The global reflation regime that has been dominant in the financial markets for much of the past 12 months has paused in recent weeks. Many commentators, including James Macintosh at the Wall Street Journal and the FT’s Gillian Tett, have suggested that this pause in the markets is giving ominous signals about the health of global economic activity. Concerns have been expressed about the strength of official US GDP data in 2017 Q1, and there have been unexpectedly low readings for core inflation in several economies.

This shift in mood is probably too pessimistic. The change in market behaviour has so far been small, relative to the large rise in equities and the decline in bond prices seen since world activity bottomed in February 2016. Furthermore, while there has been a modest slowdown in US activity indicators since March, the growth rate remains well above trend, and the official GDP numbers are likely to be much stronger in 2017 Q2 and Q3.

However, there are legitimate concerns about the ability of the Trump administration to deliver the large fiscal stimulus that had been expected. These concerns need to be addressed in the announcements on tax policy that are expected imminently. Read more

President Trump’s remarks last week about the dollar and US monetary policy offer more evidence that America’s strong dollar policy, launched in 1995 by Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin when the dollar was near post-war lows, is now changing.

The President said that a strong dollar “sounds good”, but added that “our dollar is getting too strong…it is very, very hard to compete when you have a strong dollar and other countries are devaluing their currency”. He also said that he “likes a low interest rate policy” and that Janet Yellen is “not toast”.

Separately, Mr Trump dropped his campaign promise to label China as a currency manipulator, suggesting that the US is willing to make concessions on trade policy in exchange for a strategic deal on North Korea with Xi Jinping.

The US Treasury followed this yesterday with its semi annual official report on the foreign exchange policies of US trading partners. Several countries, including China, South Korea, Taiwan, Germany, Switzerland and Japan, were warned that they are on a “monitoring list”, but concrete action against them has been postponed, perhaps indefinitely. The Administration seems to have decided that the threat of future trade protection will induce some of these countries to allow their currencies to rise against the dollar.

It seems that the President has recognised that it is pointless to pursue protectionist measures if their effect on US manufacturing is offset by a rising currency. Instead, he wants the dollar down. But, as Roger Blitz suggests, is doubtful whether his jawboning will, on its own, do much to influence the trend of the American currency. In order to change the direction of the dollar in a meaningful way, other economic policies will need to change. Read more

Marine Le Pen

Marine Le Pen  © Getty Images

The European Central Bank has been one of the two main providers of global monetary easing since 2015, and that seems likely to persist throughout 2017. Despite its continuing importance to the setting of global monetary conditions, the bank’s policy deliberations have made only little waves in the markets since deflation risks abated last year.

The eurozone economy seems to be in an increasingly healthy state, at least from a cyclical point of view, and monetary conditions appear to be normalising across the entire region. The latest rounds of asset purchases have proved more successful than previous doses, primarily because they have reduced sovereign and other credit spreads in the troubled economies, thus bringing monetary assistance to countries that needed it most. Read more

In this month’s regular update on global economic activity, the Fulcrum nowcasts have once again identified extremely strong growth rates, especially in the advanced economies. These results continue to suggest that the global economy is expanding at the fastest rate seen since 2010, with the implication that the expansion may be reaching escape velocity, where it is no longer in need of emergency support from the central banks or fiscal authorities.

However, our models have been greatly affected in recent months by the remarkable strength in business and consumer surveys. Hard economic data have also improved, but have done so by less than the surveys. This has led to doubts about the reliability of the nowcasts, especially in the US, where the official real GDP growth rate in 2017 Q1 seems likely to be well below 2 per cent for the second successive quarter.

The sluggishness of US growth based on the official GDP data is clearly influencing the Federal Reserve, which has made no upward revision to its growth forecasts in the past few months, despite the surge in the nowcasts. Furthermore, it may also have influenced the financial markets, which are starting to have doubts about the “reflation trade” in global markets.

Given the extremely large difference between surveys and hard data at present, it is important to consider which of these sources of evidence is likely to be giving the correct signal on the current pace of the global expansion. Based on past evidence, we continue to give considerable weight to the buoyant surveys, even when they conflict with the relative weakness of hard data.

