The Swedish monetary experiment faces the decline of both cash and house prices

by Shaun Richards
It is time to take a look again at the policies of the world’s oldest central bank as we remain in the Baltic region. From the Riksbank of Sweden.

In 1668, the Riksdag, Sweden’s parliament, decided to found Riksens Ständers Bank (the Estates of the Realm Bank), which in 1867 received the name Sveriges Riksbank. The Riksbank is thus the world’s oldest central bank. In 2018, the Riksbank will celebrate its 350th anniversary.

Yesterday brought news which will cheer the Swedish government as it received something of a windfall from this creation mostly due to a revaluation of its gold reserves. It has some 125.7 tonnes much of which is in London ( or not if you believe the conspiracy theories).

The General Council proposes that SEK 2.3 billion be transferred to the Treasury.

However the last bit of the 350 years has seen the Riksbank break new ground proving that you can teach an old dog new tricks.

In light of this, the Executive Board has decided to hold the repo rate unchanged at ?0.50 per cent.

This was announced last week and technically applies from tomorrow although of course it is a case of what might be called masterly inaction. We see that the world of negative interest-rates not only arrived in Sweden but continues and in fact if we look deeper we see that it has an interest-rate of -1.25% on bank reserves which is the lowest to be found anywhere.
Also we see that the Riksbank surged into the world of Quantitative Easing bond buying.

The Riksbank’s net purchases of government bonds amount to just over SEK 310 billion, expressed as a nominal amount. Until further notice, redemptions and coupon
payments will be reinvested in the bond portfolio.

As you can see policy is now set to maintain the stock of QE with any maturing bonds reinvested. So our old dog learnt two new tricks which does provide food for thought when we note a 350 year history after all why was it not necessary before. Also as we look ahead we see signs of a third new trick.
Economic outlook
This seems set fair.

Indicators for the fourth quarter suggest that GDP growth
picked up at the end of last year………Monthly indicators for demand and output also indicate that GDP growth at the end of last year was stronger than normal. Both industrial and services production have increased………. The model forecasts indicate GDP growth of 3.9 per cent during the
fourth quarter, compared with the previous quarter and
calculated at an annual rate.

So economic growth has been good as this would be added to this.

 GDP increased 2.9 percent, working-day adjusted and compared to the third quarter of 2016.

If we look back we see that GDP is around 16% larger than at the pre credit crunch peak of the last quarter of 2007. Looking ahead the Riksbank expects economic growth of the order of 3% annualised at the opening of 2018 with growth slowing a little in subsequent years.
Employment
As you might expect with strong economic growth seen the situation here has been positive too.

Last year, the number of redundancy notices reported to
Arbetsförmedlingen (the Swedish public employment agency) was at the lowest level since 2007 and the level of newly
reported vacant positions was very high (see Figure 3:10). The strong demand meant that both the employment rate and the labour force participation rate reached historically high levels.

Yet in spite of other signs of what has been in the past come under the category of overheating ( resource allocation is at its highest ever) we seem something very familiar.

 Estimates indicate that the definitive outcome for short?term wages in the economy as a whole for the full year 2017 will, on average, increase by 2.5 per cent, which entails a downward revision compared with the forecast in December.

These days wage growth nearly everywhere we look in what we consider to be the first world is around 2% and seems to have completely disconnected itself from many factors which used to drive it. Is this another side effect of the QE era? In Sweden we see that businesses seem reluctant to pay more.

the preliminary rate of wage increase is significantly higher in the public sector than in the business sector.  recent
outcomes indicate that wage increases at the start of 2018 will also be lower than in the Riksbank’s assessment from
December.

Unemployment
The overall rate of unemployment has fallen less than you might think due to this.

The large increase in the labour force led to
unemployment.

Which is further explained here as we wonder what “weaker connection to the labour market” means.

 Unemployment has not fallen further among those born abroad partly because the inflow of labour in this group has been large, but also primarily because people born outside Europe, on average, have a lower education and a weaker connection to the labour market.

So in reality there are two labour markets here where the Swedish born one is at what was considered to be full employment. Bringing them both together gives us this for January.

Smoothed and seasonally adjusted data shows an increase in the employment rate and a decrease in the unemployment rate, which was 6.5 percent.

Inflation
This morning’s update from Sweden Statistics told us this.

The inflation rate according to the Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices (HICP) was 1.6 percent in January 2018, down from 1.7 percent in December 2017. The HICP decreased by 0.9 percent from December to January.

The inflation number above is using the same methodology as in Europe and the UK and as you can see there is not a lot of inflation for an “overheating” economy. The Swedish measure called CPIF fell from 1.9% to 1.7% leading some to seemingly lose contact with reality.

Is Sweden’s inflation shortfall – short-term core trend below 1% versus 2% target – a serious concern? ( SRSV )

Not for Swedish consumers nor for workers as we note that in the past at least Sweden can have inflation.

The CPI for January 2018 was 322.51 (1980=100).

Those who follow my specialist interest in inflation measurement may have a wry smile at the cause of the fall.

 In January 2018, the basket effect contributed -0.2 percentage point to the monthly change in the CPI, which is close to the historical average.

Comment
There is a lot to consider here and the first is a familiar one of how will the Riksbank exit from its negative interest-rates and QE? It was promising interest-rate rises later this year but we have seen those before and the dip in the inflation rate puts it between a rock and a hard place which is before we get to this. From Bloomberg last month

Data released on Monday showed that home prices continued to slide in December, dropping 2 percent in the month, according to the Nasdaq OMX Valueguard-KTH Housing Index, HOX Sweden. The three-month drop was 7.8 percent, the steepest decline since late 2008. Prices were down 2.5 percent from a year earlier, the biggest drop since March 2012.

This may be a response to new rules that have been imposed in recent times on interest-only mortgages in response to this reported by Reuters.

Currently, around 70 percent of Swedish home owners have interest-only mortgages, meaning they do not pay off any of the principal of the loan they have borrowed.

Care is needed with the house price data as the official numbers show rises continuing but as 2018 progresses it too should be picking up ch-ch-changes. This leaves the Riksbank in something of a pickle of its own making as many of its members from the last 350 years would recognise but not apparently those in charge now. Especially as the economic growth in the credit crunch era does not look quite so good when we note the population has increased by around 9%.
Meanwhile we have yet another fail for economics 101 as I note this from Bloomberg earlier.

Last year, the amount of cash in circulation in Sweden dropped to the lowest level since 1990 and is more than 40 percent below its 2007 peak. The declines in 2016 and 2017 were the biggest on record.

With negative interest-rates one might have expected cash demand to rise but it has not returning me to me theme as yet untested that around 1.5% will be the crucial level. Still if nothing else Kenneth Rogoff will be delighted at the sight of Swedes waging their own war on cash. What could go wrong?

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