’t gold rise above $2,000, or even $3,000 as was once predicted? The reason is simple. QE was the not the devil’s tool it was made out to be, the global economy suffered from lack of demand.  The risk of hyperinflation was built upon a myth.

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The threat to quantitative easing – or QE – is like a nuclear deterrent. If rates are forced up by the markets, we will use QE, suggests the Bank of England, and therefore there is no need for it, as markets price in what might happen if they don’t heed the bank’s words. That is the theory. It is as if Mark Carney bestrides the banking stage, with his finger always near the red button marked QE, and as a result the markets dare not release their venom, for fear that they will be caught out by detonation. The reaility seems quite different, and yesterday Mark Carney had another go; putting on his poker face and staring at the markets: “Go ahead,” he seemed to be saying, “make my day.” Alas, the markets are still not buying it.

The markets have been pushing up yields. The yield on UK government ten year bonds has risen from a low of around 1.5 per cent a year ago, to 2.8 per cent at the time of writing. The Bank of England says rates are going to stay low until 2016, but the markets are far from convinced.

It is presented as bad news but actually it may be quite the opposite. The Bank of England says rates may rise once unemployment falls to 7 per cent, providing inflation does not show signs of rising sharply. The markets are saying they think this will happen in 2015; the Bank of England is saying 2016. So to try to convince the markets, Mark Carney has to try to talk down the prospects of the UK recovery without – and get this for an impossible mission – dampening confidence.

Yesterday Mark Carney spoke. In fact he was speaking at the East Midlands Conference Centre. So that’s quite a journey for Mr Carney, from Canada to the East Midlands Conference Centre – whatever next, the Andromeda galaxy perhaps?

Give the new governor at the Bank of England credit, he was transparency itself. He said: “Our forward guidance provides you with certainty that interest rates will not rise too soon. Exactly how long they stay low will depend on the progress of the recovery and in particular how quickly unemployment comes down. What matters is that rates won’t go up until jobs and incomes are really growing.” He also said: “We will have to see the rate of unemployment, currently 7.8 per cent, fall at least to a threshold of 7 per cent before even beginning to consider whether to raise Bank Rates.” Note that: even considering raising rates.

He then went at great lengths to spell it out: getting unemployment down to 7 per cent will be tough. So why then are markets pushing up rates? Mr Carney said one possibility is that: “Markets think that unemployment will come down to 7 per cent more quickly than we do. Since the aim of our policy is to secure recovery as quickly as possible, that would be welcome. But policy is built not on hope, but on expectation. And we estimate there is only a 1 in 3 chance of unemployment coming down that quickly.”

So note that: he is saying there is a one in three chance that rates will rise before 2016.

Finally, he made a reference to the US. When the Fed revealed plans to start reducing QE soon, many assumed the Bank of England would follow – leading to yields on bonds rising, and fast. You may be interested to know, that for the last three months, the yield on US government bonds has been higher than the UK equivalent. This changed this week, however, as markets rushed to safety over fears of a Syrian conflict escalating. On the subject of US and UK rates, Mr Carney said: “While much has been made of the special relationship between the US and UK, it is not so special that the possibility of a reduction in the pace of additional stimulus in the US warrants a current reduction in the degree of monetary stimulus in the UK.”

So it’s all pretty clear. The Bank of England has no plan to up rates soon. The markets responded by pushing up market rates. Soon after Mr Carney sat down yesterday, the yields on UK government bonds rose.

The markets are not buying it. Carney may yet be forced to push the ‘more QE button’ after all – it is just that the decision is not just his. Carney has a politburo – or a Monetary Policy Committee – that must vote to extend QE. And the markets don’t believe Carney’s colleagues will allow him to press the button.

© Investment & Business News 2013

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If only interest rates were higher; it’s the lament of savers everywhere. Then they could enjoy a nice little income from hard-won savings. Some don’t merely sigh; they grimace; they are angry. They worked hard all their life. They saved hard, putting off holidays, sacrificed transitory pleasures today for security, and slowly built a nest egg. But, thanks to record low interest rates, and that policy straight from the devil’s workshop called quantitative easing, central banks seem to want to punish the prudent and reward the feckless. You can feel their anger, and you may share their anger. It is just that they are wrong. And they are wrong for a simple reason.

