Category Archives: Monetary policy

Germany’s trade surplus is down to Germany not the ECB

In a speech in Berlin yesterday, Merkel said the German trade surplus was propelled by two factors over which the government had no influence, namely the euro’s exchange rate and the oil price. Well, there’s some truth in that, but not much. It’s fair to say that a weak euro probably does increase the trade surplus, though the impact of the exchange rate is quite delayed and weak. And a lower oil price does reduce the oil deficit, but there is still a substantial deficit in oil so you can hardly blame this for a trade surplus.  These factors may have led to a higher trade surplus than would otherwise have been the case, but they are not the primary cause of the large and persistent German trade surplus. That much is obvious just by looking at the German trade and current account surpluses in recent years. Yes, the surplus has increased a little in the last few years in response to the lower euro and the lower oil price, and is expected to be 8.8% of GDP in 2017. But the current account surplus was already 6.8% of GDP 10 years ago in 2007 and 7.1% of GDP 5 years ago in 2012. In 2007, the euro was around 10% higher in real effective terms (for Germany) than it is now, and the oil price was around $70 a barrel. In 2012 the euro was actually not very far from current levels in real effective terms (though stronger against the USD), and the oil price averaged around $110 per barrel. The German trade and current account surpluses were nevertheless still very large. Merkel’s attempts to claim that they are a function of a weak euro and a high oil price just won’t wash.

german stuff

Source: OECD

Merkel’s comments are an attempt to evade criticism of German policy, which have come most recently from the US but have been heard before in Europe. She is arguing that the problem is out of her control because she doesn’t want to take the measures necessary to reduce Germany’s trade surplus. What could be done? It is not an easy problem to solve, but she could make some contribution with easier fiscal policy. Her fiscal stance has been very conservative and makes Britain’s attempts at austerity look spendthrift. The German budget is expected to show a 0.5% of GDP surplus in 2017, following similar surpluses in the previous 3 years. This is certainly on the austere side, and government debt has been falling fairly rapidly as a result, expected to hit just 65% of GDP this year, back to 2008 levels after seeing a peak of 81.2% in 2010. Of course, the original target for this debt level was 60% of GDP, but much higher levels are sustainable with much lower real interest rates. The Eurozone average government debt is over 90% of GDP.

german stuff1

Source: BIS

However, the big problem is really the private sector rather than the public sector. The private sector save too much (or don’t invest enough). The proper monetary policy response to this is to keep interest rates as low as possible, so on that basis the ECB are doing exactly the right thing. But more could be done with fiscal policy in Germany, either with stimulative tax cuts, or more government spending. This would both directly encourage imports and, by forcing up wages and prices, would lead to improved lower real interest rates and reduced German competitiveness. Part of the reason for the big German trade surplus is the big wage competitiveness advantage built up in the aftermath of the creation of the euro. That’s why Germany has been running big trade and current account surpluses since the mid 2000s.

But Merkel doesn’t really want to do this. She doesn’t want to undermine Germany’s competitive advantage with the rest of Europe (as well as the rest of the world). She doesn’t want to run a less austere budgetary policy and alienate the conservative wing of the CDU. So she’s blaming the ECB and the oil price. The rest of Europe need to tell her she’s wrong. I see no chance that Draghi or the ECB will take any notice of her, so logically there is little reason for the Euro to benefit directly from her comments.  But with the political and economic winds behind it, there is little reason to oppose euro strength anyway. The CHF and GBP look the most vulnerable of the major currencies in this environment, though the USD could also suffer if rate expectations drop away significantly.

german stuff2

Source: EU Commission

The UK needs a weak pound

UK Chancellor Philip Hammond welcomed the rise in the pound that accompanied the announcement of the UK election last month. He should be careful about cheerleading GBP strength, because right now the UK is more in need of a weak pound than it has been for a long time, and a significant recovery in GBP could be a big problem for the UK economy.

