Central Banks

Maurice Obstfeld, the Research Director at the IMF, said last week at the IMF/World Bank Annual Meetings in Washington that global growth “remains weak”, but is “moving sideways”. That is an accurate description of the current situation compared to previous decades, according to the latest results from the Fulcrum nowcasts of global activity.

However, compared to the more recent past, a better assessment would be “solid at the trend growth rate”. Although that trend growth rate is disappointingly low, it is no longer falling (according to the models), and the actual growth rate is no longer below trend, so the global margin of spare resources in no longer increasing. Read more

Fiscal policy activism is firmly back on the agenda. After several years of deliberate fiscal austerity, designed to bring down budget deficits and stabilise public debt ratios, the fiscal stance in the developed economies became broadly neutral in 2015. There are now signs that it is turning slightly expansionary, with several major governments apparently heeding the calls from Keynesian economists to boost infrastructure expenditure.

This seems an obvious path at a time when governments can finance public investment programmes at less than zero real rates of interest. Even those who believe that government programmes tend to be inefficient and wasteful would have a hard time arguing that the real returns on public transport, housing, health and education are actually negative [1].

With monetary policy apparently reaching its limits in some countries, and deflationary threats still not defeated in Japan and the Eurozone, we are beginning to see the emergence of packages of fiscal stimulus with supply side characteristics, notably in Japan and China.

Investors are asking whether this pivot towards fiscal activism is a reason to become more bullish about equities and more bearish about bonds, on the grounds that the new policy mix will be better for global GDP growth. This is directionally right, but it is important not to exaggerate the extent of the pivot. Read more

Since mid-February, the financial markets have become much less concerned about a hard landing in global economic activity, or at least about a potential clash between slowing economic activity and inappropriately tight macroeconomic policy from China and the US Federal Reserve. Financial conditions indicators have eased in the big economies, and this has been accompanied by a partial recovery in business surveys in many parts of the world.

In the last edition of our monthly report card on Fulcrum’s global nowcasts, we commented that economic activity had turned a corner in the US and China, but this was offset by continued weakness in several key economies, including Japan and the UK. A similar pattern is apparent in this month’s nowcasts. Global recession risks, which seemed elevated in January and February, have now receded, but the world economy is far from robust.

We therefore leave the overall verdict unchanged from last month: global activity growth is somewhat better, especially in the emerging economies, but it is still a long way from being satisfactory. (Full details of the latest nowcasts are shown here.)

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Foreign exchange traders are buzzing with talk of a new “Plaza Accord”, following the marked change in the behaviour of the major currencies after the Shanghai G20 meetings in late February.

Since then, the dollar has weakened, just as it did after the Plaza meetings on 22 September 1985. The Chinese renminbi has been falling against its basket, in direct contrast with the “stable basket” exchange rate policy that was publicly emphasised by PBOC Governor Zhou just before Shanghai. The euro and, especially, the yen have strengthened, in defiance of monetary policy easing by the ECB and the Bank of Japan.

Following Shanghai, the markets have become loathe to push the dollar higher, believing that the G20 may now have come to a co-ordinated agreement, as they did at the Plaza, to reverse the direction of the US currency. Does this comparison make any economic sense?

The Shanghai communique did place increased emphasis on an agreement among the major economies to avoid “competitive devaluations”. The main suspects here were Japan, the Eurozone and (sometimes) China, all of whom have good reasons to push their currencies down. The fact that the communique eschewed this course of action is therefore a reason to believe that the dollar might be subjected to less upward pressure. But that does not make it a new Plaza. Read more

Financial asset prices have been on a roller coaster in 2016. In mid-February, gloom was pervasive and global equities were down about 10 per cent year to date. Then came a sudden rally, wiping out all of the losses in the US equity market, but not in the eurozone market, and especially not in the Japanese market, which fell further.

What happened to generate this abrupt change of direction in February, and what does this tell us about the future? Read more

As Paul Krugman pointed out a year ago, a sharp difference of views about US monetary policy has developed between two camps of Keynesians who normally agree about almost everything.

What makes this interesting is that, in this division of opinion, the fault line often seems to be determined by the professional location of the economists concerned. Those outside the Federal Reserve (eg Lawrence Summers, Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong) tend to adopt a strongly dovish view, while those inside the central bank (eg Janet Yellen, Stanley Fischer, William Dudley, John Williams) have lately taken a more hawkish line about the need to “normalise” the level of interest rates [1].

