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.

Negative rates are a mistake

The next ECB policy meeting is scheduled for March 10th, and the market is expecting further monetary easing. This was flagged in January , when it was announced that the Governing Council would ‘review and possibly reconsider the policy stance‘  given that downside risks had risen. The minutes  show that some Council members favoured  immediate action but the consensus was to await the publication of the quarterly macroeconomic forecasts, incorporating projections out to 2018. The current forecasts envisage inflation rising from 1.0% this year to 1.6% next, but are predicated on an oil price of $52 a barrel in 2016, which looks untenable in the absence of a seismic shift in global oil supply. Headline inflation had turned positive again in late 2015 and rose to 0.3% in January but the flash reading for February was surprisingly weak, at -0.2%, with  core inflation also slowing to 0.7%.

Euro bond yields have fallen and the euro has depreciated of late in anticipation of ECB action, but the Bank has been cautious in terms of inflating expectations, mindful of the market reaction to its December announcements, which were deemed disappointing relative to what Mario Draghi was interpreted as signaling. The euro’s effective exchange rate subsequently appreciated , rising by 6% to mid-February, and speculative short positions in the euro/ dollar fell sharply. Of course there were other factors at work, including changing expectations about US monetary policy, but it is noteworthy that the ECB minutes warned against raising ‘undue or excessive expectations about policy action’ given what had happened in December.

What can the ECB do?. One option is to reduce the Deposit rate further into negative territory, as other central banks have done, The rate, currently -0.3%, is paid on overnight deposits at the ECB and  the idea is that  banks will be encouraged to lend to other banks or to use these reserves to support lending to the private sector, rather than face losses by continuing to park it with the ECB. A cut in the deposit rate, it is  also argued, will put further downward pressure on money market rates and bond yields, so precipitating a fall in the currency, which would in turn help to boost inflation.

Yet rates paid by banks to depositors are unlikely to turn negative and many loans are based on money market rates, such as 3 or 6- month euribor. Consequently negative rates hit bank margins and hence profitability. Some argue , including ECB Board Members, that this can be offset by strong lending growth but that is certainly not happening in the euro area, with the annual growth in loans to the private sector at just 0.6% in January . Consumers and firms in many countries are still reducing their debt levels (including Ireland, where net credit has been contracting now for 6 years) and on the supply side banks are building capital to meet changed regulatory requirements and are saddled with high  levels  of non-performing loans. Moreover, lending to consumers or businesses is risky and requires higher capital cover than lending to governments , where zero capital is required, particularly when the ECB is in the market buying government debt. The general public may feel that bank profitability is the least of their concerns but a healthier bank system is required if the euro area is to see stronger economic growth and negative rates will not help.

Moreover, negative rates send the signal that economic conditions are far from normal and may exacerbate the perception that monetary policy has indeed reached its limits, and may now be adding to problems rather than easing them. It is also not a given that a further rate cut by the ECB will lead to a sharp depreciation in the euro- witness the recent rally in the Yen following the bank of Japan’s move into negative rate territory- and the euro area’s huge current account surplus means capital outflows have to be enormous to push the currency lower on a sustained basis.

Conceptually, negative deposit rates, if expected to last a long time, could  also lead to a fundamental change in the financial system. Rates on cash are not negative ( excluding some storage costs ) so banks may decide to hold excess reserves in cash rather than deposit them with the central bank. Similarly, retail depositors would have an incentive to do the same thing if commercial banks sought to introduce negative deposit rates on a large scale, so threatening the main function of the banking system, the intermediation of savers and borrowers.

In sum, negative rates are not the answer and symptomatic of a refusal by central banks to accept that the emperor no longer has any clothes. Time  for Governments to take advantage of historically low or even negative bond yields and fund some sensible capital spending , which would boost demand in the short term and support higher growth further out.


What’s driving bond yields up?

The ECB has been delighted with the response to its asset purchase programme, and indeed the initial reaction from  all asset classes, from bonds through to equities and FX, was both significant and supportive of the Bank’s attempts to stimulate economic activity. The ECB first announced its intention to buy  private sector debt last September, with the euro trading at $1.29, and the single currency subsequently declined to under $1.05  following the January decision to extend QE to government bonds and the  commencement of purchases  in early March. European stock markets rose sharply in the months after the January decision and bond yields continued the trend decline begun last autumn; Irish 10-year yields fell to a low of 0.65% and the German equivalent traded at 7bp, with negative yields prevalent in that market up to an including the 5-year maturity.

The picture looks rather different today.  Government bond yields have risen sharply amid very volatile trading, with 10-year yields in most markets back up to levels seen last October. German  4 and 5-year yields  are now positive again  and the major European equity markets have fallen by around 10% from the highs, with the euro also gaining ground, trading above $1.12.  QE is still  proceeding according to plan and the ECB’s balance sheet is expanding as intended ( €2.42 trillion at end- May from €2.15 trillion at end-2014)   so the fall in asset prices has prompted some  puzzlement, with  a number of  explanations vying for supremacy.

