Posts tagged ‘inflation’
Counterfactual writing has been popular for many years. What if the Nazis had won the war in Europe? What if there had been no Reformation? Extending the genre to finance one might ask, what if the bond market had closed to Italy in 2011? (More of a niche market there, perhaps, but an interesting question nonetheless . . . )
Investment decision making by contrast concerns the future, of course, whose range of outcomes is practically limitless. Where the FTSE 100 index will close the year is a matter of opinion. A successful investor could be defined as someone who gets those sorts of things right more often than she gets them wrong. The only certainty she has, however, is that the future could hold almost anything.
And so to inflation, the UK, and what happens next.
The data out last week showing another uptick in the rate of price increases in Britain will have come as no surprise to readers of this blog. CPI is catching up with PPI output prices which have continued to catch up with PPI input prices, which have continued to come in at around 20% higher than the same time twelve months previously. Notably, “RPIX” – the rate of retail price inflation excluding the impact of mortgage interest payments and the rate once targeted by the Bank of England – came in at +3.5% year-on-year (to February). A full point above the old target, that would once have provoked a letter from the Governor to the Chancellor. CPI has only just got up to +2.3%, however, so under the new regime there is officially nothing to worry about.
Bearing in mind the enormous range of possibilities encompassed by the future we ought to be surprised at the strength of the consensus about what happens next. The Bank, the City, the leading independent forecasters: all are agreed that rising inflation will eat into wage packets, dampen growth, soften the labour market a little then fall away again. This time we all know how the story will end.
Taking this as read, then, let us try to be counterfactual, if only for entertainment’s sake.
On February data, real wage growth either flatlined (using CPI) or fell by 1% (using headline RPI). Let us follow the consensus in assuming that inflation grows by another point or so into the end of this year. That would push real wage growth down to between -1% and -2%.
Now: what if the effect of this was not only, or primarily, to impact growth? What if the expectation that wage growth will muddle along at a steady +2% is wrong? What if earnings actually start to rise to compensate for higher prices?
Like any good counterfactual tale our story needs to have its roots in genuine history to come across as believable to its readers.
In this case we might look at the distance travelled by the UK economy since the unemployment rate peaked in November 2011 at 8.5%. At that time average earnings growth was coming in at +1.7-1.8%, just a little lower than its present rate, though at the time this was a noteworthy trough and a level not seen since 1967. Wage growth subsequently fell further, hitting lows of +0.7-0.8% during the 2013-14 period. During those two years, however, employment growth had taken off in earnest with joblessness falling from 7.8% to 5.7%. Average earnings growth subsequently rose too, hitting +2.8% by mid-2015.
That British pay packets began to grow as spare workers became that bit harder to get hold of might well have been a complete coincidence. Indeed if we are to believe that earnings growth will not continue to accelerate today, as unemployment is down even further at 4.7%, equalling its post-1975 low, then that must be taken as read. The consensus, after all, is convinced of it.
Let us persist with our radical, counterfactual account, however. Suppose that labour market strength might genuinely correlate with wage growth. Where might that take us?
Prior to the Great Recession the average rate of earnings growth in the UK was +4%. Using a five-year lag from earlier peaks in unemployment wage growth reached +4.9% (February 1998) and +9.3% (May 1989). The economic, market and demographic environments were very different in their own ways at each of those different times, so the absolute numbers are not perhaps that illustrative. What they have in common is that they occurred during uptrends in wage growth established in the wake of falling unemployment.
For our fictional account of the British economy, then, let us assume that 2017 were to end with average earnings growing at 3-4%. With CPI and RPI inflation settling in the same range this would not represent boom times for wage packets in real terms. But it would not mean a growth-threatening contraction either. Expectations for increased labour market slack would surely go out of the window. Inflation projections would rise. Interest rate expectations would change. We might be entering 2018 worried not so much about contraction as about an overheating economy and a monetary policy that looked to have long since fallen behind the curve.
This is hardly a gripping, mass-market narrative. But it is the kind of thing that investors might want to weigh up in their thinking from time to time.
