Small mercies at the Bank of England

Martin Weale is taking Andrew Sentance's mantle as the Monetary Policy Committee's resident clown.

The minutes of June's Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) meeting were published this morning. They were rather more dovish than the markets had expected and raised the prospect of a further round of quantitative easing. The relevant quote was: "It was possible that further asset purchases might become warranted if the downside risks to medium-term inflation materialised."

Once again, my good friend Adam Posen voted for a further £50bn of asset purchases. It is increasingly looking like he is on the right side of this one. The two misguided inflation hawks -- the chief economist, Spencer Dale, and Martin Weale -- voted for a 25 basis-point increase. They know not what they do, honestly.

The majority on the MPC is right to worry more about growth than inflation right now. This week, there was more evidence that George Osborne's nightmare scenario of zero or even negative growth is unfolding before our eyes. The Confederation of British Industry's Industrial Trends Survey for June, published yesterday, was not encouraging.

The drop in the output expectations index from May's 20 to 13, the lowest figure since December last year, added to other recent evidence suggesting that the previously strong manufacturing recovery is disappearing. The slowing economy is also holding back tax receipts that, according to data released this week, were up only 3 per cent in April and May together.

The monthly public-sector borrowing figure of £17.4bn was a little below last May's figure of £18.5bn. But, in the first two months of the fiscal year together, borrowing totalled £27.4bn, compared to last year's £25.9bn.

Jonathan Loynes at Capital Economics has pointed out that, although it is early days yet, at this rate, borrowing will overshoot the Office for Budget Responsibility's Budget forecast of £122bn by almost £30bn. Loynes argues: "Overall, the public finances figures provide a clear warning that the weakness of the economy could derail the government's deficit-reduction plans and will add fuel to the debate over whether it should scale back the size and speed of the fiscal tightening." Hence, the concern of the majority on the MPC that more stimulus may be needed.

This afternoon's Opposition Day Debate in the House of Commons on the anniversary of Osborne's first Budget makes the case for the government to "adopt a more balanced deficit plan which, alongside tough decisions on tax and spending cuts, puts jobs first and will be a better way to get the deficit down over the longer term and avoid long-term damage to the economy". There is a realistic alternative (Tiara).

Of particular interest was how the MPC's newest addition, Ben Broadbent, voted at his first meeting. It turns out he voted along with the majority: for no change.

While he was at Goldman Sachs, Broadbent was the co-author of an article written with Kevin Daly that advocated the macroeconomic benefits of an "expansionary fiscal contraction". This is the idea that Larry Summers dubbed as "oxymoronic". The empirical evidence suggests that such a policy has never worked without being accompanied by a big loosening of monetary policy. Given that there seems to be a contractionary fiscal contraction going on, Broadbent was always likely to vote for a stimulative monetary policy as his Plan B. Plus, I understand that he is pals with Osborne's chief economist, Rupert Harrison, who would no doubt be most unhappy if he voted for a rate rise.

I gave a speech last week at a conference in London where I said that there are few things that Osborne, Mervyn King, Alistair Darling and Blanchflower would agree on right now other than that interest rates shouldn't rise any time soon. The next speaker after me was Lord Lamont, who kindly came up to me afterwards and said that he agreed on my comments on the need to keep monetary policy loose.

I recall being told by Steve Nickell, whom I replaced on the MPC, that it was a good idea to wait for two or three meetings before doing much, so you could work out which way was up. This was great advice. I remember, though, that Andrew Sentance, in his first meeting in 2006, voted in the minority along with Tim Besley, who was attending his second meeting for a rate rise in a 7-2 decision for no change.

One of my ex-colleagues on the MPC commented to me at the time that it was interesting that the only two members of the MPC who believed the August inflation and growth forecasts were the ones who weren't there when they were being constructed.

Over the past few weeks, there were three speeches by MPC members that were of particular interest. Sir Mervyn's Mansion House speech didn't say much of note, other than that Osborne, who presumably had approved his knighthood, couldn't do anything wrong and should keep on going slashing and burning the economy. His comment on fiscal policy was interesting. "Of course, there can always be differences of judgement about the overall stance of policy but to change the broad policy mix would make little sense." Maybe Merv still doesn't realise that he is the likely fall guy when the coalition's economic ship hits the rocks.

The external MPC member Martin Weale made a speech in London, in which he argued that bank rate should be raised now, even though inflation is likely to fall sharply as the temporary factors drop out. There is no evidence of any second-round effects from wages; consumer confidence is at levels only seen previously in the depths of the great recession and growth is anaemic -- all before austerity hits. Weale argued that:

The case for a rise can be put quite simply. An early increase in bank rate makes it more likely that the inflation target can be met in two to three years time because it allows for greater subsequent flexibility. If inflationary pressures subsequently prove more severe than the central part of our forecast suggests, then it will be a help to have started to raise interest rates earlier. But if they prove less strong then subsequent increases can be slower than would otherwise be the case. Indeed, if the economy is extremely weak, interest rates can be reduced again.