My colleague David Blake suggested that this blog should carry a Galilean “Dialogue” between representatives of the two camps. Galileo is unavailable this week, but here goes. Read more

Janet Yellen

Janet Yellen, Fed chair  © Getty Images

This week has seen speculation about a mutiny from two members of the Federal Reserve’s board of governors against the leadership of Janet Yellen and Stanley Fischer, both of whom continue to say that they “expect” US rates to rise before the end of the year. Although “mutiny” is a strong term to describe differences of opinion in the contemplative corridors of the Fed, there is little doubt that the institution is now seriously split on the direction of monetary policy.

Furthermore, these splits could extend well beyond the date of the first rate hike to the entire path for rates in the next few years. Ms Yellen faces an unenviable task in finding a compromise path that both sides of the Federal Open Market Committee can support. Read more

In the aftermath of the supposedly “weak” US employment data published last week, investors seem to have shifted their assessment of the likelihood of the US Federal Reserve tightening interest rates by December — and also of the extent of tightening in the next two years.

Since the data were published, several investment banks’ economics teams have ruled out a December rise. Furthermore, equities have been strong; and the bond market’s implied probability of a 25 basis points rise in the federal funds rate by December has fallen from 76 per cent in mid-September to only about 40 per cent.

Nor is this seen as a minor postponement in the first rate rise. The expected federal funds rate at the end of 2016 implies only two Fed rate hikes in total over that entire period. Clearly, investors increasingly believe that the US economy is now slowing enough to throw the Fed off course.

This big change in market opinion is, frankly, surprising. The rise of 142,000 in non-farm payrolls in September was not all that weak, given the normal random fluctuations in the monthly data. And as John Williams, president of the San Francisco Fed, has pointed out, a slowdown to a monthly rate of increase of under 200,000 was long overdue anyway. Rightly or wrongly, there is little indication so far that important Federal Open Market Committee members share the market’s increased post-jobs-data dovishness.

The crucial question is how much growth in the US has slowed since the middle of the year, and whether this will continue. This is the kind of question that economic “nowcasts” are best suited to answer, so let us examine the recent evidence. Read more

The deleveraging of the Chinese economy has always seemed likely to be a long and troublesome saga, lasting many years or even decades if it is to prove successful. The latest episode involves a sudden collapse in domestic “A” shares, which have dropped by 19 per cent in less than a fortnight, and have triggered what has been widely described as an “emergency” easing in monetary policy this weekend. Read more

Lord Jim O’Neill, formerly my colleague and chief economist at Goldman Sachs, has just delivered his maiden speech as the new commercial secretary at the UK Treasury. He said that one of the government’s “primary objectives is to deliver a step change in the nation’s productivity”. Even for him, this represents a tough challenge. After featuring barely at all in the recent election campaign, low productivity growth has rightly become public enemy No 1.

Falling productivity growth has been an increasingly serious problem for most advanced economies since the early 2000s, when the boost from IT seems to have run out of steam. But the problem has been particularly severe since the 2008 financial crash, and the collapse in the UK since then has been much greater than in other advanced economies.

Overall, UK productivity had fallen about 16 percentage points below its previous trends by 2014, about a quarter of which might be due to faulty measurement in the official data. If the UK government is to make any inroads into the problem, it first needs to solve the “puzzle” of why the rest of this huge shortfall has occurred. Read more

Ever since the crash in 2008, the central banks in the advanced economies have had but one obsession — how to set monetary policy to ensure the maximum growth rate in aggregate demand. Interest rates at the zero lower bound, followed by a massive increase in their balance sheets, was the answer they conjured up.

Now, those central banks contemplating an exit from these policies, primarily the US Federal Reserve and the Bank of England, are turning their attention to the supply side of their economies. When, they are asking, will output reach the ceiling imposed by the supply potential of the economy?

The Bank of England has been in the lead here, with the Monetary Policy Committee recently conducting a special study of the supply side in the UK. Its conclusion was that gross domestic product is now only 0.5 per cent below potential, which implies that tighter monetary policy will soon be needed if GDP growth remains above potential for much longer.