At least it would be if it were not the most absurd counterfactual, of course. Luckily the consensus is universally settled. We all know what is going to happen. In Britain’s immediate future, there is no alternative ending.
It is almost four months since Donald Trump won the US presidency but the shockwaves from his victory still reverberate. Coverage of supposed scandals, protests and presidential Tweets have continued to abound. Those who were delighted by November’s result, so polling suggests, remain so; those who reverted to hysteria continue their frenzy. Amid all the drama it is perhaps an odd expression to pick, but: Amercian politics has found an equilibrium.
Assumptions about the US economy have also become entrenched. It has long been obvious that a Trump presidency would be inflationary and the bond market reacted to the result accordingly: on the day of the election the ten-year Treasury yielded 1.85%, but by the end of November had hit 2.4%. It has stayed firmly in a range of 2.3%-2.6% ever since. The dollar likewise strengthened sharply after the election and has comfortably held its range against other major currencies. Eurodollar rates moved from pricing in two Fed hikes by the end of this year to pricing in three, and have held that view right up to the present.
While American politics has become energized, however – by the ambition of the new incumbent and the vitriol of his critics – financial opinion has become complacent. While markets and observers have in many cases settled on a static view, the ground since the election has shifted. Look away from fixed income and the currency, and towards risk markets and the data and this is easily clarified.
The US stock market found a secure range after the election, but only for a time. Last month it smashed it. From meandering around the 2,250 level throughout December-January the S&P 500 broke 2,300 in early February and 2,400 less than a month later. The index has now risen by more than 6% since the beginning of the year, comfortably beating other major bourses around the world.
It is not just the stock market that is optimistic, and setting new records. Consumer confidence hit a new high this week, eclipsing the levels reached prior to the credit crunch and threatening to visit territory last occupied during the go-go boom of the later 1990s. This is of a picture with earlier data on retail sales, showing the fastest annual rate of growth (+5.6% in January) since the early stages of the recovery in 2010-11, and buoyant numbers on existing home sales, which have reached a pitch last seen before the credit crunch in 2007. (Bear in mind that mortgage costs have actually been increasing at the same time, pushed up by higher long-term interest rates.)
Industrial indicators have strengthened too. Purchasing manager activity surveys out this week for both manufacturing and service sectors continued their sharp rise. The rotary rig count released last Friday showed that US oil production has continued to recover even though the price of crude has been no better than stable since December. Again, this is consistent with earlier data such as the NFIB survey of smaller firms and the “Philly Fed” report on the national outlook for business, both of which have been rocketing up, in the latter case to a 33-year high.
If one tries very hard to find them there are more equivocal releases. Monthly variability on jobs data, for instance, has been weak in some instances; then again, the broader context is one of effectively full employment, and short-term moves from 4.6% to 4.7% in the headline jobless rate are neither here nor there.
More seriously, while vague expectations of higher inflation have been priced in since November, underlying price indicators have started to move. Import price inflation, which had been negative since mid-2014, flattened out to +0.2% in election month and has since hit +3.7% (year to January). The price components of PMI surveys have also risen. Public statements from various Fed presidents and board governors has been preparing markets for a hike this month which leaves ample scope for those three rises this year, and more.
Put all the pieces together and it seems more and more obvious that there is no longer any broad backdrop of bad economic news, whatever one’s views of American politics. The credit crunch hit housing and the banking sector – all recovered. The oil price collapse hit the shale business – recovering nicely. A strong dollar dampened activity – that effect has fallen away.
On the other hand, sentiment and output indicators are on the up. The economy is at full employment. The core rate of CPI inflation has already been running above 2% for more than a year and in January posted its fastest monthly increase since 2006.
The US economy is catching fire. This will make a novel change from the sclerotic pace of recovery we have seen there to date. The question is: are markets properly discounting the eventual need to put the fire out?
The gilt market has staged a modest rally over the past couple of weeks though this should not fool us: there remains a good deal of attention focused on the inflationary outlook. Data for January, out earlier this month, was entirely unsurprising on this front. Input prices were up by more than 20%, eclipsing the prior peak of +17.6% reached in 2011, CPI is almost back on target and RPI ex mortgage interest payments came in just shy of +3%. The ONS quite predictably singled out currency weakness and fuel costs as the main culprits.
