Das Lowe-flation

RBA Gov Lowe gave the ABE Dinner speech this year — a speech entitled ‘Some Evolving Questions’.  The speech looks at the transition away from the mining investment peak , the broken link between jobs, wages and inflation, and the risks arising from the high household debt to income ratio.

The title of the speech is a little dishonest.  There’s really only one question that’s evolving — Lowe has made his mind up about the mining bust (all done now) and seems to have made up his mind about the trade-off with regard to financial stability matters at least 15 years ago.   Debt to income is too high, and he’s not cutting unless it’s falling.

wages nab

So the only real question is why solid growth and a tighter labour markets has not translated into wage and price pressures.  The puzzle is summarised by the above chart — the NAB survey has detected labour shortages, and yet wages are languishing at all time lows of ~2% (and more like 1.5% if you take the Q3’17 number seriously).  Indeed, if you allow for the fact that workers are transitioning from higher paying sectors to lower paying sectors, Average Hourly Earnings are actually growing ~1% (chart below). wages

The discussion of the mining transition in this section is a red herring.  Australia isn’t exactly Robinson Crusoe.  Even in countries that are clearly below historical estimates of full employment, such as the US, Germany and Japan, there is nary a sign of wage pressure.  This isn’t about the mining bust or the transition to services.

So what is going on? Here’s my guess.  Technology has massively increased global labour supply, and Europe is exporting their deflation.

It’s hard to measure, but my sense is that lower shipping costs and better technology has made it easier to distribute and coordinate work across the globe.  This has increased the effective global supply of labour for any job, which is why there’s little wage inflation.  This story, i confess, is not yet fully well worked out (hence my lack of charts).

The retail question is more obvious.  A lack of organic growth opportunities in their home market — otherwise known as the depression in Europe — pushed European discount retailers to expand into new markets.

Attracted by the (previously) high margins in global retail, Aldi went into US retail,  UK retail and Australian retail.  These German retailers are private corporations and can ‘play the long game’ in these markets.  This means multi decade expansions, as they grow their market share to ~25% (depending on the market they are single digits to low teens just now).

This hasn’t even got going yet in Australia.  Aldi is still buying sites, and has barely opened in Perth and Adelaide.  They’ll be able to screw prices down even further once they get a bit more scale.  Their success will pull in other German discounters, and it’ll accelerate.  This story is playing out to some extent in other categories too (H&M, Uni Qlo etc).  This is why we’ve been seeing broad based retail deflation for a while now (below chart).

retail

Amazon isn’t really a part of this story yet.  This is just old fashioned German efficiency … Amazon will make it all hurt a little more.

Lowe acknowledges this in his speech, noting that ‘this still has some way to go’ and that wages and inflation are only expected to pick up slowly.

For me the policy take-away is clear.  The RBA agrees that growth is much better, particularly the traditionally key labour market variables.  However, they have low confidence that more jobs will cause wages to accelerate and drive core inflation back to their 2.5% target over the medium term.  This means that they will be reactive to that pickup of wages and inflation — when they see it.

I find it hard to understand how folks can read this and still believe that Lowe will be raising rates preemptively, based strong growth and a forecast that wages will accelerate.

My guess remains that we’ll see the first hike in H2’19, but if wages remains subdued that’ll keep getting pushed back.

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Posted in AUD, RBA, Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Slowest-ever wages

At first glance, the Q3’17 WPI print was a stable at 0.5%q/q (2.0%y/y) — however once you look at the details it is the lowest ever print for WPI.  The  QoQ non-seasonally adjusted print was 0.8%q/q, reflecting the fact that the minimum wage increase typically biases up the Q3 print.  Once you adjust for the bumper minimum wage hike, it looks like the broad wages pulse slowed to an all time low.

I know, this is a familiar story … but it should have been different this around.  The bumper minimum wage hike (3.3% from 1 July 2017; a full 100bps larger increment than 2016) meant we should have seen a larger increase in wages in Q3.  If everything else had just stayed the same, a print in the [0.6, 0.8] range (where 23/24 forecasters in a Bloomberg Poll were located) ought to have occurred.