The UK economic situation is dangerous, not only because of Brexit, but because of the perilous position of the UK’s consumer finances. This is well illustrated by the chart below showing the financial balances of the three sectors of the UK economy, balanced by the position with the rest of the world.

sector balances

Source: ONS

The UK household deficit is at record levels, and as can be seen from the chart, the existence of a deficit is a rarity, seen only briefly in the late 80s and then for a few years in the mid 2000s. It is a danger signal. In both cases, the deficit was followed by a recession, as consumers retrenched, as can be seen from the chart below.

householdbalance and GDP

Source: ONS

The process see in the past is instructive. Most of the time, GDP grows as the household balance moves towards deficit, fuelled by deficit spending. However, when the household balance moves into deficit, it tends to reverse, and this has historically led to a recession. If this is not to happen this time around, the inevitable reversal in the household balance must be accomplished slowly while other sectors are adding to growth. With the government constrained by longer term budget issues, this really only leaves investment and net exports. This makes the danger from Brexit fairly obvious. If firms are worried about access to the single market then investment in the UK may be curtailed. Longer term, the terms of Brexit will be key for net exports, but shorter term, the export sector looks likely to be the healthiest, as UK exporters benefit from the combination of a lower pound and strengthening Eurozone domestic demand. But this is why a significant recovery in the pound is not desirable. It would both undermine export growth and discourage investment.

Is a recession inevitable when households retrench? Not necessarily – it will depend on the conditions. In 2000 when the dotcom bubble burst the UK avoided recession in spite of a very extended household sector which did retrench, because rate cuts encouraged firms to borrow. But this underlines how important business confidence is in the current UK cyclical situation. With no rate cuts available to encourage businesses or households to spend, confidence in the future is key if spending is to be maintained.

All this makes the timing of Brexit look extremely inopportune. In the mid 2000s, the household sector ran a financial deficit for a few years before the crash, but the crash was all the more severe when it came for that reason. If growth is maintained in the coming years ahead of Brexit, the situation will be similar when Brexit actually happens. If Brexit hurts exports and investment, there will be no safety net.

Policywise, this should make it clear to the government that “no deal” with the EU is not an option. The fear is that they will  believe their own publicity and see limited economic damage if they fail to get a deal. Or take the view that, politically at least, falling back on the WTO will be favourable to accepting a deal that is like EU membership only worse. Hopefully sense prevails.

But in the meantime, the UK economy needs to be managed into a position where it can deal with a potential shock. This means managing a retrenchment of household finances now – while exports are strong enough to offset the negative growth impact. Unfortunately, it is hard to think of a policy mix that will achieve the desired outcome of slower consumer spending with strong exports and investment. Higher rates would help increase saving, but would also likely undesirably boost the pound. Higher taxes wouldn’t reduce the household deficit, only consumer spending, but would give the government more scope to react to shocks in the future, so are probably desirable. Direct restrictions on consumer borrowing might also make sense. But a stronger pound would not be helpful. Hammond should not be talking it up.

Canada (and CAD longs) should be worried about the US border tax


Trump has talked a lot about Mexico, imposing a border tax  and getting them to pay for the wall. USD/MXN has reacted aggressively, and although it is off its highs in common with the general USD dip in recent weeks, USD/MXN is still 60% higher than it was 2 years ago. But it seems to me the market ha been overly focused on Mexico when it comes to Trump’s trade policies. While he has been very vocal on the possibility of a tariff on Mexican and/or Chinese goods, the actual plan for a border tax adjustment looks much more likely to be along the lines proposed by the House Republicans. This would be part of a general tax reform involving a cut in the corporate tax rate to 20% and a “border adjustment tax” of 20%. Such a tax would likely be charged on all imports (while all exports would be tax-deductible) regardless of where the imports come from. It seems unlikely the new system would be focused on Mexico or any other single country. As such, it seems the reaction seen in USD/MXN is excessive relative to the reaction seen in other currency pairs.

This sort of tax is normally associated with consumption tax based systems like VAT. In that case, a tax is added to imports to level the playing field with domestic goods on which VAT has been charged, while exporters get VAT refunded. Although the US system isn’t a consumption tax based system, the idea is to switch the US system to a territorial system in which companies are only taxed on revenues earned domestically rather than the current worldwide system in which US companies are taxed on all revenues. The argument is then that the system (a destination based cash flow tax or DBCFT) will then be broadly equivalent to a consumption based tax system. There are several technical arguments about deduction for wages and land which mean that this is probably not correct, and the tax my consequently be against WTO rules. This may be a problem for the system in the long run, but establishing whether it breaches WTO rules and generating a response will take some time, and the short to medium term impact of such a policy, if implemented, is likely to be significant.