Dr Ros Altmann is very clever indeed. Until recently she was director general of SAGA, and is generally thought of as something of a guru; an expert on all things pensions. But she is especially famous for her hugely critical views relating to the Bank of England’s recent monetary policy. Her argument runs likes this: low interest rates penalise savers, they penalise those who are retired, and those who are trying to find a way to fund their retirement. She rarely misses an opportunity to slate the government and its central bank whenever it does anything to advance the course of low interest rates. If the anti-quantitative easing (QE) lobby has a face, it is that of Ms Altmann.

But think about this for a moment. If the economy is growing, if real incomes are rising, and if productivity is getting better all the time, then surely we can afford higher interest rates.

Or consider this. Why do we need savings? Across the global economy savings equal investment – they have to, it is a matter of definition. GDP equals consumption plus investment. Savings equals income minus consumption. Income equals GDP. For the economy as a whole, we need savings to fund investment. If we all try to save more, without a corresponding rise in investment, the result is an immediate fall in GDP.

So we save to fund investment. Does that not mean that in the long run, the reward for savings should be a function of the return on investment?

If our savings fund very low risk investment, that generates very little in the way of returns. Why do we think we should get a higher interest rate?

Consider the economy. It has had a very poor few years. There has been no shortage of money, no shortage of savings, but the money has found its way into bonds, and into mortgages. What money has not done – or at least has not done enough – is find its way into more risky assets.

“QE has hastened the demise of our pensions system,” said Dr Altmann earlier this year. She continued: “As scheme deficits rise, their sponsor company’s money is being forced into the scheme rather than expanding or modernising the company itself – thereby increasing the risk that the company will fail and the scheme will be forced into the PPF, with all members’ pensions reduced.”

She makes a good point. The return on bonds is incredibly low. Pension schemes need to generate a certain proportion of their income from bonds, and since bonds pay out such low yields that means pension schemes need to buy even more bonds to meet regulatory requirements.

The truth is that a good argument could be made to say that savers deserve a higher return on the money if their savings yielded better results, created more wealth. Borrowers could afford to pay higher interest rates if, as a result of their borrowing, they made more profits, and enjoyed higher income.

This connection between savings, investment and the return on savings versus the return on investment gets forgotten, overlooked.

It would be a good thing if interest rates rose, but only if they rose because all of a sudden savings were being used to fund innovation, and as result created more wealth.

This, of course, is why savers need to re-evaluate, and start looking at putting their savings in assets other than low risk, low yielding bonds.

© Investment & Business News 2013

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You may remember the ads – it must have been around 20 years ago. They were for a magazine called ‘Fast Forward’ and for a few months they were on TV all the time – or so it seemed. Jeremy Beadle features in the ads and the jingle went “fast, fast forward, forward forward’ and the tune went like this laa, laa, la, la, la. Okay you may not remember the ads, maybe you have subconsciously blocked them from your memory, but if you do remember them apologies. You may now hear that tune in your head every time you hear the phrase ‘forward guidance’. And so, forward guidance is out and now it appears we have an inkling about how long rates will stay at 0.5 per cent.

The latest inflation report, out yesterday, came with a section talking about forward guidance. The Bank of England says that monetary policy will remain ultra-loose for as long as UK unemployment is greater than 7 per cent.

In forward guidance, if inflation does this, and jobs do that, says the Bank of England we will do as follows.

Accept that it’s forward guidance that may change as we move forward. The 7 per cent unemployment rate does not necessarily represent the end of the line for record low rates; rather it is, as Mark Carney called it, a ‘way station’.

Based on Bank of England predictions, for UK unemployment, it appears the first rate hike will be in late 2015.

Then again, if inflation picks up, and even if unemployment is still quite high, Mr Carney suggested the bank may change policy.

So it is a kind of forward guidance, based on current thinking. Well, Carney is human. He can’t do much more than that, but it does leave you wondering what the fuss is about.

It is tempting to say that forward guidance is little more than PR; a communication tool. But then again, the markets seem to be taking to it like proverbial ducks to water.

