Monthly Archives: June 2013

Mark Carney will stride into Threadneedle Street on Monday morning, the most powerful governor of the Bank of England since 1945. His responsibilities will include unprecedented regulatory and prudential authority over a global financial centre, and in his spare time he will be expected to set monetary policy for a medium sized developed economy that has gone badly off the rails. He will be the master of all he surveys.

Or not quite. One area where his authority is far from absolute is in his chairmanship of the Monetary Policy Committee. There, he has only one vote out of nine and, as the outgoing Sir Mervyn King has discovered, the other MPC members often act very independently of their leader. The system was established in 1997 with exactly that objective in mind, and it has never been changed.

This is why the markets are very uncertain what to expect from the new governor. Will he introduce a regime change, designed to transform economic expectations throughout the economy, as governor Kuroda has done in Japan? Or will he choose a less radical route, building a consensus on the MPC for a series of smaller steps over a period of months or years? 

The declines in the prices of bonds and many risk assets since the Fed’s policy announcements last week have followed a sharp rise in the market’s expected path for US short rates in 2014 and 2015. This seems to have come as surprise to some Fed officials, who thought that their decision to taper the speed of balance sheet expansion in the next 12 months, subject to certain economic conditions, would be seen as entirely separate from their thinking on the path for short rates. Events in the past week have shown that this separation between the balance sheet and short rates has not yet been accepted by the markets.

The FOMC under Chairman Bernanke has worked very hard on its forward policy guidance, so there is probably some frustration that the markets have “misunderstood” the Fed’s intentions. Richard Fisher, the President of the Dallas Fed, said that “big money does organise itself somewhat like feral hogs”, suggesting that markets were deliberately trying to “break the Fed” by creating enough market turbulence to force the FOMC to continue its asset purchases.

This is dubious logic. Investors who dumped bonds after the FOMC meeting would make money if bond prices fell further. They therefore presumably want the Fed to tighten policy, which is the opposite of what Mr Fisher indicates. Nor is it right to suggest that big money “organises itself” at all; investors act in competition with each other, not in collusion.

Nevertheless, it is possible for market prices to become misaligned with the Fed’s intentions on monetary policy, and that may well have happened in the past few days. The key questions are why has it happened, and what can the Fed do about it? 

On Wednesday, the chairman of the Federal Reserve announced that the greatest experiment in the history of central banking might be nearing its end. Ben Bernanke’s announcement included many caveats, but the financial markets did not miss the message. Since 2009, the central bank has been buying financial assets – US Treasury bonds and some types of corporate debt – paid for by an expansion of the monetary base (so-called “printing money”). This kept interest rates low, which damaged savers but helped indebted businesses and households. It has also been the major prop for financial markets. Within about a year, if the Fed’s plans come to fruition, the US government deficit will need to be financed from private sector savings – not by the central bank. Asset markets will be left to fend for themselves as the biggest buyer withdraws from the arena.

That is why some hedge funds sold off bonds this week, causing a big drop in their prices – the flipside of which is a rise in borrowing costs (or “yields”). Mr Bernanke has expressed consternation that adjustments to the path for the Fed’s balance sheet, such as the one he announced this week, can have such a profound effect on the bond market. But investors are making logical inferences from central bank behaviour. The Fed does not change direction often. When it does, tightening often comes in a rapid series of interest rate rises that are not fully anticipated by investors. 

Ben Bernanke’s timetable for tapering quantitative easing has prompted a sell-off in markets. Gavyn Davies, Fulcrum Asset Management chairman, discusses with Long View columnist John Authers whether this was the Federal Reserve chairman’s intention

When we look back on the FOMC meeting on June 19 2013, it will probably be seen as the moment when the Fed signalled that it was beginning the long and gradual exit from its programme of unconventional monetary easing. The reason for this was clear in the committee’s statement, which said that the downside risks to economic activity had diminished since last autumn, presumably because the US economy had navigated the fiscal tightening better than expected and the risks surrounding the euro had abated.

This was the smoking gun in the statement. With downside risks declining, the need for an emergency programme of monetary easing was no longer so compelling. The Fed has been the unequivocal friend of the markets for much of the time since 2009, and certainly ever since last September. That comfortable assumption no longer applies.

Fed chairman Ben Bernanke, however, went to great lengths to mitigate the hawkish overtones of this message in several respects. The asset purchase programme would be ended only when the US unemployment rate has fallen to 7 per cent, which the central bank expects to happen by mid-2014, he said. In the meantime, the pace of asset purchases could be increased as well as reduced, depending on the incoming economic data. 