But the weak currency is not all bad news as we were reminded with the publication of GDP figures for the UK this Wednesday. Export growth of over 4% on the final quarter of last year was celebrated by some of those on the Leave side of the Brexit vote; though there is considerable quarter-to-quarter volatility in this data it was, undeniably, positive.
In fact there was already evidence of this effect from industrial production numbers out for December a couple of weeks ago. The yearly IP increase of +4.3% was the highest posted since the country’s recovery from the Great Recession and smashed expectations. Looking beyond exports too there was good news from the personal consumption component of GDP, which hit a solid +0.7% for Q4 while the Q3 estimate was revised up to +0.9%, suggesting a Brexit bounce. Business investment – as highlighted by the Remain side – flattened off into the end of the year but the picture is unequivocally of an economy ticking along rather nicely and enjoying a boost from its currency-enhanced competitiveness.
Returning to the theme of inflation, there has been some coverage of the oncoming squeeze on real wages and that is a perfectly valid concern. However this cloud may not be quite as dark as all that. As of December both headline RPI and average earnings growth hit +2.6%, meaning that real wage growth was zero – not a supportive situation for the economy. But throughout the period from 2010-2014 real wage growth was negative, on several occasions falling below -3% (and hitting a nadir of -3.8% at one point). Over the same horizon annual growth in household consumption averaged 1% and broad GDP growth +2%. Today, RPI inflation would have to hit 5.6% plus to achieve the same depressive force on real wages. That is a risk and by coincidence exactly the peak reached in the autumn of 2011, but we are not there yet.
Some have turned to the second consecutive month of contracting retail sales as evidence of consumer weakness but again the short-term data here is incredibly volatile. The six month running mean for annual growth in retail sales was +4.9% as of January, a little less than double the average rate over the past 20 years. Might there be a sustained reversal in consumer behaviour? It’s possible – but the GfK consumer confidence survey actually rose for two consecutive months into January.
For investors, the big picture is therefore as follows. The UK economy is growing at a healthy rate, “despite Brexit”. This is in part due to the weak pound; a currency depreciation is a straightforward monetary expansion and this seems to have been forgotten. There is presently a risk that rising inflation will take some of the edge off the growth rate but on the basis of current data and recent history we ought not to be too anxious. Markets in some respects do appear complacent about the risk of more seriously damaging price behaviour – but that is another story.
Well that clinches it, surely. Today’s US data showed the unemployment rate down again to 4.9%. Payroll growth continued at a strong pace, with non-farm jobs up by 161,000 last month. Both these prints came out in line with expectations – but wage growth beat every estimate going, hitting a new post-recession high of +2.8% on the year. Purchasing manager surveys out over the last couple of months suggest that the rate of job creation will accelerate into the end of this year if anything. The American labour market is showing clear signs of warmth. Surely, a Fed hike next month is certain.
This chimes with the consensus view. Of the 66 forecasts currently made available to Bloomberg, 15 expect no change and all the rest are for a 25bp hike. The interest rate markets also expect the Fed to see out 2016 with a target rate of 0.75%, then go on to hike again around the middle of next year.
So far, so uncontentious. Indeed it is reassuring from an investor’s perspective that the market reaction to somewhat firmer expectations for interest rates has, thus far, been sanguine. Halfway through this year a December hike had yet to be priced in; by the autumn the eurodollar futures market had become unequivocal on the subject – Treasuries sold off too – but the S&P 500 still rallied, turning in its strongest quarterly performance of the year so far.
The key word there is: “somewhat”. In the US as in Britain there is now a real risk that tightening occurs more quickly than people think.
That +2.8% wage growth is part of the reason why. A connected reason is that the energy sector has recovered some of its strength this year, taking away a recent source of downward pressure on activity and employment. Then there are import prices: stable oil and a stable dollar have now closed off that source of deflation. Core CPI has already been running at its strongest sustained level this year since the Great Recession. Both the headline CPI measure and the consumption deflator used to calculate chain-weighted GDP have been catching up. Finally, unreliable indicator as it is and completely unfashionable as it has become, broad (M2) money supply growth is running at its fastest pace for nearly four years.