One approach emphasizes  bond  fundamentals, starting with real interest rates and the outlook for economic growth. The  macro data in the euro zone has tended to surprise to the upside in recent months and there was some modest upward revisions to near-term growth forecasts  but the consensus projections for the next few years have not really changed, with most still expecting a sub 2% expansion in the EA.  Similarly the outlook for the global economy has not materially changed (if anything,  the growth forecast for this year have moved lower) so it does not seem likely that real interest rates have suddenly moved higher.

Nominal bond yields are also determined by  inflation expectations (plus a risk premium) and again  forecasts  for EA inflation have not materially changed of late, including those from the ECB,  which foresees a gradual return to annual inflations rates approaching 2%.  Actual inflation has turned positive, it has to be said, so perhaps the deflation scare has abated, although it was always difficult to know if that was really a major concern for investors. Expectations on one of the ECB’s most closely watched measures (the 5 year five year forward inflation swap) are  around 1.75%, which is well up from the sub 1.50% lows but not signaling any inflation scare.

Some peripheral bond markets have fared worse than others during the sell-off  (Portugal for example) but a generalized contagion from Greece is not evident, at least not yet, given that 10-yr bund yields  have also risen sharply, by over 80bp in the past 6 weeks.

Other explanations emphasis market conditions. Issuance in some markets has been higher than expected, for example, including corporate debt. Lack of liquidity may also be  a factor, as a consequence of banks having to hold more  regulatory capital. This , alongside the Volckler rule, has persuaded many market-makers to hold less inventory, with the result that a given degree of selling will have a much greater impact on the market price than it would have done a few years ago. Certainly the scale of intra-day volatility (up to 16bp in 10-year bund yields) is far higher than normal, supporting the idea of thinner markets.

Another  explanation highlights the different types of bond buyers, each with varying risk  tolerances and trading objectives. Banks are required to hold more liquid assets under new Basel regulations, and  so  have bought shorter-dated bonds even at negative yields , particularly as for some the alternative is a deposit with the ECB at an interest rate of -0.2% (overnight ECB deposits are still high, at  €100bn). Credit conditions are improving in the EA, however, with a modest pick up in lending to the private sector, so  some banks are finally using the ample liquidity available to support credit creation to firms and households.

Hedge funds and other traders are looking for a short term return and here the predominant  trading style may be a factor- momentum trading is the order of the day for many, which explains why a trend already well established can persist long after some feel it has lost touch with fundamentals.  The problem arises when the trend  changes and many are then heading for the door, which is suddenly crowded. The lack of liquidity  is exacerbating the downdraft.

‘Real money’ investors, such as pension and insurance funds, are also important, but usually ‘buy-to-hold’ and generally players at longer maturities. They are therefore  less likely  to get caught up in a specific trading style and may well step in following a sharp  sell-off, so putting a floor in the market.

All these explanations, fundamental and market related, are not mutually exclusive, of course, and I suspect the sell-off owes most to the  recent inflation data and the acceleration in monetary growth, with the exit from a crowded trade also playing a big role. One should also keep the correction in perspective- bond yields (government and corporate ) are still extremely low by normal standards and hence  nominal financial conditions  remain unusually  loose, even if a little tighter of late.  In the shorter term it may well be  the actions of  the Fed, rather than the ECB, that helps determine the next big move in EA yields.

Why buy Bonds with negative yields ?

Negative bond yields are no longer a rarity across the Euro area,  accounting  for over half the government debt at issue in some countries (Germany, the Netherlands and Finland) and well over a third in others (Austria, France and Belgium).  Moreover, what was generally confined to shorter term debt is now extending along the yield curve, and  many now expect German 10-year yields  (currently 0.15%) to  follow Switzerland into negative territory.

Low bond yields are one thing but negative yields are a rare if not unique phenomenon. The former may be generated by a flight to quality but if widespread imply that investors expect short term interest rates to stay low for a long time. That in turn signals an expectation of limp growth and little or no inflation for a prolonged period.  Nonetheless, very low yields still mean a positive return, albeit a limited one: if I buy the German 10-year benchmark, which pays a coupon of 0.5% per annum, I will receive €5 per €100 invested in interest , offset by the capital loss on the bond ( it is trading at  €103.35). This will reduce my total return over 10 years to just €1.65.

That level of nominal yield is obviously  very problematical for savers or for the pension funds that are investing the savings of companies or households. That meagre return is also nominal, of course, and would mean a substantial loss in real terms even with very low inflation over the period.

Nonetheless,  any holder to maturity will not face a nominal loss, in contrast to that  awaiting  an investor with the same time horizon  buying a bond at a negative yield . Take the  2%  Jan 2022 Bund, which is priced at €113.80. Over  the 6.7 years  to maturity the interest will amount to €13.40 but this will be offset by the capital loss of €13.80, ensuring a negative nominal return.