In the US, the Fed has been much less specific than that, but the unemployment rate has now fallen very close to its estimate of the natural rate (5.0-5.2 per cent). Sven Jari Stehn of Goldman Sachs has used the Fed staffers’ supply side models to calculate that their implied estimate of the US output gap may be only 0.6 per cent, not far from the UK figure.

If the UK and US central banks were to act on these calculations, the implication would be that they no longer hold out much hope that they can ever regain the loss in potential output that has occurred in the past decade, relative to previous trends. That would be a massive admission, with an enormous implied sacrifice in future output levels if they are wrong. It would also be very worrying for financial assets, since it would draw the market’s attention to a downgrade in the Fed’s estimation of the long-run path for GDP. Read more

Downturn In Oil Prices Rattles Texas Oil Economy

  © Getty Images

Ever since the collapse in oil prices started last summer, the behaviour of the global economy and financial markets has been heavily affected by the consequences of lower energy prices. Now, however, there is gathering evidence that the primary effects of the oil shock have been absorbed into the system, and there are signs that other forces are beginning to take control. What are these forces, and how will they affect the global economy in the months ahead?

When the oil shock reached its maximum early in 2015, economists were largely agreed on its likely impact. Since it seemed to stem mainly from the supply side of the oil market, not the demand side (a fact corroborated by IMF research last week), it was thought likely to boost real global GDP growth this year by about 0.5-0.75 per cent, leading to a break-out in global growth to the upside. It also had a dark side, increasing the deflation threat in the eurozone and Japan, but this was likely to be offset by further aggressive monetary easing by their respective central banks. Read more

Yellen Discusses Monetary Policy At Federal Reserve Bank In San Francisco

  © Getty Images

Now that the Federal Reserve has announced that its policy stance after June will be entirely “data determined”, the markets are watching the flow of information on US economic activity even more carefully than usual. Since 2010, there has been a recurring pattern in US GDP projections. They start optimistically, but are then progressively downgraded as the economic data come in.

Entering 2015, I was fairly confident that this depressing pattern would finally be overcome, but not so far. In the last few weeks, there has been a sharp downward adjustment to GDP growth estimates for the first quarter, and this has added to the market’s scepticism about whether the Fed will be ready to announce lift off for interest rates this summer. Read more

When the Federal Open Market Committee meets on March 17-18, it will be able to drop the word “patient” from its statement without shocking the markets. After some confusion, the Fed’s intentions on the date of lift off now seem fairly priced, with Fed funds rate contracts showing a probability of more than 50 per cent that the first move will come in June. The behaviour of the dollar, and of core inflation, are likely to determine whether June or September is eventually chosen for lift off.

Once that is out of the way, the markets will turn their attention to a much harder question: how rapidly will rates rise after lift off? The market currently expects a much more gradual path than the median shown in the FOMC’s “dot” chart, but there is huge uncertainty about this question on the committee. As the graph above shows, the interest rate forecasts for individual members of the FOMC, which will be updated on Wednesday, have a very wide range.

According to Fed vice-chairman Stanley Fischer, the rationale for rate rises is that the Fed wants to embark on a process of “normalisation”, and he is adamant that today’s rates are “far from normal”. That, of course, raises the question: how should we define normal? On this, the leadership group on the FOMC is not offering much guidance, but a common way of answering the question among macro economists is to consult the Taylor rule. Read more

At the National People’s Congress in Beijing on Thursday, Premier Li set a target of about 7 per cent for GDP growth in 2015, and around 3 per cent for inflation. At present, both targets look hard to attain, especially on inflation. Economic reform remains paramount for the government, but China’s premier made clear that this could only succeed in the context of adequate growth. This will probably necessitate a progressive easing in fiscal, monetary and exchange rate policy – something that is already under way.

The Chinese renminbi’s exchange rate has weakened noticeably against the dollar in the past few weeks, raising concern that Beijing is joining the “currency wars” that are (allegedly) being waged by other major nations.

A big change in China’s exchange rate strategy would certainly be something to worry about. Not only would it mean that the deflationary forces evident in the country’s manufacturing sector would be exported to the rest of the world, it would also disrupt the uneasy truce on trade and exchange rate policy that has emerged between the US and China since mid-2014.