A second question is whether the extremely buoyant growth rates identified by the nowcasts can be maintained into the future. The models expect these elevated growth rates to decline somewhat over the rest of 2017, but growth seems likely to remain well above trend in the AEs, with plenty of scope for upward revisions to consensus GDP forecasts.

My colleagues Juan Antolin-Diaz, Thomas Drechsel and Ivan Petrella have released a technical paper about the use of hard and soft data in nowcasting – see the latest draft attached here. The latest monthly set of Fulcrum nowcasts is attached hereRead more

One of the most dramatic monetary interventions in recent years has been the unprecedented surge in global central bank balance sheets. This form of “money printing” has not had the inflationary effect predicted by pessimists, but there is still deep unease among some central bankers about whether these bloated balance sheets should be accepted as part of the “new normal”. There are concerns that ultra large balance sheets carry with them long term risks of inflation, and financial market distortions.

In recent weeks, there have been debates within the FOMC and the ECB Governing Council about balance sheet strategy, and it is likely that there will be important new announcements from both these central banks before the end of 2017. Meanwhile, the PBOC balance sheet has been drifting downwards because of the large scale currency intervention that has been needed to prevent a rapid devaluation in the renminbi. Only the Bank of Japan seems likely to persist with policies that will extend the balance sheet markedly further after 2017.

Globally, the persistent increase in the scale of quantitative easing is therefore likely to come to an end in 2017, and it is probable that central bank balance sheets will shrink thereafter, assuming the world economy continues to behave satisfactorily.

Investors have become accustomed to the benefits of “QE infinity” on asset prices, and are cynical about the ability and desire of central bankers ever to return their balance sheets to “normal”. They will have to adjust to a new reality fairly soon. Read more

The global economic recovery that started amid the gloom of the financial crash in March 2009 is about to celebrate its 8th birthday. In the advanced economies (AEs), the GDP growth rate during this recovery has averaged only 1.8 per cent, well below normal, but unemployment has dropped from 8.1 per cent to a still fairly high 6.1 per cent. According to JP Morgan, the volatility of GDP growth has fallen to the lowest levels for four decades since 2014.

This slow but extremely steady period of expansion has of course been accompanied by much lower interest rates, which have proven terrific for asset prices. The index of total equity returns in the AEs has tripled since the bear market ended.

Janet Yellen and other officials at the Federal Reserve have said on many occasions that “recoveries don’t just die of old age”. Unless something goes wrong, the upswing in the cycle will be prone to continue. At present, econometric models that attempt to assess recession risks suggest that these risks are exceptionally low over the next 12 months.

Furthermore, the growth rate in the US and other AEs seems, if anything, to be breaking upwards. This may be because the headwinds that have held growth down for so long – excessive debt, a malfunctioning banking system, extreme risk aversion, low capital investment etc. – may finally be fading away. Perhaps the world economy is at last attaining escape velocity.

However, good times cannot last forever. It is common for euphoria to set in just when the economic and financial cycle is nearing a peak. As in 2001 and 2008, the end could come much sooner than anyone predicts [1]Read more

The robust US employment data last Friday have left almost no room for doubt that the Federal Open Market Committee will raise short term rates by 25 basis points on 15 March, and will probably warn of two or three more hikes to come this year.

Analysts seem confident that this accelerated phase of Fed tightening will involve a further rise in bond yields and the dollar, and many active fund managers are positioned for both these events to occur in coming months. Other analysts believe that the more hawkish Fed will puncture the “euphoria” in the US equity market before too long. Read more

US monetary policy has now clearly embarked on an important new phase. For a long while, the markets have been extremely reluctant to recognise that the Federal Reserve might actually mean what it says about increasing short term interest rates by 0.25 per cent on three separate occasions this year. Remembering repeated episodes in which the Fed has failed to deliver its threatened tightening in policy since 2013, investors have concluded that dovish surprises from the Fed are endemic.