It does rather seem that forward guidance means the bank does not need to engage in any more QE. If you see QE as kind of weapon of mass financial destruction, then the threat that you may use it means that it is not necessary to do so.

© Investment & Business News 2013

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Now some surveys are suggesting that parts of the UK economy are enjoying their best growth since 2006. So is that it then? Is the crisis that began in 2008 well and truly over? And here is another question: does it just go to show the government was right all along? Austerity works, QE, or quantitative easing, is best?

There are reasons to think the recovery this time around is for real, unlike in 2009/2010 when the UK saw something of a false dawn. This time real things seem to be happening. UK exporters are enjoying more success selling their wares outside the Eurozone, and the success enjoyed by the car industry is a good example of this. Then there is evidence of reshoring, as companies look at return at least some of their manufacturing to their home markets.

But does this really prove that austerity works? Does this really prove QE was the right thing to do all along?

There is something quite ironic about something George Osborne has said. He has often laughed off ideas that the way to solve a crisis caused by having too much debt was to borrow more. That was how he has defended austerity. And yet, by encouraging a new housing boom, it could be argued that Mr Osborne is trying to solve an economic crisis caused by too much household debt, by getting households to borrow more.

It boils down to whether you think government debt is worse than private debt. Just remember that in many parts of the world, such as Spain for example, household debt became government debt.

Now let’s focus some more on UK household debt. In the year 2000 UK household debt to disposable income, according to the OECD, was 112 per cent. In 2007 it was 174 per cent, and in 2012 it was back down to 146 per cent. The Office of Budget Responsibility recently forecast that UK household debt is set to rise again – albeit not by a great deal. This differs, by the way, from the US which has seen the ratio fall to a much lower level, and which is expected to fall even further.

Household debt keeps getting forgotten. It was household debt across the UK, the US and Europe which explained why QE was never going to lead to hyperinflation. Households had become afraid to spend, to borrow. The money supply, the broad money supply, which economists believe is associated with inflation, is as much determined by debt and borrowing levels as anything.

Despite the Bank of England issuing £375 billion in QE over the last few years, the broad money supply has only seen very slight growth. See it terms of a bath with a big hole in it. You turn the tap on full, to make up for the water leaking out of the bottom, and many, who seem to be oblivious to the hole, fret that the bath will overflow.

QE was never going to lead to hyperinflation and the biggest failing of the European Central Bank was not to realise this.

But just because QE was not going to create hyperinflation that does not mean it is a good idea. If you have a bath with a hole in it, what is the best thing to do? Is it to turn the taps up full, or try to fix the leak? QE amounts to taking the former approach.

The trouble with austerity is that it can work when tried in isolation. But it has not been tried in isolation; rather it has been a Europe wide thing. This has had disastrous consequences for the UK and Eurozone.

The UK had a worse downturn than most of the Europe because the UK was more reliant on its banking sector. The UK is enjoying a faster recovery than the Eurozone partly because it is not in the euro and has a cheaper currency, and partly because of QE.

But while QE has not created hyperinflation, it has led to higher asset prices. To misquote George Osborne: “How can you solve a crisis caused by asset prices being too high, by getting asset prices to rise?”

What the UK, the US and Europe need is for central bank money printing to fund investment to enable the world’s developed economies to start fulfilling the potential of the fantastic innovations we have seen in recent years.

Instead, we have seen the UK return to old habits. Central bank policy via QE and government policy are combining to push up house prices and household debt when what we need is more investment. This is not a good development.

© Investment & Business News 2013

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When surveys start concluding that certain vital sectors of the UK economy are enjoying the best growth rate since 2006, you know you need to start taking things more seriously. Until recently the UK recovery looked – how can one put it? – well, it looked quite nice. Surveys and hard data pointed to growth; they suggested that the UK was comfortably clear of recession territory, but there was always that reminder that the recovery was really quite lacklustre compared to what it was like before 2008. But then yesterday and this morning it changed. Not one, but two surveys have seen the light of day in the last 24 hours, which suggest that certain vital sectors are now seeing their best performance since 2006.