The logic is simple — if the general level of wage pressure had been unchanged for the rest of the economy, a 100bps speed up of minimum wages ought to have boosted the QoQ pace of economy wide wage inflation by ~20bps, delivering a 0.7%q/q result.  That we ended up with another ~0.5%q/q suggests that the background level of wage pressure has actually eased in Q3, despite the declining unemployment and underemployment rates.  It challenges our most basic ideas about supply and demand!

I’m very sure this would have been a surprise to the RBA.  In their November SOMP they reported that liaison detected an acceleration of wage pressures in Q3, driven by the larger-than-usual minimum wage hike as well as an improvement in broad based private sector conditions.

On this basis, i think we can peg the RBA’s forecast at 0.7%q/q or o.8%q/q … which means that the RBA just missed on wages by 20bps to 30bps.   This means another delay to their forecast return to their inflation target.  The market is pricing the first full hike in Q1’19 at present … this seems at least a few quarters too early to me.

Most people would regard sustained 2.5%y/y cpi inflation with 2% wages growth as very unlikely. I certainly don’t think the RBA would be comfortable with the outlook for inflation so long as wages growth is below 2.5%.  To forecast core CPI of 2.5% with wages growth below that number would mean forecasting a series of negative productivity shocks … something i’ve never seen before!

Given the recent weakness in the housing market, the outlook for wages matter more than usually for inflation.  As you can see from the below chart, the last five years have been characterised by consumption growth that exceeded the pace of income growth.  I think this was encouraged by a housing wealth effect. This drove the savings rate down 500bps to ~5%.  With the housing boom over, consumption growth will slow toward income growth — and it’s hard to see 2.5% inflation if that happens.

Screen Shot 2017-11-19 at 3.40.58 pm

The only way out of this is wage inflation.  With the housing market under control, the RBA can afford to wait to see a few quarters of wage inflation before starting to tighten.

Posted in AUD, monetary policy, RBA | 9 Comments

No means no! (RBA edition)

Say you were the Governor of an inflation targeting central bank and wanted to communicate to the world that you were not about to raise rates — what would you do? How about forecast that inflation remains outside of your control range for your entire forecasting horizon.  That’s what the RBA did today.

tm inflat

As you can see from the above chart, the RBA’s central forecast for Trimmed Mean CPI (their preferred measure) is for it to remain below 2% until 2020.  Recall that their target is 2.5% inflation, with a 2% to 3% control range.  The inflation number tracks up about 25bps per year, so i would assume that the model tells them that inflation hits target sometime in 2022!

These forecasts assume market pricing for the cash rate, which means that the current pricing of a first hike in Q4’18 is assumed in the case case.   The only interpretation of this is that the RBA is telling the market — you’re wrong, we are not going to hike in 2018.  On these numbers it is doubtful that they’ll hike in 2019.

Despite the shibboleth about forecasts being ‘little changed’, the RBA cut their growth numbers today.  This is the tradition.  Like the horizon, 3% growth is always about the same distance away. I think that their growth numbers remain too high.  The Economy has been undershooting their growth numbers for a while now (we were supposed to be at 3% right now 1yr ago).

Recall that these changes are despite a lower AUD and a higher oil price.

table

Finally, the bank cleaned up their forecast table a little bit — in the process making it a little easier to integrate with their charts.  I think a 2% for core CPI is more transparent (than the 2% to 3% range) and easier to understand.

The message is clear — we’re not raising rates.  How could they, when their job is to make CPI 2.5% (while trying to keep it between 2% and 3%) and they don’t know when they’ll hit their target?

Posted in AUD, RBA, Uncategorized | 7 Comments

RBA is wrong on inflation (again)

Q3 CPI has printed, but it is the same old story — the RBA is wrong on inflation.   They are in good company.  Pretty much every central bank has chronically over-estimated inflation over the past few years.  If it were any other forecaster we’d be accustomed to adjusting down their estimates, but the market hasn’t been doing that to the RBA.  Instead there are hikes priced for 2018 despite the fact that the RBA doesn’t know when inflation will return to their 2.5% target. 

Screen Shot 2017-10-29 at 2.56.02 pm

 

As you can see from the above chart, the RBA does not currently predict Trimmed Mean CPI, the RBA’s preferred measure of CPI, to converge to their 2.5%y/y target at any time within their forecasting horizon.  Rolling their model forward, my best guess is that Trimmed Mean CPI was expected to hit 2.5% sometime in 2021 or 2022.