Last week, however, they woke up to the fact that FOMC really is serious about raising rates in March, and that this may be the first of three or even four rate hikes this year. After a series of hawkish speeches by several FOMC heavyweights, the coup de grâce came on Friday, when Janet Yellen warned that a rate rise in March “would be appropriate” unless economic data surprised in the meantime. She added rather ominously that policy accommodation would be removed more rapidly this year than in 2015 and 2016.

The great unknown is whether this will come as a major shock to the financial markets. It will certainly mean that investors will need to build in a faster path for rate hikes in the near term than anything that has previously been contemplated in this cycle. But the good news is that the final destination for rates does not seem to be changing, at least in the view of the FOMC. The Committee is increasing the speed of travel towards its destination, but is not changing the destination itself.

So what has justified the shift toward more hawkish thinking on the FOMC? And will this upset the equity market, which is still ignoring the prospect of higher rates? Read more

A year ago, Lawrence Summers’ perceptive warnings about the possibility of secular stagnation in the world economy were dominating global markets. China, Japan and the Eurozone were in deflation, and the US was being dragged into the mess by the rising dollar. Global recession risks were elevated, and commodity prices continued to fall. Fixed investment had slumped. Productivity growth and demographic growth looked to be increasingly anemic everywhere.

Estimates of the equilibrium real interest rate in many economies were being marked down. It seemed possible that the world economy would fall into a “Japanese trap”, in which nominal interest rates would be permanently stuck at the zero lower bound, and would therefore not be able to fall enough to stimulate economic activity.

Just when the sky seemed to be at its darkest, the outlook suddenly began to improve. Global reflation replaced secular stagnation as the theme that dominated investor psychology, especially after Donald Trump’s election in November. Why has secular stagnation lost its mass appeal, and has it disappeared forever? Was it all a case of crying wolf? Read more

President Trump has an almost unprecedented opportunity to reshape the key personnel and legal basis of the Federal Reserve in the next 12 months, essentially rebuilding the most important economic organisation in the world in his own image, if he so chooses.

The President may be able to appoint five or even six members to the seven-person Board of Governors within 12 months, including the Chair, Vice Chair for monetary policy, and a new Vice Chair for banking supervision. He may also be able to sign into law a bill that alters aspects of the Fed’s operating procedures and accountability to Congress, based on a bill passed in 2015 by the House of Representatives.

Not surprisingly, investors are beginning to eye these changes with some trepidation.

Some observers fear that the President will fill the Fed with his cronies, ready to monetise the budget deficit if that should prove politically convenient. Others fear the opposite, believing that the new appointments will result in monetary policy being handed over to a policy rule (like the Taylor Rule) that will lead to much higher interest rates in the relatively near future. Still others think that the most important outcome will be a deregulation of the banking system that results in much easier credit availability, with increased dangers of asset bubbles and economic overheating.

It is not difficult to see how this process could work out very badly indeed. But, at present, I am optimistic that a modicum of sense will prevail. Read more

It has been clear for a while that the most important political risk to global financial markets in 2017 will be the possible election of a President Marine Le Pen in the second round of the French elections on 7 May. Last week, this risk came into sharper focus when a small change in the odds of her winning the Presidency caused a sudden widening in Eurozone bond spreads, with the France-Germany spread reaching about half of the average levels seen during the euro crisis of 2011 (see graph).

Investors have now become accustomed to political shocks driven by swings towards populism, notably in the UK and the US last year. These experiences have led some investors to conclude that a third “populism” surprise is quite likely in France because “no-one can believe the polls any more”. But they have also tended to add that “Brexit and Trump did not disrupt the markets, so Le Pen would not do so either”.

Both of these inferences are wrong. The risk of a President Le Pen is far lower than the ex ante risk of Brexit or President Trump was last year, but the consequence of her winning would be far worse. This time, the “experts” are not exaggerating how bad it could be for markets. Read more

In mid 2016, the global economy embarked on a regime of reflation that has been dominating market behaviour ever since then. This has constituted a simultaneous rise in real output growth, along with a rebound in inflation as commodity prices have recovered from their 2014-15 slump.