Why  would anyone buy a bond which gives a loss if held to maturity? Some argue that investors are now  simply buying on the expectation that someone else will buy it at a higher price, a classic bubble, but there are other explanations. In the Swiss case investors may believe that the currency will appreciate  significantly, so ensuring a positive return for a non-Swiss  buyer. One doubts if many expect the euro to  outperform most of the other major currencies, however, so other factors are at work. One is QE, in that the ECB is a buyer in the market at any yield above -0.2%. The ECB will not buy all the bonds at issue, however,( the limit is 33% , at least for now)  so  investors  will still be left holding two-thirds of the market.

A second rationale relates to banks, the main buyers of shorter-dated bonds.  For them, any excess liquidity deposited with the ECB costs them 0.2% so any yield above that, even if negative, is viewed as a plus. The implication is that banks would also prefer to park liquidity in bonds, however low the yield, than lend it to firms or households – such lending requires higher capital backing and in general carries  a higher perceived risk. One should also remember that banks are also now required to hold a specified amount of assets in liquid form, as part of the Basel 111 regulatory changes, which  in effect means a greater demand for government bonds at the same time as the ECB has entered the market as a buyer.

For investors as a whole the low or even negative return on bonds is supposed to act as an incentive to switch to other assets, including equities and corporate debt, although again, regulatory constraints for pension funds and insurance companies may make a significant switch into riskier assets problematical.

In the short term, then, a combination of QE and pessimism on growth and inflation has led to a collapse in the risk free rate of return, with the possibility of 10-year yields and beyond turning negative. That has serious practical implications for savers and those relying on annuities in retirement. At another level, it throws up difficulties for asset valuation models, as the risk free alternative is now a negative number. How all this ends is anyone’s guess but there is a paradox at its heart; if QE stimulates growth and leads to a rise in inflation over the medium term, perhaps due to a much weaker currency, it makes negative bond  returns in real terms all the more likely for anyone buying to hold at these levels.



QE in the Euro area

Mario Draghi made it clear at  his press conference in early April that the ECB had no qualms about using QE if additional unconventional monetary policies were deemed necessary. The Bank may have come late to the party and asset purchases are not a given but the message has been reiterated over the past few weeks and that possibilty has been instrumental in driving peripheral bond yields in the euro area to levels few expected to see in a short time frame. The ECB is also more openly concerned about the euro’s relative strength  and its implications for the economic outlook  and some see QE as a means to weaken the currency, although the recent performance of the euro implies that not many in the foreign exchange market believe that QE is imminent or that it is negative -indeed traders have opened up speculative long positions in the currency.

In fact the  evidence on QE  elsewhere indicates that it can work through different channels and that it  may not precipitate a currency depreciation. Quantifying the impact of asset purchases is difficult as one can never know how the economy would have performed in its absence and expectations  can also  play an important role  but there are various statistical and econometric methods available which can at least give some approximations. The most recent work on the topic was published in a discussion paper by the Bank of England (‘What are the macroeconomic effects of asset purchases’, Weale and Wieladek, April 2014) comparing the effects of QE on the US and UK economies. The paper finds that QE does indeed have a significant impact on real activity and inflation, with asset purchases equivalent to 1% of GDP having a much bigger impact on real GDP in the US (a rise of 0.38%) than in the UK (0.18%) although a similar impact on inflation ( 0.38% in the US versus 0.3%)

The study also found that QE impacted the respective economies through different channels. The US is far less dependent on bank credit than the UK and longer term interest rates on financial instruments are much more important. Consequently, QE’s impact on longer term bond yields appears to have been the decisive channel in the US. In contrast,  the main impact  in the UK was through shorter term rates, which were  expected to remain lower for longer, and  reduced market volatility. The FX impact also differed; sterling’s real exchange rate was not seen to be affected by QE whereas the dollar did depreciate according to the study.

What are the implications for QE in the euro area?. Well, we know that the market for private sector bonds in Europe is not large so any purchases  by the ECB would probably concentrate on longer term government bonds (hence the rally of late) , although, again, shorter term rates and bank lending probably have a much bigger impact on the euro economy. That suggests that the impact on GDP would be nearer to the UK than the US experience and that  €1000bn in QE (around 10% of euro GDP) would boost GDP by some 1.8%. Inflation in the euro area is much stickier than the US or UK so one doubts if the CPI would rise by the  3% or more indicated by the BoE study. Nor is it  a given that the exchange rate would depreciate-indeed, by lowering the risk premium on peripheral bonds  QE may  actually support the euro.

Of course the ECB may decide to do nothing for a while longer, particularly given the prospect of stronger growth in the euro area in the first quarter, and in a sense the mere  promise of QE may have already achieved at least some of its aims. An actual announcement may  therefore  risk disappointment and lead to some selling of bonds  ( ‘buy the rumour. sell the fact’) . So if the ECB does want a weaker euro, negative interest rates might well prove a better bet  than QE given the mixed results elsewhere.