Fortunately, on the evidence available to date, it seems that China has changed its currency strategy in a relatively limited way, and in a manner that is difficult to criticise in view of exchange rate turbulence elsewhere in the world. Read more

When Federal Reserve chairwoman Janet Yellen gives evidence to the Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday, she has an opportunity to speak above the heads of the financial markets to Congress and the American people. There is pressure in the Senate to bring the Fed under Congressional “audit”, something that almost everyone in the central bank abhors. So Ms Yellen’s main message is likely to be about how well the Fed has done in recent years, focusing on the generally good out-turns for unemployment and inflation. Read more

The giant Euro symbol stands illuminated outside the headquarters of the European Central Bank (ECB) on November 5, 2012 in Frankfurt, Germany (Photo by Hannelore Foerster/Getty Images)

  © Hannelore Foerster/Getty Images

The markets are waking up to the fact that the euro area faces a critical few weeks in which its economic path for 2015, and maybe for much longer, will be largely determined. Three inextricably linked events will dominate the economic landscape in January: the preliminary opinion of the Advocate General of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) on the legality of central bank bond purchases, due on January 14; the decision of the European Central Bank’s governing council on the size and type of “sovereign” quantitative easing (QE), due on January 22; and the Greek election on January 25.

At the optimistic end of the spectrum, the euro area might emerge with a more complete monetary framework that for the first time enables it to pursue monetary policy effectively at the zero lower bound for interest rates, and with the sanctity of the currency area reinforced. At the pessimistic end, the ECB could become shackled with an ineffective version of QE just when the euro area is officially entering outright deflation, and the single currency itself might become incompatible with political realities in Greece.

The outcome will also have much wider global implications. The markets have remained relatively relaxed about the likely exit of the Federal Reserve from its own zero interest rate policy in 2015, but only because the ECB and Bank of Japan are injecting more monetary stimulus. If large scale ECB action is removed from this equation, sentiment on global risk assets may darken considerably. Read more

The FT’s Martin Wolf has said almost everything that needs to be said about the global economic effects of the 2014 oil shock, but one additional point is worth emphasising. This is the fact that the US Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank view the consequences of the oil shock entirely differently. The markets have, of course, already been acting on this assumption, but the extent of the gulf between the world’s two leading central banks on this issue has been underlined by Mario Draghi’s dovish speech last month, and particularly by the Fed vice-chairman Stanley Fischer in a somewhat hawkish interview with The Wall Street Journal.

In perhaps his most significant statement since becoming vice-chairman in May, Mr Fischer made it clear that the period of low inflation due to falling oil prices will not deter the Fed from starting to raise interest rates next year. Furthermore, he suggested that the Fed might soon drop the assurance that it would not raise rates for a “considerable time”, replacing it with alternative language that is less constraining on its future actions.

It now seems likely that this language change could happen at the next Federal Open Market Committee meeting on December 16 and 17. By contrast, Mr Draghi and his supporters at the ECB clearly view the oil shock as a reason to shift policy in a more expansionary direction – if not at Thursday’s policy meeting, then sometime fairly soon. Read more

The simmering row between the European Central Bank president Mario Draghi and the German Bundesbank president Jens Weidmann is sometimes painted in personal terms, but in fact it epitomises a wider difference between the hawks and the doves on the ECB governing council. It is important to understand the anatomy of this dispute as the central bank prepares for its next critical meeting on December 4.

The dispute is fundamental and longstanding. Mr Draghi has adopted the New Keynesian approach that dominates US academia and central banking. There is really no difference between the philosophy that underpins his latest speech and that of Ben Bernanke, vintage 2011-13. In contrast, recent remarks by representative hawks such as Mr Weidmann and ECB executive board member Yves Mersch stem directly from the Austrian school of European economics. It is no wonder that these differences are so difficult to bridge. Read more

The examination is over. For more than a year the European Central Bank has been shining a light on the books of the eurozone’s banks; this weekend it reported its conclusions.

The balance sheets of 25 institutions were found wanting; the ECB concluded that they need an extra €25bn between them to be able to withstand a nasty economic surprise. Two crucial questions remain. Has enough at last been done to fix the European banking system? And will this on its own be enough to ward off the threat of deflation that is hanging over the eurozone? Read more