I say was because these fan-chart forecasts were made before the disappointing Q3 number. If you squint you’ll see that the RBA expected Trimmed Mean CPI of ~1.95%y/y in Q3. Instead they got 1.83%y/y.   We get new forecasts on 10 November.

This isn’t a massive miss, but it’s meaningful.  More important is the sequential deceleration of inflation: inflation slowed ~15bps from 52bps in Q2’17 to ~37bps in Q3.  The importance of this is that we cannot be sure that the cyclical lows for inflation pressure have been seen.  The annual pace of trimmed mean inflation has steady at ~1.8%y/y for three quarters now — and there are some deflationary headwinds coming in 2018.

The first is the re-weighting of the CPI basket.  The current series is based on spending patterns from 2010.  Over time spending patterns tend to move toward cheaper and more slowly inflating goods, so the current estimates of inflation are almost certainly over-estimates.  We cannot say by how much for sure, as we do not yet know the outcome of the 17th series.  What we do know, from Deputy Gov Debelle’s speech last week, is that the RBA have not adjusted their inflation forecasts to reflect the level shift down of inflation that that will occur when we move to the 17th series. 

The ABS will very shortly update the expenditure weights in the CPI. Because of substitution bias, history suggests that measured CPI inflation has been overstated by an average of ¼ percentage point in the period between expenditure share updates. While we are aware of this bias, we are not able to be precise about its magnitude until the new expenditure shares are published, because past re-weightings are not necessarily a good guide. It is also not straightforward to account for this in forecasts of inflation. (my emphasis)

Finally, Amazon Australia has yet to hit the data — which will set off a chain reaction that i think will subtract about 25bps per year from CPI for three to five years.  Sure, pre-emptive re-pricing might account for some of the food price deflation in Q3’17, but i think that is more about Coles fighting back against the European entrants (Aldi &c).

So the state of play with regard to Australian inflation is as follows:

1/ The RBA overestimated Q3 CPI by ~10bps in their August SOMP, and will downgrade slightly in their new forecasts — which are published 10 November;

2/ The RBA’s current inflation forecasts do not take into account the likely 25bps level decline of the estimated pace of inflation when we move to the 17th series; and

3/ The entry of Amazon into the Australian market (and competition from European entrants) is likely to lead to sustained downward pressure on retail prices over the next few years.  My best guess is that this will shave 25bps to 50bps per year from CPI over the next three to five years.

So these are all reasons why the RBA will have to keep downgrading core CPI over the next year or two.

When will we see 2.5%y/y (core) inflation? My guess is some time in the mid 2020s.

The market continues to flirt with a rate hike in 2018.  I very much doubt it.   I think that’s about a year too early.

Once the unemployment rate dips below 5% and trimmed mean CPI is sustainably above 2% the RBA might start nudging rates up … but we’re a long way away from that just yet!

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Are cuts back on the table?

RBA watcher James Glynn pushed the Aussie dollar and bond yields down on Friday with the explosive story RBA not ruling out rate cut.  This impacted the market as hikes are priced for 2018 and consensus has it that Gov Lowe has basically ruled out further reductions.

I myself think that he would be happy to retire with the cash rate unchanged at 1.5% … and think that this cut stuff is mostly bluster.  However it does bear thinking carefully about what Harper meant.  The key bit is below:

A slump in Australian retail sales in July and August is no cause for immediate alarm, but a response through interest rates could be warranted if consumption across the economy loses momentum entirely, according to Reserve Bank board member Ian Harper.

So why would the RBA worry about a broad based slowdown of consumption?

Because spending has been growing faster than income.  With wealth flattered by house price gains, households have saved less and spent more.  Reflecting this, the household savings rate has fallen over 500bps in the past five years.

With the housing market now flattening out, the risk is that the household savings rate starts to rise once again.  if this were to occur consumption growth would slow below the tepid pace of income growth.  That would be an environment characterized by slow growth and weak firm pricing power.

There is no way the RBA can hit their target of 2.5% inflation in that economy.

