MacroScope

Why UK rates are well below “normal” in one labour market chart

Much ink has been spilled over the past several months over when the Bank of England will eventually raise interest rates from a record low of 0.5 percent, and if they’ll do it before the Federal Reserve does. The pound is trading near a five-year high against a basket of currencies as a result.

BoE Governor Mark Carney and other Monetary Policy Committee members have tried to remind the public and businesses at every chance they are given that a rate rise is still a way off – likely at least a year – and that when it’s time for the central bank to lift rates, it will do so gradually.

Much of the focus until the BoE’s February Inflation Report, published last week, was on the jobless rate and how quickly it has fallen. The latest data show a slight rise to 7.2 percent, so a bit above the 7 percent rate the BoE said it would have to fall below to trigger discussions on rate rises.

But they’ve already scrapped that guidance for something a lot more difficult to challenge. The BoE will be watching 18 separate data points in the second phase of its experiment in forward guidance. And more.

But this one chart explains a lot about how much needs to change before it raises rates.

Japan-style deflation in Europe getting harder to dismiss

To most people, the idea of falling prices sounds like a good thing. But it poses serious economic and financial risks – just ask the Japanese, who only now finally have the upper hand in a 20-year battle to drag their economy out of deflation.

That front is shifting westward, to the euro zone.

Deflation tempts consumers to postpone spending and businesses to delay investment because they expect prices to be lower in the future. This slows growth and puts upward pressure on unemployment. It also increases the real debt burden of debtors, from consumers to companies to governments.

In many ways, policymakers fear deflation more than inflation as it’s a more difficult spiral to exit. After all, interest rates can only go as low as zero and if that doesn’t kickstart spending, they’re in trouble. Again, just ask the Japanese.

High unemployment putting the ECB in isolation

 

Unemployment in the euro zone is stuck at 12 percent, an already high rate that masks eye-popping rates in many of its struggling member economies.

But in a press conference lasting one hour, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi mentioned the problem of high unemployment only a few times – satisfied with the central bank’s usual stance of imploring euro zone governments to implement structural reforms to their labour markets, on a case by case basis.

Draghi said:

 … although unemployment in the euro area is stabilising, it remains high, and the necessary balance sheet adjustments in the public and the private sector will continue to weigh on the pace of the economic recovery.   

Euro zone inflation falls again; economists base ECB rate cut calls on deja vu

Euro zone inflation has dipped again and some forecasters are hedging their bets on the policy response by saying the European Central Bank could either cut rates this week or sometime in the next two months.

That lack of conviction, although not a recent phenomenon, is driven by memory of the ECB’s surprise cut in November after a similar drop in inflation and a nagging belief that things have not worsened enough in the interim to warrant another.

Only two of 76 analysts - Barclays and IFR Markets – in a Reuters poll conducted before news on Friday that January euro zone inflation fell to 0.7 percent said the ECB would trim its refinancing rate below 0.25 percent this week.

ECB deflation risk denial has echoes of 2009

Euro zone policymakers like to talk. They often contradict each other at separate speaking engagements on the same day. But they have struck a chorus in recent weeks, asserting that deflation is not a threat.

Members of the ECB Governing Council have been particularly vocal, insisting they will not have to alter policy to counter falling prices.

Jan 9: Mario Draghi says the euro zone may “experience a prolonged period of low inflation” — steering clear of even mentioning the word deflation.

A week before emerging-market turmoil, a prescient exchange on just how much the Fed cares

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The last seven days has been a glaring example of fallout from the cross-border carry trade. That’s the sort of trade, well known in currency markets, where investors borrow funds in low-rate countries and invest them in higher-rate ones. Some $4 trillion is estimated to have flooded into emerging markets since the 2008 financial crisis to profit off the ultra accommodate policies of the U.S. Federal Reserve, Bank of Japan, European Central Bank and the Bank of England. Now that central banks in developed economies are looking to reverse course and eventually raise rates, that carry trade is unraveling fast, resulting in the brutal sell-off in emerging markets such as Turkey and Argentina over the last week.