The question to which nobody knows the answer is: will the labour market start really overheating and, in the circumstances, contribute to an uncomfortable level of inflation? At the moment, US policymakers are split on the subject, but the Fed’s actual monetary response to date, together with the interest rate markets’ pricing, implies a near-total lack of concern.
Another wild card is our old friend political risk. At present, polling at the national level and in some of America’s “battleground states” suggests that Secretary Clinton is on course for a narrow victory. If Mr Trump were to pull off a surprise win, however, it is not just the market response but the economic consequences which could be significant. There has already been extensive coverage of the effect that the candidates’ fiscal policies might have on the national debt, but consider some of the Republican candidate’s other measures: the expulsion of migrant labour, swingeing tariffs on imports, less accommodative trade agreements (as well as big tax cuts for businesses and households). All of these would be inflationary.
It would be imprudent to expect a crisis. But the possibility of a problem is clear and what matters to us as investors is that this is not recognised – indeed, quite the reverse. Bond markets think that inflation over the next ten years will run at an average of 1.7%, below the 2.1% they have priced in on that horizon over the last 15 years. Consumer expectations for near term inflation, as measured by the University of Michigan survey, are below average too, and for long term price behaviour are at their lowest ever level.
So there could well be a surprise or two in store. And whatever its scale, this ought to have consequences for portfolio construction.
Followers of the UK’s business media will have noticed coverage of an unfamiliar subject this week. On Tuesday we discovered that the annual rate of CPI inflation had rocketed up to 1%. Last week this blog opined that it was actually input prices which would merit close attention; this did not happen so detail on those shortly. First, however, let us deal very quickly with the headline rates.
1% on the CPI is indeed “the highest rate of inflation for nearly two years”. But that is not saying terribly much for two reasons:
- Over the longer term 1% is an insignificant number. Before the recent period of energy-driven disinflation CPI hadn’t fallen as low as 1% since September 2002, when the world was still recovering from the collapse of the TMT bubble. Its average over the past 20 years has been 1.9%. Exactly five years ago it peaked at 5.2%. So it ought to be difficult to become too excited by the print on Tuesday (which was broadly in line with expectations anyway).
- The “core” CPI measure, which cuts out energy, food, alcohol and tobacco, had already hit a level of +1.5% this March. What we observed this week was the continued closure of the gap between core CPI and the headline rate. In other words, the pickup in headline inflation tells us more about the dwindling influence of cheap oil than it does about, say, the weakness of sterling.
This is not to dismiss the significance of the CPI data entirely. But if we are looking for the fingerprints of the pound we will not find them here.
And so to PPI: producer price inflation.
There has been a little more drama here. Input prices were again up by more than 7% on the prior year – not at quite as high a rate as for August but nonetheless, this measure is showing more heat now than at any other time since 2011. And this time we know sterling has something to do with it since the core measure of input price inflation, which strips out oil among other things, has also reached levels not matched in almost five years. We should expect this to be the case: with the pound down by over 20% on a trade weighted basis in the past year it is a matter of the “basic laws of economics”, as one of the better comment pieces had it this week (it always a pleasure to find that one has friends in common with people).
That piece also carried a forecast from Lord Haskins, former scion and chairman of Northern Foods, that food price inflation in particular is on track to hit about +5% in a year or so. Again, those “basic laws” do tend to repeat themselves. The last time we had a comparable fall in sterling was during the years 2007-8 when the trade weighted index shed nearly 30%. By mid-2008 that input price inflation had peaked not at +7% but at +35%. Back then the food component of the CPI hit a ceiling only at +14.5% making Lord Haskins’ prediction seem quite mild.
Of course in 2008 this didn’t last. The currency found a level and input price inflation fell away again. The domestic economy was contracting, and output would not fully recover until Q3 2013. Unemployment had already started to rise – though it would take three years to reach its peak of 8.5%. And the housing market was in a state of freefall. (It was not until mid-2014 that the average UK price would recover its 2007 high.)
Back to the present.
Should sterling hold its current level the inflationary impact on producer prices will persist, to a greater or lesser extent, into the summer of next year. And nowadays the position of the economy could hardly be more different.
GDP growth of +2.1% is precisely in line with its 20-year average rate and though such estimates are fertile grounds for analytical controversy is likely to be near or at its trend rate. Similarly unemployment of 4.9% could well be regarded as “full employment” and nationwide house price inflation is still running at over 8%.
Given that Britain’s circumstances are so very different today, what is curious is that the policy response to all this is exactly the same as it was in 2008: interest rate cuts and QE from the Bank of England, and if he can get away with it in next month’s Autumn Statement, fiscal largesse from the Chancellor (gilt yields suggest he might be able to fiddle his way to justifying it despite the lousy borrowing numbers out this morning).
Something about this is not quite right. Perhaps the Bank’s expectations that Brexit will see labour market slack and falling output will be met. But even the Bank acknowledges those Basic Laws. And in only a few months’ time, the clear signs of price inflation simmering away at the bottom of the pot could very easily have erupted into a vigorous boil.
It was obvious at the start of this year that the behaviour of the oil price would be one of the key economic variables of 2016. We saw sharp falls early on, with lows below $30 repeatedly tested. (Had these persisted the disinflationary impact of cheaper energy would have continued into the winter.) Then there was a convincing recovery, along with risk assets, into the spring. And over the past few months the price has stabilised convincingly for the first time since the initial fall in 2014, holding a range of about $45-50 since the middle of April.
This week’s OPEC meeting might be expected to reinforce that stability. The decision was announced on Wednesday to reduce the cartel’s crude output by about 0.25m-0.75m barrels per day. (Details of individual production quotas are to be agreed at the next meeting in two months’ time.) There are the usual question marks over the credibility of the OPEC system – diplomatic tensions between its members, doubts as to their adherence to quotas in the first place and so on. Crude has fallen back a bit today on profit taking and on fears that the deal, modest as it is, might yet fall through.
But the announcement was significant. It is the first cut agreed since 2008. Should November’s meeting prove fruitful the group’s quotas will have changed for the first time in five years. It has encouraged Russia to start talking about a production freeze again. It hints, in short, at the firming of the bottom end of the range we have seen oil prices occupy over the last five months.
This is doubly true when we look at recent changes in the balance between crude supply and demand. Over the course of 2014, the six-monthly average global production level increased by 2.8m bpd as against a 1.1m bpd increase in demand. Albeit on a much lesser scale the reverse has happened since: six-monthly average global demand has risen by 2.3m bpd versus a 2.0m bpd increase in supply. In fact the production surplus as of August, again using the six-monthly average, had fallen to 443k bpd down from a high of over 1.5m bpd in mid-2015. So the OPEC cut, especially if accompanied by a Russian cap on output, would bring supply consistently below the level of aggregate demand for the first time in over two years.
Looking at this from the other end, rising prices would come under pressure from increased production from other sources, notably US shale. Cost efficiencies have already seen the oil rig count rise by 32% from the low it reached back in May – and it remains way off the mid-2014 highs. The current range for crude, then, would appear to be secure both from persistent falls and persistent increases. It could be a case of 2012-2013 all over again, just at the $50ish per barrel mark rather than $110.
There we must add a note of caution. For some producers, $50 per barrel is too low. OPEC granddaddy Saudi Arabia has just had to funnel billions of dollars worth of state support into its banking system. Its reserve assets peaked at $731bn back in 2014 (about 100% of GDP – quite a cushion). Since then they have fallen by almost a quarter to $553bn. That’s a sharper fall than Russia has seen over the same period (-15%. Indeed, Russian reserves have been climbing steadily for more than a year). At the extreme end of the spectrum, there is the bitter human tragedy unfolding amid the ruin of Venezuela. The fall in crude has not killed off shale, but it has put several economies under varying degrees of strain. If there is a real challenge to the OPEC deal this blog suspects that it will come about from economic imperatives rather than political disagreement.
Deal or no deal, oil seems to have found its level more securely than ever now. Regular readers will know what this means for inflation, and, depending on the reaction function of the central banks concerned, monetary policy in due course.