If such a system is implemented, it will immediately increase import prices and reduce export prices. From a trade perspective, it would effectively be equivalent to a devaluation of the USD by 20%. The academic response from trade economists to such a policy is that the market reaction would be for the USD to appreciate by 20%, leaving everything real effectively unchanged. But in practice this won’t happen. The level of the USD doesn’t only affect trade, but also asset values and capital flows, and changes in such flows in response to moves in the USD are often larger and almost always faster than changes in trade flows. It is also the case that some of the reaction has already happened, notably in the MXN. Even so some currencies are still likely to be affected if such a plan is put into practice, as it may be in time for the 2018 tax year.

While some impact can be expected on many currencies, of the liquid currencies the CAD seems much the most vulnerable. 75% of Canada’s exports go to the US, making up 4% of its GDP, so such a big move in the terms of trade would have a huge impact. Unlike USD/MXN, the CAD doesn’t start from a position of being cheap. The consumption based PPP for USD/CAD is around 1.30. Other major currencies may also be hit, but they are all less exposed to trade with the US. Many also start from a cheaper level (notably the EUR) and are more capital market determined (the EUR and the JPY). From a risk perspective, if such policies are perceived as damaging to US growth, the CAD could also be expected to suffer from the impact on risk appetite and commodity prices. Add to this the fact that the CAD has strongly outperformed rate spreads this year (see chart), so will probably weaken anyway if the market takes a positive view of Trump/Congress tax and spending plans, and the potential upside for USD/CAD looks substantial.

Policy mistakes should not always be reversed


UK inflation is rising

The Bank of England cut rates by 25bp and increased asset purchases in August in anticipation of a loss of confidence after the Brexit vote on June 24. The objective was stated to be to “provide additional support to growth and to achieve a sustainable return of inflation to the target.” Subsequently, growth was substantially stronger than expected through the remainder of 2016, mainly due to strong consumer spending, funded by increased borrowing. Now, many (including myself) thought the cut was a mistake at the time. But we all make mistakes. The Bank’s assessment of the impact on confidence appears to have been incorrect. Of course, some might argue that growth was stronger because the Bank eased policy, and no-one can prove that is wrong, but I think it is far-fetched. The fact is that the majority of the population (or at least half) are in favour of Brexit, so there is no good reason why the vote should have undermined consumer confidence. Business confidence might have been damaged in the longer run, but very few investment decisions are changed in a short time frame, so if there is a negative impact, it is yet to be felt. In practice, the relative resilience of spending may convince businesses to hold their nerve until the new trade arrangements become clearer, which may well take some time, as long as growth doesn’t start to slip back.

So it certainly seems as if the Bank of England made a policy error. While there is still very likely to be a longer term supply side shock from Brexit, that may not happen for quite some time, and the demand side shock the Bank initially expected has not materialised thus far. So what should they do? Should they reverse their easing and admit their error? The latest Inflation Report certainly shows inflation is expected to move above target soon and stay above target for the whole forecast horizon, which would suggest there is a pretty good prima facie case to raise rates or at least halt the increase in asset purchases. But the best way to fix an error is not always to simply reverse policy. Unless the reversal is done very quickly, the environment faced is different from the one faced initially. Things have changed.

In this case, the most notable change has been the decline in the pound. This has been good in some ways, as it has helped sustain manufacturing an export confidence in the face of uncertain future trade relationships, but it will lead to substantially higher inflation going forward, starting quite soon, as higher import prices feed through to CPI. It has also already led to higher inflation expectations. The key question as to whether this is sufficient reason to reverse the policy easing is whether the coming rise in inflation leads to an increase in wages and other factors generating domestically generated inflation. At this stage this is not clear, and is important. If wages don’t respond, we will see a sharp decline in real income growth as inflation rises, and if we also see a rise in rates from the Bank, there is a danger this will lead to a sharp decline in consumer confidence, potentially at the same time as sterling rises in response to a rise in rates. This could make the current optimism about the UK economy evaporate quite quickly.

So at this stage it seems sensible to wait. Inflation is coming, and it would be as well to see how this impacts spending and confidence before acting to reverse the move made in August. There has been a lot of British bravado since the Brexit vote, but high levels of debt and declining real incomes, plus the uncertainty surrounding the trade relationship with the EU and elsewhere, suggest that confidence is likely to be fragile. After making a policy mistake it is important not to compound it. The Bank mustn’t act looking in the rear view mirror.