Would this be sufficient to get Gov Lowe to cut? i doubt it.

but i certainly do not see the RBA tightening in 2018. The market is priced for the first hike in Q3 2018. That seems about a year too early to me!

Posted in AUD, RBA, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

RBA goes the full pom-pom

[is this thing still on?]

It’s been a long time since I blogged, but today’s RBA statement has lit a modest fire …

Before I riff on what’s wrong with the Bank, let me put down some context. The Bank’s main job is to keep inflation at 2.5%, with a control range of 2% to 3%.

At present, inflation is both below the 2.5% target and below the 2% to 3% control range; and it is not expected to get back inside the control range until some time in late 2019.  The chart below is from the RBA’s Q2 SOMP, and it captures their failure … sorry boss, i’m missing my target and i don’t know when i’m going to hit it.  Given the gentle up-slope of their CPI forecast, i would say the central case is a return to 2.5% inflation around 2025 …

core CPI

Given that the NAIRU is probably 5% and that we’re around 5.75% just now, monetary policy should be easy: it’s either on hold with an easing bias, or cutting, right?

Well that’s so pre-GFC.  RBA Gov Dr Lowe was an early contributor to the financial stability literature, writing papers in his time at the BIS (with Borio) which encouraged central bankers to take a different view:

central banks should consider paying greater attention to credit in their monetary policy strategies than is generally the case at present. Specifically, simply setting monetary policy so that a two-year inflation forecast is at the central bank’s target may, on occasions, be less than optimal.

Gov Lowe and Assistant Gov Kent even wrote a paper together in 1998.

So rate cuts are not on, given the highly-leveraged Aussie household balance sheet and the recently rapid appreciation of house prices.  That’s a bit inconvenient given the yawning gap to the inflation target and the troubling state of the labour market (at best mixed, probably trend loosening) and the still-bleak capex outlook.

So what to do? Cheer-lead.

GDP downgrade? No problem, it’s still going back to 3.25% … 3.25% is like the horizon, always the same distance away …

Remember how they dropped 100bps of GDP when Q3 GDP unexpectedly contracted due to ‘temporary factors’?

And today they downgraded Q1 GDP in their words.

But it’s all no problem, because it’s going back to 3.25% in a few years time, right?

What’s the point of being downbeat? They have already decided that they cannot cut, so they might as well tell business that the medium term outlook is okay.  Perhaps it’ll boost business investment and help to solve their problems?

It’s not working so far.  The ABS Q1 Capex report was bleak.  After making all the nerdy adjustments it suggests that investment is going to crash by 10% in 2017/18 — this means that the RBA’s growth forecasts are about 100bps too strong.

What does the RBA say?

the transition to lower levels of mining investment following the mining investment boom is almost complete. Business conditions have improved and capacity utilisation has increased. Business investment has picked up in those parts of the country not directly affected by the decline in mining investment.

Well maybe … except that firms told the ABS that they plan to spend less in 2017/18 than they did in 2016/17.

I suppose that there’s no point talking about it unless you are going to do something about it … might as well get out the pop-poms and cheer-lead.

I’m clever, I’m cute! MIT was a hoot!
PHD and neat hair! Central banking isn’t fair!
I’m smart and you’re not! your housing is too hot!
Macro-pru is so cool! I dominate the fools!
inflation? a mess! return to target is a guess!
invest please? I smile … i know you think i’m vile.
I could help but … i won’t … after 1.5% there’s a moat.
so invest please, I roar! I swear I’m not a whore!
We cheer and we lead! We act like we’re on speed!
Don’t hate us cause we’re beautiful well we don’t like u either!
Posted in AUD, RBA | 6 Comments

RBA sets up for a cut …

The RBA has set things up to resume the easing cycle that began in 2011 (I never believed in the whole ‘neutral’ thing … see here).  My current view is that the RBA will cut by 50bps in 2015, taking their policy rate to a fresh low of 2% by mid year.

The most likely quarter for the cuts is Q2 – which is long enough to see the impact of the falling terms of trade in the data.

Continue reading

Posted in AUD, monetary policy, RBA | Tagged , | 56 Comments

When +50k is -5k (maybe)

Getting right to the point,  my view is that the Feb 2014 jobs report is bunkum.  The survey is not designed to measure the number of jobs, and if you use a household survey for this purpose you are going to get stupid results some of the time … this is one of those times. After accounting for the silliness, the number of jobs added in Feb 2014 seems more likely to be -5k, rather than +47.3k.