What a load of tosh. An increase now would slow the economy at a time when the economy has stagnated. Raising rates now only to have to reduce them in the future would be a major policy mistake. There is no empirical support whatever for Weale's claim in the June minutes that: "A small increase in bank rate would afford the committee greater subsequent flexibility in responding to possible future developments." Weale is taking over Sentance's mantle as the MPC's resident clown.

Fortunately, there are some sane voices on the MPC. I was much encouraged to read the excellent speech by my old friend and colleague Paul Fisher at the Global Borrowers and Investors Forum in London on 21 June. Paul made it clear that he is especially worried about risks to the downside.

Over the past couple of years, the challenge has been dealing with a succession of real changes in relative prices (via negative supply side shocks) which have pushed up on prices whilst depressing demand and output. That is extremely uncomfortable for everybody. But there was, and is, no easy way for monetary policy to deal with the impact of such shocks. In our current projections there are very major risks to either side of the central case. On one side, higher inflation expectations could become entrenched making it very costly for the MPC to subsequently bring inflation back to target. On the other side, the economy could be much weaker than we expect pushing down on inflation and risking deflation. Recovering to the target from that could be even harder (at least in my personal view).

Phew, Fisher gets it but Weale and Dale sadly don't. At least Sir Mervyn continues to vote the right way (along with Posen, Broadbent Tucker, Bean, Fisher and Miles). I am grateful for small mercies.

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

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Artemis Monthly Distribution Fund: opportunities in volatile markets...

The Artemis Monthly Distribution Fund is a straightforward portfolio that combines bonds and global equities with the aim to deliver a regular income. It is run by James Foster and Jacob de Tusch-Lec. James also manages the Artemis Strategic Bond Fund whilst Jacob also manages the Artemis Global Income Fund. Whilst past performance is not a guide to the future, the Monthly Distribution Fund has returned 76.7%* since launch in 2012. Its current yield is 3.9%. It is also the top performing fund in its sector.*

Political uncertainty and the actions of central banks continue to create market volatility. In this article, James Foster talks about the opportunities this has provided and which areas of the market he considers most attractive.


The approach of the European Central Bank (ECB) has been both broad and radical. The increase to its quantitative easing (QE) programme has helped to push the yields on an even wider range of government bonds into negative territory. The cheap financing it offered to banks was less expected. To date, however, it has done little to ease fears that European banks are in trouble. The performance of bank shares across Europe (including the UK) has been abominable. Returns from their bonds, however, have been more mixed.

Bonds issued by banks and insurers are an important part of the portfolio. We increased our positions here in February but reduced them subsequently, particularly after the UK’s referendum on the EU in June. Our insurance positions have increased in importance. New Europe-wide solvency rules were introduced at the beginning of the year. They make comparisons easier and give us more comfort about the creditworthiness of these companies.

As part of its QE programme, the ECB announced that it would start buying corporate bonds with the aim of reducing borrowing costs for investment-grade companies. After months of preparation, the purchases began in June. The mere prospect of the ECB buying corporate bonds proved as significant as the reality. The implications, however, could be even more profound than they initially appear. Bonds of any investment-grade issuer with a European subsidiary are eligible.

Moreover, the ECB has changed the entire investment background for bonds. Companies are more likely to do their utmost to retain their investment-grade ratings. The financial benefits are so great that they will cut their dividends, issue equity and sell assets to reduce their borrowings. We have already seen RWE in Germany and Centrica in the UK undertaking precisely these policies.

High-yield companies, meanwhile, will do their utmost to obtain investment-grade ratings and could also lower their dividends or raise equity to do so. This creates a very supportive backdrop to the fund’s bonds in the BBB to BB range, which comprise around 28% of the portfolio.

The backdrop for higher-yielding bonds – those with a credit rating of BB and below – has also been volatile. Sentiment in the first quarter of 2016 was weak and deteriorated as the risk of recession in Europe increased. These types of bonds react very poorly to any threat of rising default rates. With sentiment weak in February and March, they struggled. However, the generosity of the ECB and stronger economic growth readings helped to improve sentiment. Default rates are higher than they were, but only in the energy sector and areas related to it.

We felt the doom was overdone and used the opportunity to increase our energy related bonds. Admittedly, our focus was on better quality companies such as Total, the French oil company. But we also increased positions in electricity producers such as EDF, RWE and Centrica. In a related move, we further increased the fund’s exposure to commodity companies. All of these moves proved beneficial.

One important area for the fund is the hybrid market. These bonds are perpetual but come with call options, dates at which the issuer has the option to repay at par. They have technical quirks so they do not become a default instrument. In other words, if they don’t pay a coupon it rolls over to the following year without triggering a default. In practice, if the situation is that dire, we have made a serious mistake in buying them. These hybrids have been good investments for us. Their technical idiosyncrasies mean some investors remain wary of these bonds. We believe this concern is misplaced. For as long as the underlying company is generating solid cashflows then its bonds will perform and, most importantly, provide a healthy income, which is our priority.


