Friday, 13 December 2013

Uncertainty is still the only certainty

Sometimes you come across data that seems to capture the current mood.  This was the case with a survey by an investment firm showing that 32% of wealthy investors plan to increase their holdings of cash over the next 12 months.  This change in asset allocation toward cash is strange considering some investments such as stocks are having a stellar year while returns from leaving money in the bank have been dismal.  This high level of caution shown by investors, who typically have advisers telling them where to put their money, highlights the level of uncertainty faced by those trying to invest their money.  Yet with a number of possible hiccups on the horizon, cash seems to be the least bad of a poor range of options. 

The key concern for many investors is the upcoming reduction (so-called tapering) of bond purchases by the Federal Reserve.  Improvements in the US job market are expected to see the Federal Reserve cut back its monthly purchases of US$85 billion worth of bonds in the next few months.  One of the side-effects of this monetary policy has been to push investors away from bonds and into riskier assets such as stocks which has helped to lift the S&P 500 up 26% so far this year to record highs.  The actions of the Federal Reserve have grown to be the dominant factor in the direction of share prices with investors placing more stock in announcements from the central bank than data on the strength of the underlying economy. 

There has been a debate raging over the extent of the influence of the Federal Reserve with some degree of distortion inevitable considering the scale of the bond buying operations.  Share prices could be overinflated and a sharp fall might be necessary to find their correct value.  Alternatively, any changes from the bond buying end may be minimal and it may just be worries about what might happen that is scaring off investors.  Some experts argue that it is good news that investors are holding a lot of cash as it suggests that shares are not yet overpriced and this cash may still flow into the stock market over the next year.  However, in this scenario, the smart money would already be invested in stocks. 

The uncertainty is such that investors are shunning higher returns from stocks for much lower pay-outs from leaving money in their bank (the best efforts of Your Neighbourhood Economist resulted in yours truly being locked into cash for two years to eke out a miserly interest rate of 2.0% through a UK savings account).  Among the few certainties for investments over the next year or so is that a considerable amount of volatility is likely as investors try to figure out what the Federal Reserve will do next and how other investors will react.  Great if you like investing to be like a roller coaster ride, but the rest of us may be better off settling for meagre returns from our banks.  

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

UK economy is growing but not yet in recovery

Some good news at last for the UK economy but don’t expect the tough times to be over

The outlook for the UK economy is finally beginning to brighten following a harsh recession and weak recovery.  The Office for Budget Responsibility raised its forecasts for the UK economy with growth of 1.4% expected in 2013 up from a previous estimate of 0.6% in March while 2014 is expected to see growth of 2.4% instead of a prior March forecast of 1.8%.  While the government was keen to publicise this as good news, much of the improvement is due to factors that are likely to be temporary.  Government measures along with monetary policy are behind the perkier economy but the effects will not last and a proper recovery may still be some time away.

The unexpected boost to the economy has come through higher spending by households.  Many UK consumers are feeling better off with UK shares near record highs and the UK property market going through a period of resurgence.  Stock markets in many developed countries have been providing stellar returns as extra cash being printed by central banks flows into shares.  House prices have benefited through a range of government schemes aimed at increasing the availability of mortgages.  This has translated into more consumer spending through a mechanism known as the wealth effect which is the notion that people will spend more if the financial assets which they own are worth more.  The UK government has tried to tap into this effect on spending using schemes such as Help to Buy to lift house prices as a means to boost the economy due to few other options (such as higher government spending) being available. 

The wealth effect relies on growing levels of financial wealth which can be lifted by different measures but which ultimately rely on the health of the economy.  As such, temporary boosts are possible but asset prices (and wealth) can only be pushed up so far and may involve potential negative effects for the economy.  Higher prices for financial assets now come at the cost of price gains in the future  (such as a weaker property market in the future) with a reduced wealth effect.  This may be a necessary price to pay with few other avenues for generating growth but the tactic of pushing up property prices has also been used by the UK government to provide cover for its program of austerity measures. 

With public debt reaching around 75% of GDP in 2012, the government has given priority to cutting back its spending but this is controversial coming at a time when the overall economy is weak.  The government claims that the cuts are necessary as investors would not buy UK government bonds (resulting in the government having to pay higher interest rates) were government debt to get even more out of hand.  Concerns about debt levels have eased considerably since reaching near frantic proportions during the Eurozone crisis, but the government remains unrepentantly committed to slashing spending levels.  Cuts to government spending are going to continue for years to come with the stated goal of reaching a budget surplus by 2018 despite calls for a change in policy.

