Monthly Archives: May 2013

Fiscal austerity, a concept which German Chancellor Merkel says meant nothing to her before the crisis, may have passed its heyday in the eurozone. This week, the European Commission has published its country-specific recommendations, containing fiscal plans for member states that are subject to excessive deficit procedures. These plans, which will form the basis for political discussion at the next Summit on 27-28 June, allow for greater flexibility in reaching budget targets for several countries, including France, Spain, the Netherlands and Portugal.

Furthermore, there have been rumblings in the German press suggesting that Berlin is beginning to recognise that fiscal consolidation without economic growth could prove to be a Pyrrhic victory. If true, this could mark the beginning of a new approach in the eurozone, helping the weakest region in the global economy to recover from a recession that has already dragged on far too long. So how real is the prospect of change? Read more

Last week’s market reaction to Fed Chairman Bernanke’s suggestion that the FOMC might begin to taper back QE “within a few meetings” represented a trial run for what might happen when central bankers really do remove the punch bowl at some point in the future. The largest reaction came in the most leveraged markets (notably the Nikkei, which fell by 6.5 per cent), but there were simultaneous across-the-board declines in global bonds and equities.

When the Fed ended QE1 and QE2, there were declines in the S&P 500 index of 15 per cent and 23 per cent respectively. These events, however, proved to be only minor fluctuations in the great bull market, which quickly resumed when the central banks announced new asset purchases.

Many analysts [1] believe that QE has caused a major bubble to appear in asset prices, the full extent of which will be unveiled only when the central banks start to shrink their balance sheets. Others reply that the rise in both bond and equity prices has been justified by economic fundamentals.

This is probably the most important debate in the financial markets today, with enormous ramifications for both policy makers and investors. Bubbles are notoriously difficult to identify in real time, and it is wise not to be too dogmatic about this. However, I would like to comment on three elements of the debate. Read more

The volatility in financial markets since Mr Bernanke gave evidence to Congress yesterday is a not-so-gentle reminder of what might happen when the Fed eventually begins to withdraw monetary accommodation. The Chairman’s warning that the FOMC might reduce the pace of its asset purchases “in the next few meetings” has clearly spooked the markets, especially those (like Japanese equities) where bullish positions had become very crowded.

The Fed’s main message at present is that it will “increase or reduce the pace of its asset purchases…as the outlook for the labor market or inflation changes”. This seems deliberately designed to inject some uncertainty into market psychology, and thereby prevent an excessive risk taking. Mr Bernanke said that he takes the risk to financial stability “very seriously”.

But the overall tone of the Chairman’s written evidence yesterday strongly suggested that the Fed is still a long way from contemplating any significant change in monetary policy. After all, tapering QE would only imply that the pace at which policy is being eased is being reduced. An outright tightening of policy still seems to be several years away. Read more

After more than 20 years, and 82 issues, Sir Mervyn King has delivered his last Inflation Report. The transparency and rationality of this innovation has been one of Britain’s most important gifts to the world in recent times, even if the UK has not actually been very good at controlling inflation itself since 2008. As its main architect and, in his own words, the UK’s “consistent monetary referee”, Sir Mervyn deserves great credit. I hope that, in retirement, he will receive it.

The economic message of today’s report is a familiar one. Inflation has been revised down so that it is shown to hit the 2 per cent target in two years’ time, and real GDP is forecast to recover gradually. Similar forecasts have proven too optimistic in the past, but this time there are clear indications that the Bank will be introducing new forms of policy easing in the next few months, which may underpin the economic recovery.

Following the astonishing arrival of Governor Kuroda in Japan, Mr Carney must be sorely tempted to follow suit in trying to jolt UK economic expectations towards a new equilibrium. He is likely to get plenty of encouragement in this from the chancellor, who emphasised in the Budget that “monetary activism” is a core part of his overall economic strategy.

In fact, Mr Osborne has asked the Bank to focus in the August Inflation Report on how the UK might adopt forward policy guidance, with thresholds, following the example of what the Fed did (successfully) last December. This is an unusually specific request from the Treasury, and even Sir Mervyn seemed sympathetic to this approach today.

In the context of high British inflation, there are serious impediments to repeating the fireworks unleashed by the BoJ, but some progress can be made, Fed-style. What exactly can we expect? Read more

The Federal Reserve will be at the centre of market attention this week with a collection of FOMC speeches, culminating with Chairman Bernanke on “economic prospects for the long run” next Saturday. The Chairman made headlines on Friday when he said that the Fed is now watching “particularly closely” for instances of “reaching for yield” and other forms of excessive risk taking, but there was no smoking gun suggesting that this enhanced monitoring by the Fed would lead to any early amendment to the pace of asset purchases or the level of interest rates. Regulatory controls look much more likely.