Just to remind you, the UK economy may not be in recession, but it is still in a downturn. GDP is still in excess of 3 per cent below the 2008 peak, and that is a record. Data goes back to the early years of the 20th Century and in that time no downturn has lasted as long. In fact so severe is the downturn that some are going further and calling it an economic depression. It is a funny sort of depression though. It is undeniably the case that unemployment is too high, but then neither is it at the kind of level that one would normally associate with economic depression. What is different this time around is that while employment has been higher than one might expect given what is happening in GDP, average wage increases have been lower. It is now more than three years since average wage increases were higher than inflation.

The latest data says the UK economy expanded by 0.5 per cent in Q2, compared to 0.3 per cent in Q1. So that’s an improvement, but the fact is that 0.5 per cent growth is not that good. At this stage in the economic cycle, with the economic output so far behind potential, the economy should be booming. Hold that thought. Four surveys have seen the light of day since last Thursday, and between them they suggest that the UK economy is finally growing the way it should be – it may even be close to booming.

First off, there was the latest Purchasing Managers’ Index produced by Markit/CIPS for manufacturing. The index rose to a 28 month high in July, with a score of 54.6 – with any score over 50 supposedly denoting growth. This was the best bit from the report: “New export business rose at the fastest pace for two years, reflecting increased sales to Australia, China, the euro area, Kenya, Mexico, the Middle East, Nigeria, Russia and the US.”

Second off, we got the latest Purchasing Managers’ Index, again from Markit/CIPS, this time for construction. The index pointed to the fastest rate of residential construction since June 2010 and the steepest improvement in new order levels since April 2012.

So far the story is okay. Surveys point to an economy improving, but at best they only suggest the performance is comparable to what we saw in 2011, maybe late 2010. But the UK economy was not in good shape back then, so big deal. The UK economy is not as terrible as was in 2012, but it is as bad as it was in 2011.

But then yesterday the story became altogether more promising. The latest Purchasing Managers’ Index for services rose to its highest level since 2006. In fact with the headline seasonally adjusted Business Activity Index standing at 60.2, it was the highest reading since December 2006.

But even that is not the best bit. July also saw the sharpest rise in backlogs of work since February 2000. Now when backlogs rise, you can normally expect output to rise in the following months to try to catch-up. In other words, if anything, the next few months should be even better. Collectively, the three PMIs point to quarter on quarter growth of 1.5 per cent. If that proves right, the UK will have enjoyed its fastest growth rate in 14 years.

Finally, this morning saw a survey from the British Retail Consortium indicating that retail sales rose by 3.9 per cent in July, which is the best year on year rise since 2006.

Okay, there are snags. For one thing much of the expansion appears to be fed by UK households saving less, and borrowing more. Not everyone welcomes this development. For another thing one-offs partly explained July’s retail growth: with the good weather and sporting success being cited for reason for higher sales.

But lurking in the data are signs of something that may be more permanent. The rather unfortunate timing of the economic depression in the UK’s largest export market – the Eurozone –has really not helped things. It is encouraging that there are signs that the UK is exporting more outside the euro area. So, let’s enjoy the moment.

Some are now patting themselves on the back. They say that the economic recovery proves they were right. Austerity works, QE works. But is that really right? Read the next piece for an answer.

Does the recovery prove that QE works?

© Investment & Business News 2013

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The US economy has not been good at exporting for some time. Recent data shows that its imports of goods and services still lag way behind exports. Yet there is one thing the US is good at exporting and that is economic news. And of late it has been exporting good economic news. So what is it; why; is it for real, and does that give us reason for hope?

Sometimes recoveries seem to be built on hot air. Sometimes they are down to confidence, and confidence creates growth, and growth creates confidence. During the boom years of the noughties, economic boom was built on debt. Households borrowed because house prices were up, and they rose partly because interest rates were so low, and partly because credit was so easy to come by, but there was something wrong.

The boom was built on foundations as shaky as a shaky house built of shaky match sticks, sitting on top of shaky hill made from quick sand. This time the recovery seem to sit on foundations that are a lot more robust. Yet still the doubters say it is all a lie.

So why the reason for cheer?

