Are Inflation targets too high?

Inflation targeting by policy makers emerged in the early 1990’s and is now part of the standard toolkit for most central banks, with operational independence from government also the norm. The idea is straightforward; if the central bank commits to hitting a specific inflation rate, that rate will impact expectations and eventually will help to anchor price changes. Too high a figure means that purchasing power is eroded at an unacceptably fast pace, while too low risks periods of deflation.

The latter view persuaded central banks to eschew a zero inflation target, and the figure of 2% is very common, although of course it means that prices rise by 22% over a decade and by 50% in a generation.  Hardly stable prices then, although one should remember that such targets  were often set some time ago and at a period when inflation was generally above that figure.In contrast, many central banks have been wrestling with the opposite problem for some time i.e. inflation is persistently below target.

In the US, for example, core inflation ( the CPI excluding food and energy) has been below 2% for almost a decade, while in the euro area the last time core inflation exceeded 2% was back in 2003. This points to structural factors at play, rather than purely cyclical drivers.

Standard inflation models , however, generally posit a cyclical  link between economic activity and inflation, with periods of stronger growth resulting in an acceleration in inflation. The link is often based on the Phillips curve, the idea that falling unemployment will boost wage growth and hence lead to price rises. Consequently, most central banks expected inflation to pick up given falling unemployment, particularly as rates for the latter are now very low by historical standards in some countries, including the US and the UK. Yet wages have not picked up as expected ( the Phillips curve has flattened), reflected a range of factors, many of them structural, including globalisation and free trade, a shift in employment composition to lower productivity jobs, the rise in self employment,  fear of job losses and the decline in trade unions .

There may be other factors directly impacting inflation, such as the greater ease of price discovery in a digital age and the growth of disruptive technology, ( examples might be Amazon and Uber) which are replacing traditional models of distribution. Technology change is general is also shifting the aggregate supply curve rightward, so putting downward pressure on prices.

Yet the Fed and the ECB are still wedded to a 2% inflation target, despite missing it to the downside for a long period. Fed chair Yellen did acknowledge recently  that inflation was not behaving as expected ( calling the recent inflation performance ‘a mystery’) but the FOMC and the ECB are both of the view that cyclical factors will eventually win out, pulling inflation up to target.They may be ultimately proven right, although the recovery is now pretty long in the tooth, particularly in the US, and the Fed has revised down its view of long run potential growth ( now sub 2%) although not of long run inflation, still at 2%.

Does it matter if inflation was to stay in a 1%-1.5% range. It’s obviously better than 2%  for many people in an era of weak wage growth but it does raise a policy issue- if ‘equilibrium inflation’ is now below 2% due to structural changes, then policy will be too loose if it is set to hit 2%. The liquidity currently flooding the world has indeed driven up prices, but equities and property rather than the price of goods and services.


Irish GDP grows at average annual 5.5% in H1.

The available labour data shows that Irish employment continued to grow very strongly in the first quarter of the year (by an annual 3.5%) and the decline in the unemployment rate since implies that  pattern is still intact. One would expect GDP growth to be stronger, given normal productivity growth, and although the Irish quarterly GDP figures are extremely volatile, the picture from the National Accounts  is  broadly consistent with the employment data; annual GDP growth in q2 was 5.8%, following a 5.2% rise in q1, to give an average for the first half of the year of 5.5%.The figure for the full year is likely to be lower, given the surge in reported GDP in the latter part of 2016, and we expect around 4%.

On a quarterly basis GDP expanded by 1.4% following a revised 3.5% contraction in q1. The latter reflected a plunge in investment spending, mainly related to mulinational R&D , and that reversed in q2, duly accounting for most of the rise in GDP. Consumer spending actually fell, by 1.1%, and on the published national accounts consumer spending is now only 34% of GDP and only marginally ahead of capital spending- in most developed economies the former is well above 50%.

The CSO now publishes a separate figure , Modified Domestic Demand, to give a better picture of underlying spending and output in the Irish economy, as it strips out multinational flows into R&D and aircraft leasing . On that metric real demand grew by an annual 4.2% in q2 following a 5.8% rise in q1, so the average increase over H1 is  still a very healthy 5.2%, indicating that the underlying economic performance remains strong. One puzzle is  limp  consumer spending, averaging growth of  just 1.8%, which is modest given the strength of employment growth alongside 2% growth in pay. and zero inflation. Domestic investment spending is expanding at a robust pace, in contrast, with annual growth averaging 15% over the first half of the year, albeit hiding a mixed performance, with buoyant construction offsetting a  fall in domestic spending on machinery and equipment.

Overall, it would seem that the Irish economy continues to expand at a robust pace, if one discounts the extraordinary short-term volatility and adjusts for the distortions caused by the sheer scale of the multinational flows.

QE is fuelling Irish House Prices

Irish residential property prices have risen 60% since the lows of early 2013 but  this cycle is investor rather than credit driven. Gross mortgage lending for house purchase has picked but the average new loan has risen by just 28% over the past four years, implying a fall the average loan to value ratio, while data on transactions (recently revised up by the CSO) indicates that mortgage loans  still appear to be accounting for less than half of turnover in the market. New lending is also now constrained by the Central Bank’s mortgage controls.Moreover, net mortgage lending ( i.e new lending minus repayments) has been falling now for over seven years, although there are recent signs that it may finally be bottoming out.

Nothing here then to indicate that credit is playing a strong role in driving prices and it is curious that little attention has been paid to the impact of the ECB’s monetary policy  on the housing market, and, more specifically, its  non-standard measures including the asset purchase programme. The latter, QE, is designed to boost bond prices and hence lower yields so that ‘ investors may choose to take the funds they receive in exchange for assets sold to the ECB and invest them in other assets. By increasing demand for assets more broadly, this mechanism … pushes prices up and yields down, even for assets that are not directly targeted by the APP’.

QE is generally perceived as having a significant impact on equity markets and it would be odd if it did not therefore impact other  asset markets, including property, and we  can readily  see this at play in the Irish data on transactions. In 2011, investors (here defined as Buy to Let individuals  plus non-household buyers) accounted for 16% of residential transactions rising to 24% by 2012 and averaging a third of the market or more since 2014.

The yield on ‘risk-free’ assets , such as Government bonds, plays a big role in investment decisions and so the plunge in Irish Bond yields has been  a very significant backdrop for the Irish residential and indeed commercial property market : 10-year Irish yields peaked at double digit rates in mid 2011 but really started to fall sharply following Draghi’s ‘whatever it takes’ speech in 2012, and fell below 1% , where they still reside, following the commencement of QE in early 2015.

In contrast, the gross yield on residential property ( average rent/ house price) has not declined significantly in our rental model, and is still at 4.8%, having peaked at 5.4% in 2013. The rental yield fell to  a low of 2.75% during the last cycle, and is still well above the post EMU average (4.25%) and of course extraordinarily high relative to the ‘risk free’ rate available on Irish bonds, let alone Bunds.

The scale of investor interest in Irish property is therefore not surprising given the yield on offer and  is unlikely to disappear any time soon. Higher bond yields would make a difference, no doubt, and in that context the future of QE plays a part; the ECB will soon decide whether to scale back its asset purchases or indeed cease any additional buying. Yet it is likely to reinvest the proceeds of maturing bonds for a while at least, therefore maintaining the stock of QE, so absent an inflation shock bond yields may well stay low by historical standards. If so investor interest in Irish property will continue to be a big driver of the market.