On the wider issue of general monetary policy, the behaviour of inflation and unemployment remain the key drivers, and here the Fed has a headache. Its forward guidance on unemployment is in danger of giving misleading signals about the need for tightening, and it probably needs to be changed. Read more

Martin Wolf’s column on Wednesday and his subsequent blogpost have once again focused attention on the importance of trade flows in the eurozone. Martin’s argument is that the German strategy of fiscal austerity and internal reform to fix the imbalances needs to change. I would like to ask a different question, which is what happens in the likely event that it does not change?

Investors, ever more optimistic that the worst of the euro crisis is over, are asking whether the German strategy might actually work. Largely unnoticed by some, eurozone trade imbalances have in fact improved dramatically in recent years. But this has happened mainly for the wrong reasons, ie recession in the south rather than any large narrowing in the competitiveness gap. The eurozone is engaged in a race between the gradual pace of internal devaluation and the mercurial nature of democratic politics. It is still not obvious how this race will end.

When the euro was launched in 1999, its supporters believed that the balance of payments crises which had plagued its weaker members for decades would become a relic of the past. The crisis revealed this view to be entirely complacent. The current account imbalances which were generated by the peripheral economies during the boom of the 2000s soon became impossible to finance after the crash. It was only the growth of so-called “Target2″ imbalances on the ECB’s balance sheet which provided the official financing which held the system together. No Target2, no euro.

However, some of the contingent credits which the Bundesbank has acquired against the rest of the ECB in the course of this process might become worthless under certain break-up scenarios, and this has become a political hot potato inside Germany. The solution, many in Germany believe, is to foster an improvement in the balance of payments positions of the troubled economies so that no further rise in the Target2 imbalances will be needed. Read more

In the past few weeks, a puzzle has developed in the global financial markets. Equities, at least in the developed countries, have broken free of the constraints which normally bind them to fluctuations in the global economy. To misquote the old Heineken advert on British television, the central banks have refreshed the parts which other factors cannot reach. Inflection points in QE are all that seem to matter and there is barely an equity bear left in the investor community.

Of course, there are always a few exceptions which prove the rule. Albert Edwards, the markets’ favourite bear at Société Générale, wrote last week:

The intoxicating potency of QE has drugged investors into believing they must participate in this liquidity fuelled frenzy. I repeat my thoughts of 2007… this liquidity argument is merely “lies, rhubarb, poppycock, bilge and utter nonsense”…The unfolding recession accompanied by full-blown deflation will result in a loss of investor confidence so that central banks are unable to prevent a Japanese-style deflationary event. The equity market will riot, Japan-style.

Who knows, Albert’s bearishness may be justified in the very long run. But for now the bulls are in the ascendancy. The reach for yield is extending into the equity market, and it will probably continue to do so unless the latest mini downcycle in global activity develops into something more serious. Read more

Market expectations about Thursday’s ECB meeting had become quite bullish in the past couple of weeks (see this blog), and Mr Draghi went just far enough to justify those expectations by cutting the main repo rate by 0.25 per cent and the marginal lending rate by 0.5 per cent. This is a clever way of directing more help to those banks which need it most in the south.

Adding to his dovish tone, he talked about cutting deposit rates at the ECB into negative territory, as Denmark has already done (with moderate success), and he hinted that the ECB still has one further repo rate cut in the locker. At the less dovish end of the spectrum, he said that the ECB will not buy government bonds, which does not sound promising for Fed-style QE, should the eurozone economy continue to weaken. Read more

The recent rise in eurozone equities, along with a sharp further decline in peripheral bond spreads, has occurred in the face of continuing disappointing data on economic activity. Real GDP in the eurozone seems to be declining at a 2 per cent annualised rate in the current quarter, and the pivotal German economy is showing worrying signs of being dragged into the mire with the troubled south (see this earlier blog).

Markets are in one of those periods (which usually prove temporary) where they interpret bad economic news as being good news for asset prices, because weaker growth will result in easier policy from the central banks. In the eurozone, expectations are high that the European Central Bank will deliver lower interest rates on Thursday, and specific measures designed to address the provision of liquidity to small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in the south seem probable.

But a more radical easing in monetary conditions may prove necessary to drag the economy out of recession, and prevent inflation from falling further below the target, which is defined as “below but close to 2 per cent”. In March, the ECB staff forecast for inflation in 2014 was 0.6-2.0 per cent, which seems barely consistent with the mandate, especially as the recession shows no sign of ending and fiscal policy is still being tightened. Any other major central bank would be urgently reviewing its options for aggressive easing, and the markets could become very disillusioned if they sense that the ECB is unwilling to do the same.

So what, realistically, can the ECB do? The following table gives a fairly comprehensive list of the options which are definitely available within the mandate [A], those which might be available if the ECB chose to interpret its mandate more widely [B], and those which are clearly unavailable under any circumstances [C]:

 Read more