The result has been a sharp increase in nominal GDP growth in most of the major economies. As the secular stagnation theme has lost its potency for investors, a decline in the perceived risk of outright deflation has triggered a rise in breakeven inflation expectations in bond markets everywhere.

One of the most important questions for 2017 is whether this bout of reflation will continue. My answer, based partly on the latest results from the Fulcrum nowcast and inflation models (see first graph), is that it will continue, at least compared to the sluggish rates of increase in nominal GDP since the Great Financial Crash.

However, the nature of the reflation theme is changing. The term “reflation” does not necessarily imply that global inflation, or inflation expectations, will continue to rise very much from here.

A likely pattern in 2017 is that there will be upgrades in consensus forecasts for real output growth, but inflation will stabilise, and will not threaten to break above central bank targets in most advanced economies.

Equities and other risk assets would probably view this as a healthy mix of output and inflation components of national income, while bond markets would probably exhibit a stabilisation in breakeven inflation expectations, with real yields rising a bit. Read more

Investors are an emotional crowd, especially when US equities, measured by either the Dow Jones Industrial Average or the more accurate S&P 500 index, have just hit all-time highs. I am not sure who first remarked that market behaviour is motivated by two competing emotions, fear and greed. But I do know that Albert Einstein claimed that “Three great forces rule the world: stupidity, fear and greed”.

Some of the macroeconomists that I have learned not to ignore, like Lawrence Summers and Martin Wolf believe that the outlook for the US economy under President Trump is at best uncertain, and that the recent equity market highs are a “sugar rush”. I recognise that some of these critics have major political differences with the new Administration. But many others, like the perceptive and apolitical John Authers, are also very concerned about equity over-valuation.

So, are investors being “stupid”?

One of the advantages of using economic models to analyse the equity market is that the models should be good at avoiding all three of Einstein’s great forces.

That does not make the models the only source of wisdom about future asset returns. Far from it. They are good at avoiding some of the behavioural mistakes that investors are known to commit, such as a tendency to dislike losses about twice as much as they like gains. But human beings may be better at recognising when the investment climate is about to change because of policy upheavals.

In this article, I will try to eliminate emotion by reporting some recent results from the suite of economic and financial models built by Juan Antolin Diaz and his team at Fulcrum. The results are somewhat encouraging: recession risks in the US are low and the over-valuation of equities is less clear cut (on some measures) than is sometimes supposed.

In the short term, however, there are signs that the most active short term traders in the market may be heavily exposed to equities at the present time. This could make the market vulnerable in the short term to policy shocks that cannot be incorporated into the models, such as a major outbreak of trade protectionism. Read more

The sharp drop in sterling that has followed the Brexit referendum has imparted a major shock to anyone doing business, or owning assets, across the UK border [1].

In last week’s strategic speech, the prime minister apparently opted for a hard or so-called “clean” Brexit. This could result in Britain leaving the EU single market and possibly the customs union, and then relying on World Trade Organisation rules to govern trade with the EU. Britain would like to improve on that deal by negotiating a free trade area in some industries and services, but a “clean” Brexit may not include such deals at the outset.

Many of those affected by the devaluation appear to think that it is “obvious” that the pound will decline further under Mrs May’s new scenario. But nothing in the currency market is that obvious. This column discusses the large uncertainties that inevitably surround forecasts of sterling’s behaviour in the period around Brexit. Read more

The financial markets have begun to wake up to the fact that the Republican reforms to US corporate taxation will probably include important new “border adjustments” to the definitions of company revenues and costs. The basic idea is that US should shift to a “territorial” system, with corporations being taxed only on revenues and costs incurred within the US itself, and not on their worldwide aggregates, which is the principle behind the present system. [1]

A border tax was not explicitly part of the Trump platform before the Presidential Election. It was, however, included in the tax plan published last year by Paul Ryan in the House of Representatives, and Mr Trump has recently tweeted that companies that do not “make in USA” can expect to “pay big border tax”. That might be compatible with the Ryan plan, though it also might not be.

