Central bank policy

The eurozone’s economy appears to have stalled. It was widely expected that growth would pick up to 1 per cent this year, but these estimates are now being toned down as the first two quarters of 2014 have been below expectations. The pattern shown in chart one (below) is, at best, one of stagnation. It is therefore agreed with near unanimity that the eurozone’s economy needs a boost.

 

In my previous post I showed why it seems likely that profits published by US companies are currently overstated by much more than they have been in the past. This does not necessarily mean that the degree of overvaluation of the stock market shown by cyclically adjusted price-earnings ratios is understated. The profits as published have been far more volatile than shown in the national accounts, and it is probable that published profits were heavily understated in 2008, as earnings per share in Q4 2008 were negative, while those shown in NIPA Table 1.14 remained strongly positive. 

Asset prices fall if investors’ liquidity preference rises or if their liquidity falls (ie, if investors need the money or want to have more cash in their portfolios). Liquidity depends on central banks; they can create it or soak it up. The US Federal Reserve seems unlikely to reduce liquidity unless inflation picks up, but is likely to stop creating it in October. Therefore, one way in which asset prices will fall is a rise in inflation or pre-emptive action by the Fed to stop it.

When the Fed creates liquidity, it takes a larger rise in liquidity preference than before to hit asset prices. The Fed is thus in the process of increasing the market’s sensitivity to rises in liquidity preference and, as small changes are the normal response of investors to new information, the volatility of the market is therefore likely to rise. In the absence of increased interest rates, large changes in liquidity preference, however, are likely to depend on falling profits. 

After a period when consensus ruled, economists are as much at odds today as they were in the 1980s, and policies can alter sharply when those in charge change. Quantitative easing is today the main bone of contention among policy makers and economists.  

A few weeks ago, I promised to write about claims that the stock market could be valued by comparing earnings yields to bond yields. This approach is sometimes called the “Fed model”. This was fashionable in the 1990s and seems to have some followers even today. It is not only nonsense but is the most egregious piece of “data mining” that I have encountered in the 60-plus years I have been studying financial markets

In the past governments have funded their deficits – for example, they have borrowed in the bond market rather than through treasury bills. This is despite the fact that, for the past 80 years, the rate of interest on bonds has been greater than that on Treasury bills; that is, we have had an upward sloping yield curve.

I suggested in a recent blog that this was because governments correctly perceived that there were considerable economic risks in not funding, and that it was worth paying the additional cost to avoid these risks. Quantitative easing, which is a form of underfunding, must therefore have increased these risks. Defenders of QE need either to argue that these risks have not risen or that the benefits we have received from QE outweigh the rise in risks. To be consistent, those who hold that no additional risks have been incurred must now hold that governments should not have funded in the past and must now stop. But their silence is deafening, and such views are implausible, being held, I think, in the hope of dissuading discussion rather than from any conviction that they would survive much debate. 

While it is sometimes useful to make a distinction between treasuries and central banks, they are fundamentally both part of government. When central banks buy bonds as part of quantitative easing, governments are in practice ceasing to fund, ie, they are issuing short-term rather than long-term debt. If this is potentially harmful, we need to worry; if not, we need to ask why have governments funded in the past? 

Abenomics, the term given to the reform package Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe launched to revive the country’s economy, is based on two myths. One is that the economy has performed badly and the second is that this non-existent failure has been due to deflation. Despite its lack of intellectual justification, the attempt to stop deflation has been a success as the accompanying rhetoric and monetary policy have produced yen weakness. This was an essential step towards solving Japan’s fiscal problem and, as the rhetoric has been about deflation rather than devaluation, the dramatic weakness of the currency has been achieved without international opprobrium.

Over time the devaluation should result in an improved current account. This will allow the fiscal deficit to fall while the economy moves ahead, but it is not enough on its own. The other essential is to reduce the cash flow surplus of the business sector. Having achieved success in step one, largely by accident, there is a chance that Abenomics will succeed in step two. If it does, it is again likely to be an accident. 

Ian McCafferty, an external member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, believes “Britain’s ‘productivity puzzle’ will persist as the economy recovers because much of the decline in output is structurally entrenched.” As a result, Mr McCafferty believes that the Bank of England “should not ‘hold back too long’ on interest rate rises”.

Scarcely a day passes without some reference to the UK’s “productivity puzzle” and a claim that the poor productivity is “inexplicable”. This reflects a failure to understand how and why the economy has changed. Poor productivity is so readily explicable that it should cause no surprise. It is, as I have sought to explain before, the natural result of the change in management incentives. 

“Janet Yellen, the Fed’s head, rather bizarrely used the prospective price/earnings ratio, one of the weakest of all measures, to justify a statement that Wall Street was not overvalued. (This was doubly strange since her husband, George Akerlof, co-wrote a book with Robert Shiller, who has championed a much better measure…” I quote from a recent Buttonwood column in The Economist.

Calling Ms Yellen’s comment “strange” seems very kind. Many people would rate the use of bad data in preference to better as irresponsible rather than strange, particularly when it carries with it the authority of the US Federal Reserve