The Fed’s decision on Wednesday to keep cutting its stimulus effectively ignores the turmoil in such developing countries. And while the Fed may well be right not to overreact, it makes one wonder just how much attention major central banks pay to the carry trade and its global effects — and it brings to mind a prescient exchange between some of the brightest lights of western economics, just a week before emerging markets were to run off the rails.

On January 16, minutes before Ben Bernanke took the stage for his last public comments as Fed chairman, the Brookings Institution in Washington held a panel discussion featuring former BoE Deputy Governor Paul Tucker, Harvard University professor Martin Feldstein and San Francisco Fed President John Williams. They were asked about the global effects of U.S. monetary policy:

Relief from UK services inflation seen fleeting

British inflation dipped to 2 percent  in December – its lowest since November 2009 and within the Bank of England’s target. Part of the move was driven by a fall in prices in Britain’s services sector – which constitutes more than three quarters of the country’s output.

Services inflation, which makes up around 47 percent of the consumer price index, eased to  2.4 percent in December – also its lowest since November 2009. Goods inflation – which is more sensitive to global markets than domestically generated services inflation – edged up to 1.7 percent last month. But it has also come down in recent months as a strengthening sterling pushed down import prices.

The fall has helped the case for the Bank of England to keep interest rates at a record low of 0.5 percent, also giving the government a boost ahead of elections next year. Analysts say weak wage growth may be a reason for more subdued services inflation, but given the strength of the labor market, this trend could be fleeting.

Hollande’s moment of truth

This afternoon, French President Francois Hollande will expand upon his New Year announcement that French companies who agree to hire more workers could pay lower labour taxes in return and find themselves less tied up in red tape. Unemployment is running near to 12 percent and Hollande’s vow to get it falling by the end of 2013 fell short.

Unfortunately, the announcement has been eclipsed by his threat of legal action after a French magazine reported he was having an affair with an actress. France tends to overlook its politicians’ peccadilloes but with the economy in a hole, Hollande risks facing the charge that he should be focusing squarely on that.

To complicate matters his partner, Valerie Trierweiler, has been admitted to hospital following the reports. She will stay there for a number of days yet.
Given this is one of only two news conferences that Hollande has promised to give each year it’s hard to see how he can avoid it being hijacked by his personal life. As boxing promoter Don King was fond of saying: there are two chances, slim and none and Slim just left town.

That sinking feeling

Euro zone inflation, or deflation, is the focus of the moment.

Germany’s HICP rate fell to 1.2 percent last month, Italy’s hit 0.6 percent and Spain’s just 0.3 in December (not to mention Greece’s -2.9 percent). Today we get the figure for the euro zone as a whole. Forecasts for it to hold at 0.9 percent may now look a little toppy.

It’s too early for any dramatic moves but the European Central Bank, which has a policy meeting on Thursday, may well be pushed into easing policy if inflation refuses to pick up and/or the banks clam up ahead of this year’s health tests.

A shock fall in euro inflation to 0.7 percent prompted an interest rate cut to 0.25 percent in November followed by a chorus of denials that deflation was a threat. ECB chief Mario Draghi adhered to that last week but added that he and his colleagues had to make sure inflation didn’t get stuck in the “danger zone” below one percent.

Data to shape ECB week

Euro zone service sector PMIs and German inflation (with the euro zone number to follow on Tuesday) will lay the ground for the European Central Bank’s first policy meeting of the year.

The surveys are likely to show the currency bloc ended the year on a reasonably robust note with Germany leading the way as always, Italy and Spain showing signs of life and France looking worryingly weak.

Ireland’s reading is already out and has posted its fastest services growth in seven years. Much more importantly for the world, growth in China’s services industries slowed in December, confirming that the world’s second-largest economy lost steam at the end of last year.