Although most other countries already operate “territorial” systems, the Republican plan includes other features that would make the new tax regime operate like a tariff on imports into the US, combined with a subsidy on many exports from the US, a combination that would have profound international economic consequences.

This is not just an obscure change to the details of America’s corporate tax code. It would be seen by trading partners as a protectionist measure that could disrupt world trade.

The direct effects of a border tax adjustment to the US corporate tax regime would be likely to raise American inflation, cut imports, boost exports and raise tax revenue, possibly by over $1.2 trillion over a decade. However, it would also raise the dollar’s exchange rate, which could offset or cancel out some of these other effects.

The impact on real GDP and employment would depend on how these effects panned out, and how the Federal Reserve reacted to the increase in inflation. It cannot be assumed that the effects would be beneficial. Recent estimates by Michael Gapen and Rob Martin at Barclays Capital suggest that the first year effects would be to raise US inflation by about 0.5-1 per cent, and to reduce real GDP by 1.0-1.5 per cent.

Given these economic effects, it is very doubtful whether this form of border tax, taken in isolation, would be good for the overall equity market, though other planned reforms to the corporate tax regime (including lower marginal tax rates, and full deduction of capital spending in the first year) certainly would be. Read more

Exactly a year ago this week, the mood in the financial markets started to darken markedly. As 2015 had drawn to a close, financial markets had seemed to have weathered the first increase in US interest rates since 2006 in reasonable shape. The Federal Open Market Committee had telegraphed its step to tighten policy in December 2015 with unparalleled clarity. Forewarned, it seemed, was forearmed for the markets.

Meanwhile, China had just issued some new guidance on its foreign exchange strategy, claiming that it would eschew devaluation and seek a period of stability in the RMB’s effective exchange rate index. This had calmed nerves, which had been elevated since the sudden RMB devaluation against the dollar in August 2015.

A few weeks later, however, this phoney period of calm had been completely shattered. By mid February, global equity markets were down 13 per cent year-to-date, and fears of a sudden devaluation of the RMB were rampant. It seemed that the Fed had tightened monetary policy in the face of a global oil shock that was sucking Europe and China into the same deflationary trap that had plagued Japan for decades. Secular stagnation was on everyone’s lips.

We now know that the state of the global economy was not as bad as it seemed in February, 2016. Nor was the Fed as determined as it seemed to tighten US monetary conditions in the face of global deflation. And China was not set upon a course of disruptive devaluation of the RMB. Following the combination of global monetary policy changes of February/March last year, recovery in the markets and the global economy was surprisingly swift.

A year later, the key question for global markets is whether the Fed and the Chinese currency will once again conspire to cause a collapse in investors’ confidence. There are certainly some similarities with the situation in January 2016. The Fed has, once again, tightened policy, and China is battling a depreciating currency. But there are also some major differences that should protect us this time. Read more

As the global economy enters 2017, economic growth is running at stronger rates than at any time since 2010, according to Fulcrum’s nowcast models. The latest monthly estimates (attached here) show that growth has recovered markedly from the low points reached in March 2016, when fears of global recession were mounting.

Not only were these fears too pessimistic, they were entirely misplaced. Growth rates have recently been running above long-term trend rates, especially in the advanced economies, which have seen a synchronised surge in activity in the final months of 2016. Read more

The rise in political “populism” in 2016 has forced macro-economists profoundly to re-assess their attitude towards the basic causes of the new politics, which are usually identified to be globalisation and technology. The consensus on the appropriate policy response to these major issues – particularly the former – seems to be changing dramatically and, as Gavin Kelly persuasively argues, probably not before time.

Unless economists can develop a rational response to these revolutionary changes, political impatience will take matters completely out of their hands, and the outcome could be catastrophic. Unfortunately, while the nature of the problem is coming into sharper focus, the nature of a solution that makes economic sense while also being politically feasible remains embryonic at best (see Danny Leipziger). Read more

A year ago, there was a pervasive mood of gloom among economists and investors about prospects for the global economy in 2016. China was in the doldrums, and fears of a sharp renminbi devaluation were rife. The oil shock had caused major reductions in capital spending in the energy sector, and consumers seemed reluctant to spend the large gains they were enjoying in real household incomes.

