According to reports from Davos, the consensus among global economic leaders is that the most dangerous phase of the eurozone crisis may now be over. Mario Draghi has emerged as the hero of the hour. By using the central bank balance sheet aggressively to stem the credit crunch, the ECB President has dampened bankruptcy fears in the financial system, and talk of “another Lehman” has died down. But while market fear is on the wane, greed has not yet taken over, and that leaves much work for the central bank to do. Read more
Mount Fuji, Japan. AFP/Getty Images
Until recently, Keynes’ notion of a liquidity trap was of great interest to macro-economists, but was viewed by investors as a rare aberration which, outside Japan, could be safely ignored. In the aftermath of the 2008 credit crunch, all that has changed. Many developed economies seem to be falling into a liquidity trap, and may stay there for several years. What does this imply about asset returns? (This blog is a slightly longer version of an article which first appeared in the FT’s Market Insight column on 24 January, 2012.) Read more
Ben Bernanke has been very focused on the Fed’s “communications strategy” for several years now, and has patiently pushed the FOMC in his desired direction during a series of detailed discussions. Now it seems that he has reached his destination, and will reveal all (or almost all) in his press conference after the FOMC meeting which begins on Tuesday. Always a fan of explicit inflation targets, the chairman seems finally to have won agreement from colleagues on establishing a formal objective for core inflation of about 2 per cent, though the FOMC will also need to keep Congress happy by talking about its long term unemployment objectives as well. More unconventionally, each member of the FOMC will also publish for the first time their projections for the Fed funds rate extending to 2016.
What is the motivation behind these changes? Mr Bernanke has normally justified such steps in terms of stabilising expectations about the Fed’s genuine intentions, especially on inflation and the forward path for interest rates. At a time when the extension of the balance sheet is causing political difficulties for the Fed, and when inflation expectations could become unhinged by the rapid expansion of the monetary base, the chairman is looking for alternative ways of easing monetary conditions without printing more money. Modern macro-economics suggests that operating on expectations is one of the most powerful tools available to him, though he is using it much more cautiously than many economists would like to see. Read more
In 1951, an epic struggle between a US president who stood on the verge of a nuclear war, and a central bank that was seeking to establish its right to set an independent monetary policy, resulted in an improbable victory for the central bank. President Harry Truman, at war in Korea, failed in a brutal attempt to force the Federal Reserve to maintain a 2.5 per cent limit on treasury yields, thus implicitly financing the war effort through monetisation. This victory over fiscal dominance is often seen as the moment when the modern, independent Fed came into existence.
The idea that the central bank should place a cap on the level of bond yields is firmly back on the agenda, at least in the eurozone. This week, Italian prime minister Mario Monti said that he was increasingly optimistic that his country’s bond yields might soon be capped. Although he stopped short of saying that this would be done by the European Central Bank, there really are no other viable candidates to achieve this. Furthermore, many economists are arguing that this is the right policy, since Italy is now following a sustainable budgetary policy which deserves to be rewarded by ECB action in the bond market. Read more
Last week, in the first of a series of blogs on the use of the central bank printing press, I argued that the deliberate decision to increase the monetary base several fold in the US, the eurozone and the UK is an almost unprecedented event in the history of economic policy. Only in Japan, in the early 2000s, has anything like this been seen before.
In this blog, the second in the series, I ask whether this remarkable injection in central bank liquidity is destined to result in rising global inflation in coming years. Read more
One of the great constants in the world economy in the past few decades has been the consistently strong growth in the US labour force. This has given American economic performance a demographic head start compared with other developed countries. Not only has it been the main factor ensuring that US GDP growth has remained well above that in Europe, it has also injected flexibility and dynamism into the US economy. But all of that is now at risk. The US labour force suddenly stopped growing in 2008, and has been falling slightly ever since.
As a result of this sudden disappearance of growth in the labour force, the unemployment rate has fallen by 1.5 percentage points in the past two years. But it is doubtful whether this represents a genuine tightening in the labour market. More likely, the underlying growth in the labour force has been disguised by the fact that potential workers have been discouraged from remaining in the labour market by the shortage of job opportunities. Without this shrinkage in the labour force, the unemployment rate would have risen to more than 11 per cent by now. It is urgent to fix this problem before the labour market atrophies, as it did in Europe in the 1980s. Read more
In economic policy nowadays, the unthinkable suddenly becomes the inevitable, without pausing for long in the realm of the improbable. (See this piece in The Economist.) Nowhere has this been more true than in central banking, where the recent huge expansion in the size of balance sheets would have seemed inconceivable as recently as 4 years ago.
Markets have not only accepted this use of the printing press with equanimity, they have become increasingly dependent upon it. Most economists are also very relaxed about it, frequently describing it either as inconsequential, or even as entirely irrelevant. But how can a policy intervention which has underwritten the liquidity of the entire western banking system be described as irrelevant?
I do not share the alarmist view that an explosion in central bank liabilities must inevitably lead to higher inflation. That basic monetarist link has already been shown to be invalid, at least over short periods, and at least when a liquidity trap is in operation. However, the recent use of central bank balance sheets has been so unusual and potentially so profound that the underlying economics deserves much more careful examination than it has been receiving lately. I intend to do this in a series of blogs in coming weeks. In this, the first in the series, I will ask how we reached the current predicament. Read more
In the second half of 2011, the US economy appeared to buck the impact of the eurozone crisis, with American economic data surprising on the strong side in the final quarter of the year. But, as the new year begins, it seems improbable that economic activity in the US and the eurozone can remain so divergent for much longer.
Will the weakness in the eurozone eventually bring the US economy to its knees? Or will the greater resilience of the US win the day? The answer to these questions will determine whether the global economy will experience a double-dip recession in 2012.
The data released over the holiday period seem to be pointing in a more optimistic direction than markets have recognised. A year of above-trend growth certainly looks like a stretch in the present environment of fiscal tightening and global deleveraging. But the risks of a global double-dip recession appear to be receding, at least for now. Read more