We’ve seen this before — just last year in the Feb 2013 Jobs report.  Check it out, and you’ll remember the prior ‘turning point’ in the labour market – the +71.5k jobs was evidence that all the prior reports were bunkum, that the labour market was responding to lower rates, and that rate cuts were over ….

Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 6.10.44 AM

Except that it wasn’t … it was a bug due to sample rotation and bad seasonal factors, and not only did the RBA cut in May and August, but the number has since been revised down to a more sociable +26.6k.

Yesterday’s report had the same problems – and the ABS (again) made a statement reporting that there was an issue with sample rotation.

Dftpt_lvl

Anyhow, it’s worth reviewing the data in any case, because the new seasonal factors change the story a little.  First, note the slightly better performance of the labour market over the last few months.  This now seems more consistent with GDP and business surveys.

pcDftpt_lvl

Regular readers will know i dislike the jobs numbers in part as i do not trust the population benchmarks – the right way to get around that is to look at how the proportion of the population in work is changing. Even after seasonal reanalysis the employment share remains weak (excepting Feb).

UR

Reflecting this, the unemployment rates continue to trend up.  Another odd feature of the new data is the spike in female unemployment. It looks like this is tied up with the sample issues (they produced a spike in employment, full time employment, and participation).  The unemployment rate rose 5bps to be just a whisker under 6.05% — so we almost printed a 6.1% on the screens.

nPop

The higher participation rate (more people looking for work) hid in part the higher employment estimate.  The employment to population ratio exposes this clearly – it’s a small uptick (and it might not be real), but there’s still ample slack in the labour market.

My bottom line on this report is that it’s a bit of a joke.  The trends are consistent with an economy that’s responding to lower rates as you would expect – but it’s still not clear if that’s going to be enough given the headwinds that are blowing from resource investment, fiscal policy and (potentially) slower Chinese growth.

Posted in AUD, economics | Tagged , | 13 Comments

GD-what?

The 0.8%q/q GDP print looked pretty good at the headline level, and the 2.75%y/y (v. RBA at 2.5%y/y) looked even better – but when you dig a little deeper that is where the good news ends.

gdpConts

Over the last two quarters, there has been a nice increase in consumption, however this has been offset by slowing investment – and with the outlook for further declines of investment and slower growth in Government spending, consumption will need to keep firm (or net exports will have to keep booming) to keep overall GDP growth around 3%yoy.

gdpXsplit

The RBA cannot do much about net exports (reflecting the fact that they have only limited influence over the currency), so they tend to steer policy based on measures on domestic activity. The simplest regression analysis reveals that GNE (DD + Inv) is much more important for policy – and on this measure we remain near recession.

twin_GNE_sa

Sure things looked a little better the last two quarters, however we remain a long way from normal.

I know a lot of readers are interested in nominal GDP – and here the news is a it better – due to a (probably temporary) rise in the terms of trade. It’s up on the quarter, and down only a small amount on the year (note that the YoY % decline was similar to the GFC).
twin_tot_sa

This has boosted nominal GDP a little – though the pace of growth remains weak by historical comparisons.

twin_nGDP_sa

Myself, i prefer read GDI ahead of n-gdp, as it’s less influenced by inflation.

twin_rGDI_sa

Again, this measure shows some improvement, but it’s a long way below normal.

Finally, thinking about policy – with the outlook for further declines in the terms of trade, it’s hard to see nominal GDP (or related measures) holding up. And with the bits of the economy the RBA most directly controls (domestic demand and GNE) still very weak, it’s premature to say anything more than that the data remains consistent with ultra-easy policy.

I still think the RBA’s next move is back to an easing bias.

Posted in AUD, economics, monetary policy, RBA | Tagged | 4 Comments

Aussie labour market plumbs new lows (Jan’14 report)

The Jan 2014 labour market report was BAD.

UR

The unemployment rate rose to 6% — exceeding the GFC peak — as the ranks of unemployed women rose (female employment had been relatively stable). Continue reading

Posted in AUD, economics, RBA | Tagged , | 13 Comments