In equities, our response to the volatility – and to the political and economic uncertainties facing the markets– has been measured. We have been appraising our holdings and the wider market as rationally as possible. And in some cases, the sell off prompted by the Brexit vote appeared to be more about sentiment than fundamentals. We will not run away from assets that are too cheap and whose prospects remain good. We retain, for example, our Italian TV and telecoms ‘tower’ companies – EI Towers and Rai Way. Their revenues are predictable and their dividends attractive. And we have been adding to some of our European holdings, albeit selectively. We have, for example, been adding to infrastructure group Ferrovial. Its shares have been treated harshly; investors seem to be ignoring the significant proportion of its revenues derived from toll roads in Canada. It also owns a stake in Heathrow Airport, which will remain a premium asset whose revenues will be derived from fees set by the regulator whether the UK is part of the EU or not.

In equities, some European financials may now be almost un-investable and we have lowered our risk profile in this area. Yet there are a handful of exceptions. Moneta Money Bank, for example, which we bought at the initial public offering (IPO). This used to be GE’s Czech consumer lending business. The Czech Republic is a beneficiary of the ongoing economic success of Germany, its neighbour, and unemployment is low. The yield is likely to be around 8%. And beyond financials, prospects for many other European stocks look fine. Interest rates that are ‘lower for longer’ should be seen as an opportunity for many of our holdings – notably real estate companies such as TLG Immobilien  and infrastructure stocks such as Ferrovial – rather than a threat.


For high-yield bonds the outlook is positive. For as long as the ECB continues to print money under the guise of QE it will compel investors to buy high-yield bonds in search for income. The US economy is also performing reasonably well, keeping defaults low. Despite the uncertainty created by Brexit, that oil prices have risen means we can expect default rates to fall.

At the same time, there are a number of legitimate concerns. The greatest, perhaps, is in the Italian banking system. A solution to the problem of non-performing loans needs to be found without wiping out the savings of Italian households (many of whom are direct holders of Italian bank bonds). Finding a solution to this problem that is acceptable both to the EU and to Italian voters will be hard. Other risks are familiar: levels of debt across Europe are too high and growth is still too slow.

* Data from 21 May 2012. Source: Lipper Limited, class I distribution units, bid to bid in sterling to 30 September 2016. All figures show total returns with dividends reinvested. Sector is IA Mixed Investment 20-60% Shares NR, universe of funds is those reporting net of UK taxes.

† Source: Artemis. Yield quoted is the historic class I distribution yield as at 30 September 2016.



Source: Lipper Limited, class I distribution units, bid to bid in sterling. All figures show total returns with net interest reinvested. As the fund was launched on 21 May 2012, complete five year performance data is not yet available.


To ensure you understand whether this fund is suitable for you, please read the Key Investor Information Document, which is available, along with the fund’s Prospectus, from

The value of any investment, and any income from it, can rise and fall with movements in stockmarkets, currencies and interest rates. These can move irrationally and can be affected unpredictably by diverse factors, including political and economic events. This could mean that you won’t get back the amount you originally invested.

The fund’s past performance should not be considered a guide to future returns.

The payment of income is not guaranteed.

Because one of the key objectives of the fund is to provide income, the annual management charge is taken from capital rather than income. This can reduce the potential for capital growth.

The fund may use derivatives (financial instruments whose value is linked to the expected price movements of an underlying asset) for investment purposes, including taking long and short positions, and may use borrowing from time to time. It may also invest in derivatives to protect the value of the fund, reduce costs and/or generate additional income. Investing in derivatives also carries risks, however. In the case of a ‘short’ position, for example, if the price of the underlying asset rises in value, the fund will lose money.

The fund may invest in emerging markets, which can involve greater risk than investing in developed markets. In particular, more volatility (sharper rises and falls in unit prices) can be expected.

The fund may invest in fixed-interest securities. These are issued by governments, companies and other entities and pay a fixed level of income or interest. These payments (including repayment of capital) are subject to credit risks. Meanwhile, the market value of these assets will be particularly influenced by movements in interest rates and by changes in interest-rate expectations.

The fund may invest in higher yielding bonds, which may increase the risk to your capital. Investing in these types of assets (which are also known as sub-investment grade bonds) can produce a higher yield but also brings an increased risk of default, which would affect the capital value of your investment.

The fund holds bonds which could prove difficult to sell. As a result, the fund may have to lower the selling price, sell other investments or forego more appealing investment opportunities.

The historic yield reflects distribution payments declared by the fund over the previous year as a percentage of its mid-market unit price. It does not include any preliminary charge. Investors may be subject to tax on the distribution payments that they receive.

The additional expenses of the fund are currently capped at 0.14%. This has the effect of capping the ongoing charge for the class I units issued by the fund at 0.89% and for class R units at 1.64%. Artemis reserves the right to remove the cap without notice.

Any research and analysis in this communication has been obtained by Artemis for its own use. Although this communication is based on sources of information that Artemis believes to be reliable, no guarantee is given as to its accuracy or completeness.

Any forward-looking statements are based on Artemis’ current expectations and projections and are subject to change without notice.

Issued by Artemis Fund Managers Ltd which is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority.