Wednesday, November 09, 2011
This mornings news is firmly "price", and the price that matters is that of the BTP. And it matters because 7% is a magic number in the markets eyes as the last time it got there other countries needed bailouts. So despite their being no other news someone has decided to "have a go" and it's sent our PIN variable nuts. The 9am London drive by saw a machine-gunning of a variety of assets. 26K of eminis , 11k of Dax contracts in a 10min period as well as the obvious. Since then Price Is News has gone into overdrive and the market is expecting Europe to end by teatime. But TMM as usual, micturating into the wind, think that the key is whether this generates further action from Italian politicians and a final acceptance on the part of the Germans and the ECB that they are just going to have to buy more BTPs. Price Is News.
Now, it may sound odd turning our backs on Italy, but considering the deafening roar from everyone else screaming doom about it, at best we wouldn't be heard and at worst we would be blown away in the gale. So we are slamming our windows shut on the storm of mostly unthoughtful rubbish and returning to our writing table in the corner of our garret room to consider something else, far far away from current market fashion.
Regular readers will know that TMM are not the biggest fans of Bank of England Governor Mervyn King. His conduct over the past few years, beginning with refusing to recognise the BoE's lender of last resort responsibility with respect to Northern Rock amongst other things. But TMM reckon they owe the Governor at least a partial apology regarding their prior view that he was letting the inflation genie out of the bottle. In fact, in the context of the past year's developments, they must actually congratulate Merv and the good chaps on the MPC. And *that*, is because they've managed to (so far) pull off something that TMM never thought possible - rebalance the UK economy without losing the competitiveness gained since 2007.
TMM generally were of the view that the inflation expectations-augmented Phillips Curve still reigned supreme, but it seems - remarkably - that this is no longer the case. For whatever reason - TMM assume it to be a combination of the 1980s labour market reforms, coupled with BoE independence - past inflation and inflation expectations appear to have had very little effect upon inflation or wages since the late-1990s. And this is *despite* the fact that since the inflation target was changed to be CPI in 2003, that inflation has averaged an above-target 2.5%, that since the crisis broke out in summer-2007, it has been an average 3.2%, that it has only been below target for a mere six months in the past 48 months, and above the top end of the target range for virtually the entire past two years, hitting an eye-watering 5.2%.
It's not that inflation expectations haven't risen... indeed the BoE's inflation expectations survey (see chart below, white line) shows households expect inflation of 4.2% over the coming year. Markets, by contrast, have been more sanguine , with the 5y5y forward breakeven (orange line, usual caveats apply) having fallen sharply over the summer, but prior to the eruption of financial markets, had too held around the upper range of the past decade.
TMM's view was that in the face of sustained high inflation prints that eventually second round effects would appear, with wages responding to the inability of the Bank of England to meet the inflation target for such a long period of time. However, the Swerve appears to have managed to sell the idea that the reasons for such high inflation are entirely (TMM are less convinced), driven by a combination of the exchange rate depreciation since 2007 and the VAT-hikes. To illustrate, the below chart shows UK RPI ex-Food (blue) vs the weighted BoE Agents Spare capacity measure (red), which shows a remarkable divergence in the driver of inflationary pressure from the usual capacity driver. Even lopping off a few percent points to give a poor man's VAT etc correction should lead one to conclude that these "transient" effects are not the only factor between persistently high UK inflation.
But this has not fed into wages. The below chart shows the same BoE Agents spare capacity measure lagged 8months (red line) vs. Average Earnings ex-Bonuses YoY (blue line) since the BoE was given independence. TMM are amazed that the bulk of wage growth can be explained by this measure alone, and are forced to conclude that BoE independence has removed inflation from wage setters' radars. Indeed, if anything, the media coverage of a weak economy has probably helped contain wages here, and growth has been especially tepid relative to what might be implied from the capacity measure these past six months (probably a result of Eurozone media coverage).
So what has been the result of this? Falling real incomes which have put pressure on domestic consumption and certainly contributed to the somewhat, err, tepid recovery seen since 2009. But it has also meant that the UK has managed to hold onto a good part of the competitiveness gain that resulted from the post-2007 devaluation, by ensuring that UK real wages fall more quickly than those of its competitors [see below chart of UK real wages relative to their pre-crisis 2007 levels (blue line), vs. US (green line) and Eurozone (red line)].
Which, now that the ONS has been able to properly collate the national accounts data for the past couple of years, revising the current account deficit lower, to around -1.75% of GDP which, in the context of the UK Net Foreign Asset position, is probably about right. Some rebalancing, given that it was pushing 4% of GDP back in 2007.
And all of this has happened at the time of deep financial and sovereign crisis in Europe, while the government has been trying to put its own fiscal position in order, Gilt yields have fallen to multi-decade lows (though, admittedly this is partially a result of lowered growth expectations) as foreigners bought a significant chunk over the past few months given the lack of suitable "risk free" alternatives elsewhere. TMM are forced to conclude that this combination of macroeconomic policies (especially those from the Bank) appears to have been exceptionally successful...
...So far. TMM reckon that with the Whites/Reds Short Sterling curve so flat (see below chart of 3rd vs. 7th contract), that there is a relatively low risk way of putting on a trade that performs if wage growth picks up and the Bank are forced to take a less dovish stance in the face of second round effects. Alternatively, perhaps the World might look a lot different with Europe moving towards an eventual solution and the US/Chinese growth engines ramping up. Given that the BoE have this time got ahead of the curve with their latest QE2 round, they would presumably have to move more quickly on a reverse. Of course, this can be vulnerable to Libor-OIS blowing out in the short term, so a less risky way of putting it on would be in SONIA space, though the level is not quite as attractive there. But given that this part of the curve could easily steepen back out to around 120bps, TMM reckon this isn't a bad punt.
But in the meantime, Merv: TMM apologise.