First and foremost, US households have cut debt. US household debt has fallen from $12.7 trillion in 2008, to $11.2 trillion at the end of last year. In fact, according to IMF data, US household debt to income has fallen from a ratio of 1.3 in the mid-noughties to around 1.05. In fact, the ratio is now higher in the Eurozone. At the same time, the value of US household assets have risen. According to Capital Economics: “Every $1.00 of debt is now backed by $6.30 of assets, whereas before the recession it was backed by $4.80 of assets.” Capital Economics, for so long a bear on the US economy, recently said that the US consumer is now well placed to drive “a faster period of economic growth.”

Secondly, US banks are in better shape. Q1 saw record profits for US banks, while their deposit-to-liabilities ratio recently hit a 20-year high of 84.6 per cent. See: US banks see biggest profits ever: is the US back? 

Thirdly, the US fiscal deficit this year is expected to be $642 billion, or so estimates the Congressional Budget Office. To put that in context, last year the deficit was $1.1 trillion. It will, in fact, be the first time since 2008 that the US deficit is less than $1 trillion. And, by the way, not so long ago the Congressional Budget Office was projecting a deficit of almost $200 billion more than that.

As for those who say the US sits on a financial and demographic time bomb, and that surging health care costs alone are sure to bankrupt the world’s largest economy there are some reasons to be cynical about such cynicism. See: The scaremongers are wrong: the US is not even vaguely close to going bust  and US medicare time bomb begins to look more like a pretty time piece 

US consumer confidence recently hit a five and half year high. US house prices are rising, and, unlike in the UK, they are rising from a point where the average price to income is below the historical average of 1.2 million, with June seeing a rise of 195,000.

Given all this evidence, why are many so cynical?

Some cynicism seems to be built on genuine concerns, while others seem to be cynical for its own sake.

One challenge is that this year US government spending will be falling while taxes are rising. This may be good for cutting government debt, but it may yet prove disastrous for the economy, and indeed the IMF has slated the US government for relaxing its fiscal stimulus too soon. But then that is what you get when you have a political system made up of two parties that seem to be hell bent on putting self-interest over national interests.

Partly as a result of the US fiscal stimulus’ going into reverse, recent  Purchasing Managers’ Indices (PMIs) have been disappointing, with the latest PMI tracking US non-manufacturing falling to a three year low. The latest PMIs suggest the US will grow at around 1 per cent in Q2 on an annualised basis. By recent standards, that is poor. But then these are problems with the short term.

Another challenge relates to the very difficult balancing act that the Fed has to manage. It is now talking about cutting back on its quantitative easing or QE programme quite soon – September being the date expected by the markets. The Fed has been buying $85 billion worth of bonds every month. To begin with the Fed will not stop QE, but merely slow down. The feeling is that it won’t stop altogether until next year, and rates won’t rise until 2015.

Not all see why. For one thing US inflation is modest, and appears to pose no threat at all. Fears that were commonplace a year or so ago, that QE would lead to runaway inflation currently look somewhat silly. So they ask: why cut rates so soon?

A more serious concern relates to ways in which the actual data may be misleading. So sure, US employment may be up, US unemployment may be falling, but US employment to the US population is not much less today than during the height of the recession. In part this is down to more people retiring, but it appears this is also partly down to some people pretty much giving up, and falling off the unemployment stats.

Then there are some who voice concern over student loans in the US. The big critic here is Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz. See: Student Debt and the Crushing of the American Dream

This all leaves two big pluses.

The first plus is shale gas. This has led to falling energy costs, handing US households more disposable income after paying for energy. The second is signs of a kind of renaissance in manufacturing. This shows up in many ways. Both Apple and Google, for example, have recently announced that certain products will be made in the USA.

As US productivity rises, unit labour costs fall, and unit labour costs in China rise, the gap with China improves in favour of the US. More exciting is the potential of 3D printing, which may yet create a new kind of local craftsman, as is suddenly becomes viable for consumers to have bespoke products designed especially for them, or for just a small number of people.

A sustained US recovery is not guaranteed, but the odds are about as favourable as they have been for a very long time.

© Investment & Business News 2013