ECB promises are worthless


There has been much discussion about whether the ECB has tapered or not. They have reduced the size of their monthly purchases but extended them until the end of the 2017 rather than the expected 6 months from March, so that the promised total of asset purchases is actually greater than had been expected (the market was looking for a promised 6 months of EUR80bn = 480bn but they have 9 months of 60bn = 540bn). But this is still a tapering. Why? Because promises are worthless.

The ECB’s “guarantee” that purchases will be at least 60bn a month for at least 9 months is no such thing. Of course, they are very likely to stick to the letter of this promise, but if circumstances changed so that a tightening of monetary policy was necessary, would they really choose not to enact one? How irresponsible would that be? If they did fail to respond to the need to tighten the markets would react anyway. Anticipation of higher inflation would lead to substantially higher bond yields regardless of whether the ECB chose to continue with a policy that is clearly misguided.

There is a clear logical problem with the ECB (or any other central bank) making promises about future policy while at the same time pledging to stick to its remit of hitting its inflation (or any other) target. While in practice it is unlikely to have a problem sticking to its promises, that is because the promises are well within the range of policy options that they would design to hit their targets under normal circumstances. Had the ECB chosen to go with 80bn a month for 6 months, the odds are they would have extended this again beyond 6 months, probably with smaller volume, since even Draghi has admitted that they are unlikely to stop their asset purchases dead, but  rather taper off. But unexpected things can happen, and if they do the ECB may be forced to renege on their promises. If a tightening in policy is necessary, they might choose a different method and thus stick to the letter of their promise, but the promise itself is still valueless if there are circumstances in which the ECB would renege, whether in spirit or in letter.

The market has chosen to accept Draghi’s protests and not see the taper as a taper. But it is a taper. Future policy promises are worth nothing because central banks will do what they perceive is right at the time, and will effectively override any policies they have committed to if circumstances demand. It is time the markets stopped taking notice of this nonsensical approach of promises. Forward guidance is one thing – providing an idea of what they expect to do – though events have shown even this is wrong often enough to have very limited value. Promises are a step too far, and imply either omniscience  – so that there can never be a need to renege on a promise – or irresponsibility – with central banks prepared to sacrifice correct policy to stick to a promise they made under different circumstances. Central banks are not omniscient, and should not be irresponsible – so promises of this short are worthless and worse, potentially damaging.

The FX market needs to rethink inflation

Though you wouldn’t think it to see the way the market reacts, inflation is bad for currencies. If your prices rise relative to other countries your currency needs to fall to . equalise prices. Countries with high inflation have typically seen sharply declining currencies to offset the effect on relative prices. But typically, when inflation comes out higher than expected in the major economies, the market responds by pushing the currency in question up, not down. Why? Because the assumption is that the relevant central bank will raise rates to combat inflation pressures or not cut rates as much as it would otherwise, more than offsetting the move in inflation. Or at least that yields will rise to more than compensate for the rise in inflation. But the world doesn’t actually work like that, and hasn’t worked like that since at least the financial crisis and probably before.

The charts below show US and German CPI inflation plotted against real 3 month T-bill rates and real 10 year yields. If the FX market was right and central banks and markets responded to higher (lower) inflation with higher (lower) real yields, you would expect there to be a positive correlation between inflation and real yields. Broadly speaking that was the case in the 80s, though only broadly speaking. Not much happened in the 90s, with inflation and real yields broadly steady on a trend basis. But from around 2004 there has been a very clear negative correlation between inflation and real yields. Inflation has mostly fallen, and when it has, real yields have risen. Why? Because either central banks have had more pressing concerns than current inflation, as was the case immediately after the 2008 crash, or because they reached a lower bound in yields preventing them from reducing real yields any further, so effectively nominal rates were fixed. This means that a decline in inflation has, ex post, actually made a currency more not less attractive for the last 10 years.


Source: FRED, FX Economics

Now, it may be that there will come a point where central banks and markets start to react to higher inflation by pushing real rates up. In the US, this may not be too far away, but it still looks a long way off in the Eurozone and Japan, where higher inflation would be seen as a good thing and won’t be offset by higher nominal short term rates, never mind higher real rates. Although the markets may allow longer term yields to rise somewhat, it is still doubtful that rises in inflation will be offset by higher real yields (i.e nominal yields rising more than inflation) in the near term. Even if they are, the point about higher nominal yields is that they compensate the FX market for the decline in the currency that will happen because of inflation. A rise in inflation accompanied by an equal rise in yields should in theory have no immediate effect on a currency. The currency should be expected to be a little weaker going forward because of higher inflation, but the investor is exactly compensated for the lower expected value with higher yields.