Other areas of the UK economy also have little to offer in terms of growth.  Exports from the UK have failed to pick up despite a weaker pound and the value of the currency has begun to rise again which does not bode well for UK exporters.  Investment is also weak with lending to businesses in decline.  It is proving tough to come up with an engine to drive growth in the UK – a recovery is long overdue but we may still have to wait.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

British banks gone AWOL

The banking sector is in dereliction of its traditional duties in the economy and quick fixes will not be enough to make amends

After nearly collapsing and bringing the economy down with them, UK banks are further adding to their bad name by holding back the economic recovery.  Banks are either too weak or too caught up in making easy money to fulfil their traditional role in the economy.  The situation is made worse because monetary policy works through the financial sector and banks are crucial links through which money is fed into the actual economy.  Instead, bank lending to UK businesses has been falling, thereby dampening the impact of lower interest rates and pushing the Bank of England to pump more and more money into the economy (which is not healthy).  Why have banks seemingly abandoned their posts?

Banks have traditionally acted as intermediaries between those with money to spare and those in need of financing.  There is a surplus of funds at the moment due to quantitative easing by the central banks which is aimed at getting more households and companies to borrow.  But this money is not getting to businesses - partly because the weak economy has hit demand for loans but also because of the reluctance of banks to lend.  A large amount of debt, which could go bad due to the weak economy, is making banks cautious while new banking regulations are restricting banks’ capacity to take on fresh loans.  Small businesses have been hit hardest as there are few other options for getting cash.  As a result, there has been a large knock-on effect on the economy as small businesses are a significant source of jobs and innovation.

Other parts of the finance sector have failed to pick up the slack.  Investment banks (which are different to retail banks who carry out the functions above) have long had only weak links with the actual economy and continue to generate profits through their ability to make money from money while also attracting some of the best and brightest who could offer more in other sectors (see previous blog).  Firms such as Wonga, which offer lending services now shunned by retail banks, are being hounded for their trouble.  The only bright spot has been mortgage lending but that has been targeted by government initiatives along with monetary policy to the extent that the Bank of England has had to apply the brakes due to concerns about a housing bubble.

The failure of banking to facilitate the circulation of funds around the economy has resulted in surplus cash flowing into financial assets such as property or the stock market rather than being put to productive use in the actual economy.  The Bank of England has tried a scheme of providing banks with funds for lending but more needs to be done to clean up banks and change their behaviour.  One of the reasons why Japan took so long to recover from a financial crisis more than two decades ago was that it allowed problems in its banking sector to stagnate.  Let’s hope that it doesn’t take that long to learn the same lesson.

Monday, 2 December 2013

UK Property Market – Prudence over Politics

Why we should be happy that the Bank of England is putting the brakes on the government’s efforts to boost the property market.

It is the job of politicians to get elected, but it does not follow that governments always do what is in the best interest of voters.  This might be the best explanation behind the actions of the current UK government with regard to the housing market – angling for voters (and an economic recovery) by pumping up property prices with little concern about the long term health of the economy (for more on this, see rebound in UK house prices is not all good news).  Many expressed a sigh of relief when the Bank of England stepped in to put the brakes on a booming real estate market by taking away incentives promoting mortgage lending among banks.  It is something new to see a central bank taking a stance which puts them at odds with the government but it provides a good case for arguing for greater oversight of government policy.

The current understanding of the role of a central bank is as an independent body which watches over the economy with powers to intervene if there is too much or not enough growth.  Central banks are kept separate from politics where policies are aimed at winning over voters within a time frame of a few years.  Some aspects of government where a longer time frame is required such as monetary policy could be influenced in a negative way by political calculations and it is thought that central banks are better positioned to administer monetary policy in order to achieve goals such as warding off inflation.

The global financial crisis highlighted that low inflation in itself is not sufficient for financial stability with aggressive lending by banks combined with excessive gains in asset prices also shown as big threats.  Central banks have been given greater scope to oversee the overall health of the financial sector and this is behind the latest policy actions by the Bank of England.  The UK government was hoping that a buoyant property market would increase spending and create a feel-good factor propelling it back into power in elections scheduled for 2015.  Yet any gains in real estate prices without higher wages would be unsustainable and put home ownership beyond the reach of many, ultimately requiring weaker prices in the future to bring house prices back in line with the economy. 

Governments and central banks had previously been operating in their own separate spheres of influence but the extended remit of central banks may bring them into conflict.  This has the potential to work in a positive way to provide greater oversight for government policies shown to be at fault in the past (for example, high government borrowing in the UK in the run up to the global financial crisis).  Another example of how the European Central Bank did the most to save the euro while the various governments in Europe squabbled.  It is not hard to argue for giving more power to economists (see previous blog) when politicians provide so many reasons for doing so.