Deflation risks dominated the bond markets in Japan and the Eurozone. In the US, the Federal Reserve seemed determined to “normalise” interest rates, despite the rising dollar and the weakness in foreign economies.

At the turn of the year, there were forecasts of global recession in 2016. At the low point for activity and risk assets in 2016 Q1, the global growth rate (according to the Fulcrum “nowcasts”) had dipped to about 2 per cent, compared to a trend growth rate of 4 per cent. It was a bleak period. The dominant regime in financial markets was clearly one of rising risk of deflation.

Since then, however, there has been a marked rebound in global activity, and in recent weeks this has become surprisingly strong, at least by the modest standards seen hitherto in the post-shock economic recovery. According to the latest nowcasts, the growth rate in global activity is now estimated to be 4.4 per cent, compared to a low point of 2.2 per cent reached in March.

The latest growth estimate is the highest reported by the nowcast models since April, 2011 – before the euro crisis and the China slow-down hit global activity very hard. This relatively upbeat take on the current state is supported by alternative data sources. For example, the Goldman Sachs Global Leading Indicator has just reached its highest point since December, 2010.

The uptick in global activity growth has, of course, been accompanied by a rise in headline inflation rates in almost all major economies. Recently, I argued that this jump in inflation was still “weak and patchy”, and almost entirely due to the partial recovery in oil prices, which has been taken further this week by the market reaction to the OPEC decision to reduce oil production.

However, the bond markets have taken the reflation trade increasingly seriously, in part because of the assumed shift towards fiscal easing after the election of Donald Trump in the US. Although the case for a rise in core inflation in 2017 (as opposed to headline inflation) is far from convincing, the recent rebound in global activity may well give the “reflation trade” a further leg upwards.

Morgan Stanley says that investors have stopped asking “is reflation happening?” and instead they are now asking “will it prove sustainable?” It is easy to be sceptical about this. We could be observing nothing more than another short term spike in activity. But, for the moment, the newsflow is clearly improving in a manner that has not hitherto been seen during the faltering “recovery” from the Great Financial Crash. (Full details of the monthly nowcasts can be found here.) Read more

Perhaps the most important among all the many uncertainties surrounding the economic policy of the Trump administration are those related to trade and protection. During the election campaign, the president-elect made blood-curdling promises in this area, and his official campaign documentation was no less strident. If he intends to implement a large part of this agenda in office, the chances of a global trade war would be high.

Last week, trade issues moved to centre stage in the transition. The president-elect released a video confirming that America would immediately withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal that had been intended to be the culmination of President Barack Obama’s political and economic pivot towards Asia.

This was no surprise, since the political supporters of the deal ran for cover during the 2016 elections, but it does mean that any further liberalisation of US trade (including the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the EU) is now dead in the water.

It also provides China with a clear opportunity to take the lead in forming an Asian trading bloc, and they have eagerly stepped up to the plate. None of this will have immediate adverse consequences for global markets. It is an opportunity missed rather than a step backwards.

The second big development is the rumoured appointment of Wilbur Ross as commerce secretary (see Gillian Tett). Mr Ross is a business person rather than an ideologue on trade. If anything, he seems to be from the supply side wing of the Republican party. The market would vastly prefer this appointment to a feasible alternative such as Peter Navarro, who is an outright hawk on trade relations with China (and, somewhat ironically, the only PhD economist in Trump’s advisory team).

Although Mr Ross clearly believes that the US should be far more assertive in its trade negotiations with other countries, he has played down the likelihood of dramatic initiatives such as Mr Trump’s threat of a 45 per cent tariff on all imports from China. He has also said clearly that “there will be no trade wars”.

If this turns out to be the dominant tone of the Trump administration, then the tide of globalisation may not be rolled back very far in the next few years, and the global markets will breathe a huge sigh of relief. Read more