So why do FX markets react as they do? Because it is clear that they see higher inflation as a positive thing for currencies because of the perceived implication for yields and central bank policy. It may simply be money illusion. That is, higher inflation, will at the margin, mean higher nominal rates, but at this stage and for the last 10 years this has not meant higher real rates, as is clear from the charts. Or is it just that the market is stuck in some sort of 80s mindset imposed on it by people who have simply observed the past – i.e. that higher than expected inflation typically meant currencies rallied, so all the models (carbon and silicon) are programmed that way for evermore?

Whatever the reason, it’s time the market woke up and smelled the coffee.  Central banks are not straining at the leash to raise real rates to head off rising inflation. In fact, the (broadly) effective zero lower bound in nominal rates has meant many are hoping to get inflation higher precisely because it’s the only way they can get real rates lower.

So higher inflation should be seen for what it is. It is an effective real currency appreciation. Prices are higher relative to the rest of the world just as they would be if the currency had fallen. The proper FX market response to that is to reduce the value of the currency to equalise domestic and foreign prices accordingly, not to push the currency up in the expectation of a central bank response that isn’t going to come, and if it did wouldn’t fully offset the inflation move anyway.





EUR weighed down by GBP not Draghi


Looking at the markets, it seems as if Draghi said that the ECB would be easing further come December, or at the very least March. The EUR has gone into a tailspin since the ECB meeting, and journalists are queuing up to blame Draghi. The trouble is, no-one seems quite sure what he said that triggered the move. One headline said “Euro close to 8-month lows vs dollar Friday after ECB chief Mario Draghi ruled out an abrupt end to QE.” Another headline “Euro wallows near March lows after Draghi quashes tapering talk”. So did he quash taper talk, or did he say the ECB would taper? Because if you don’t end abruptly, you taper (it’s one or the other). And which is better for the EUR? Because when it was suggested that the ECB would taper a month or so ago (by some unnamed committee member that Draghi emphasised had no insight) the EUR went up. So presumably if they don’t taper it goes down? Except Draghi said they would taper. Which I would have thought was sensible, and less likely to be EUR positive than an abrupt end to QE if anyone thought about it. Which all probably goes to show how silly the original “taper tantrum” was, but doesn’t really explain why the EUR has been so weak since Draghi’s press conference, especially since the effects of the initial taper tantrum were fairly short-lived in any case because on reflection most saw that the initial story didn’t mean a great deal, true or not.

In reality I don’t think the market really saw anything new in Draghi’s comments, but in the absence of anything new, the downtrend in EUR/USD remains in place. EUR/USD has been in a downtrend since the Brexit vote, and with the market expecting a Fed rate hike in December and currently seeing a probable Clinton victory as favourable (presumably because it is essentially the status quo – no nasty surprises), the burden of proof is now on those that want to oppose the EUR/USD downtrend. It is interesting that the Brexit situation appears to be the key factor that has pushed EUR/USD lower, though the UK is a small economy by comparison to the US and Eurozone giants. It is certainly the case that EUR/USD has never regained the 1.1377 high seen on June 24 and had been edging higher into the vote. It is hard to see that the economic news form the two economies since then has been particularly USD positive or EUR negative. If anything the opposite is true. Certainly since the beginning of this year the performance of the Eurozone in both growth and inflation has been broadly in line with expectations, while US growth has significantly underperformed. In fact, the OECD currently expect US GDP growth to be weaker than the Eurozone’s this year, and although many expect the Fed to raise rates in December, this is significantly less tightening than had been anticipated  at the start of the year.

So we need some change in market perceptions for the EUR to stop falling, at least until we reach the key levels in the 1.05-1.08 area in EUR/USD. A less negative view of Brexit from the perspective of both the UK and the Eurozone is the most obvious potential trigger, though that doesn’t seem imminent with the EU ruling out negotiation until the UK invokes Article 50, which most likely will be in Q1 2017. The other main possibility is a change in the perception of the Fed, though the way things have turned out this year suggests that even if the Fed don’t raise rates in December, the hit to USD strength may only be temporary unless the ECB turn out to be unexpectedly hawkish at their December meeting. The third chance of a Trump victory is one I hope we don’t have to consider.