Central bankers nowadays have the power to move the global markets by uttering nothing more than a brief, off-the-cuff remark. “Whatever it takes,” was Mario Draghi‘s version, which saved the euro last year. “In the next few meetings,” was Ben Bernanke’s equivalent last month. There will be rapt attention turned on the Fed chairman’s press conference on Wednesday to see whether he retracts that remark, which of course relates to the time when the Fed might start to slow the pace of its asset purchases.

Mr Bernanke does not carelessly throw out such remarks, so it would surely be incoherent for him to withdraw it completely this week. The Fed is unlikely to have been particularly troubled by the bout of market volatility seen lately. Much of it has come in foreign markets, which are not the Fed’s responsibility. Meanwhile, in the US itself, the reversal of the “reach for yield” is precisely what the Fed has been wanting to see for several months.

The killer phrase “in the next few meetings” is therefore likely to remain on the table after the press conference on Wednesday. However, the Fed chairman will hammer home exactly what he means by this message, since there are signs that it has been misunderstood by investors. In particular, the US Treasury market is sending some messages which should worry the Fed. 

Global equities have, so far, survived the bout of global deleveraging which followed Ben Bernanke’s remarks about slowing the pace of QE last month, though there have been nasty signs of volatility in Japanese and some emerging markets. Investors have, unsurprisingly, become temporarily obsessed by whether the Fed will taper its asset purchases in September or December. However, in the great scheme of asset valuation, this is nothing more than a passing detail. In the longer term, what matters is real factors, like the forward path for corporate earnings, and the interest rate at which they should be discounted.

The appropriate discount rate is the risk-free (real) bond yield plus the equity risk premium (ERP). The Fed acts on the former, while the market determines the latter. In recent years, the Fed has reduced the bond yield but the market has, simultaneously, required a higher ERP, so the overall discount rate on equities has remained broadly unchanged. As I have argued before, any rise in the bond yield as QE ends may be offset by a fall in the ERP, leaving the valuation of equities protected as bond returns become negative. We have seen a minuscule version of this playing out in recent weeks, for what it is worth.

This, however, does not necessarily mean that equities are fairly valued. A common concern among investors is that the profit share in the US economy is currently abnormally high, which is one reason why US equities have performed so well since 2009. It is frequently argued that the profit share must eventually “mean revert”, and when that happens the market will have to revise downwards its estimates of the sustainable path for corporate earnings. Equities will tumble, not because of a hostile Fed, but because the fundamental earning capacity of corporate America will be found wanting.

This, however, seems to underplay the persistence and global breadth of the rise in the profit share, and the accompanying decline in the wage share, in the last three decades. It is far from clear why this trend should “mean revert” in the foreseeable future. 

The ECB decided yesterday against “going negative” by reducing its deposit rate from zero to -0.25 per cent. The Governing Council again debated the pros and cons of such a measure, which would represent the first time that any of the major four central banks would ever have reduced a key policy rate to below zero [1]. Mr Draghi said again that the ECB was “technically ready” to take this action, and that the option remains “on the shelf”.

Many in the markets believe that this is just a bluff to prevent the euro from rising in the foreign exchange markets. There have been several unsupportive comments from leading members of the Governing Council (Asmussen, Mersch, Noyer and Nowotny) and Mr Draghi admitted that disagreements exist in the Council. Nevertheless, the President has deliberately left the option on the table, so it is important to understand the debate.

The technical aspects of negative rates have been very well covered in FT Alphaville recently, but I would like to focus on the broader policy implications. Why would a central bank want to take this action, and could it back-fire on them? 

Since 2007, the world economy has lain in the shadow of huge financial crises. Crisis engulfed the US, the UK and other western high-income economies in 2007 and 2008. From 2010, it engulfed the eurozone. Japan never fully recovered from its crisis of the 1990s. Meanwhile, emerging countries have continued to grow robustly, though concerns have grown about these countries too, not least over the ability of China to manage a transition to slower and more consumption-led growth.

So how do Gavyn Davies of Fulcrum Asset Management and Huw Pill, chief European economist of Goldman Sachs see the economic future? What might it mean for the luxury industry?

 

The month just ended was the fourth worst month for government bond returns in the past two decades. This abrupt response to Ben Bernanke’s warning that the Fed might think about tapering QE at some point in the next few meetings has naturally raised fears that the great bull market in fixed income, which started in 1982, might now be threatened by a sharp reversal.

Some analysts regard this as the inevitable bursting of a bubble which has been created by the actions of the central banks (see this earlier blog). Others, like Jim O’Neill, regard the rise in bond yields as the start of a return to economic normality, and argue that would be a very good thing as long as it occurs in an environment of recovering economic confidence. Paul Krugman also points out that the pattern of behaviour in the major markets – bonds down, dollar up and equities up – is consistent with greater optimism about the US economy, rather than worries about the Fed or the onset of a debt crisis.