Central Banks

Janet Yellen is likely to be confirmed by the Senate as the next Fed Chair on Monday, and Ben Bernanke delivered an initial version of his own personal history in an address to the American Economic Association on Friday.

Typically objective and analytic, it won him a standing ovation (watch it here [1]) that accurately reflects what the majority of the academic economics profession thinks of the man and the public servant. Despite the highly controversial nature of his actions, they view him as one of their own. He has risen to greater importance in public office than any previous member of the academic economics profession, including John Maynard Keynes.

The history books will no doubt focus on the Fed’s role in the great upheavals of the age. The outline verdict is already clear for some of this.

The Fed clearly underestimated the impact of the housing bubble on the economy, and failed in its regulatory duties from 2006-08; its reaction to the financial panic in 2008-09 was exemplary; its role in cleaning up the US banking system in 2009 was important and far-sighted; and its balance sheet expansion from 2010-13 was more aggressive than most other central banks, with both good and also some not-so-good effects. (See this blog for a lengthy assessment of QE.)

According to the “great person” view of history, Mr Bernanke will be the individual who gets most of the blame and plaudits for all these developments. The buck stopped on his desk. Yet he was only one actor among dozens in Washington. As a believer in the “great events” view of history, I have been trying to identify the areas in which Ben Bernanke personally made a difference that others might not have made. Read more

As we enter 2014, the five-year bull market in developed market equities remains in full swing. Recently, I argued that equities now look overvalued, but not egregiously so, and that the future of the bull market could depend on when the level of global GDP started to bump up against supply side constraints, forcing a genuine tightening in global monetary conditions.

Today, this blog offers a year end assessment of three crucial issues that relate to this: the supply side in the US; China’s attempt to control its credit bubble; and the ECB’s belief that there is no deflation threat in the euro area. At least one of these questions is likely to be the defining macro issue of 2014 and beyond. Read more

In recent months, inflation has again reared its head as a problem in the developed economies. But this is not because it is too high. In most countries, headline CPI inflation has been falling significantly since the end of 2011, and it has now dropped to less than 1 per cent in both the US and the euro area.

Furthermore, the pervasive decline in headline inflation has been accompanied by a similar decline in core inflation rates, which are also hovering at worryingly low levels in most countries. In fact, out of the 25 developed economies that publish regular data on Haver Analytics, only Iceland is currently experiencing an inflation rate that could be considered markedly too high by any of these measures. Read more

Mark Carney’s announcements today about the UK housing market represent the first blast from a major country of a new policy weapon that is increasingly available to the global central banks, a weapon known as macro prudential regulation. Because this weapon is seen as an alternative to raising short rates, not as a prelude to raising them, the Carney intervention should logically under-pin the lower-for-longer path for short rates discussed in his evidence to the Treasury Select Committee earlier this week. Mr Carney has turned more hawkish today, but not more hawkish about interest rates or sterling.

The Carney announcement will represent an important restraint on the UK housing market, which was showing distinct signs of getting too ebullient in the south east of the country. By acting early, and using methods that are distinct from the short term interest rate, this action may well make the economic recovery in the UK more durable than otherwise, though it may slow down some parts of the consumer sector in the immediate future. Read more

The recent buoyancy in global equities has raised fears that the markets have entered a major bubble, driven by the unprecedented expansion in central bank balance sheets.

To the extent central bank asset purchases have reduced government bond yields, they have certainly brought forward returns from the future into the present, thus reducing expected returns on both equities and bonds. But this is normal in a period of monetary easing, and it does not automatically mean that markets are in a bubble. Read more

Last week, the Chinese authorities created a stir when they announced that they are initiating an urgent review of outstanding debt for all of the various levels of the public sector in China, right down to individual villages. This raised market concerns, because one interpretation of this action is that the authorities may not have a handle on the amount of publicly-guaranteed debt in the economy, particularly in the local government sector, where the growth of debt has recently been extraordinarily rapid.

The authorities do not appear to have decided when (or whether) the results of this survey will be announced and of course there will be the usual suspicions that the eventual numbers will be massaged for public view. Until recently, it had generally been assumed by China watchers that, while the growth in private and corporate credit was running dangerously ahead of GDP growth, there was a major silver lining in the healthy financial condition of the government sector. Read more

The financial shock which has recently hit the emerging markets stemmed in part from a period of severe stress in the Chinese money markets, which has now been brought under control. But the challenges facing China are chronic, not acute. And since the country is much more than “first among equals” in the Brics, a prolonged slowdown in its economy would keep all emerging market assets under pressure for a long while.

Although China is probably not facing anything as dramatic as a “Lehman” moment, it will need to spend several years tackling the combination of excess credit and over-investment that has followed the Rmb4tn ($652bn) stimulus package of 2008. Hailed at the time as a masterstroke, the package has caused a hangover that has now been implicitly acknowledged by the new administration under reformist Premier Li KeqiangRead more

For many years, one of the most enduring mantras of central banking was along the lines of “we never pre-commit to future actions, because all of the information we have about the state of the economy is already contained in the actions we have just announced”. Now that has been completely abandoned. With the ECB and the BoE changes announced today, the central banks are shouting from the rooftops that “we are all forward guiders now”.

In the old days, if the central banks wanted to ease or tighten policy, they just adjusted the size of the change in interest rates at any given meeting, and allowed their actions to speak for themselves. The forward path for short rates was generally very sensitive to any given change in the policy rate, so they did not have to worry too much about the impact of their policy on the yield curve. Read more

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. Read more

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? Read more

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. 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

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 IMF on Tuesday repeated its call for the ECB to reduce policy rates in the eurozone, and Mario Draghi came fairly close to promising action in May at his press conference after the governing council meeting on April 4. But no-one really believes that the expected 0.25 percentage point cut in the main refinancing rate will do very much to solve the eurozone’s most pressing problem, which is the lack of bank lending to small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in the troubled economies.

Monetary conditions in the eurozone are fragmented. Bank lending rates are, perversely, much higher in the weakest economies than they are in the core. Unless this is solved, the eurozone economy will remain in trouble.

In order to address this issue, the ECB needs to think in ways which are unconventional, and therefore unpalatable for many of the conservatives on the governing council. However, both Mario Draghi and his colleague Benoît Cœuré have recently hinted that they view measures to eliminate fragmented lending rates as essential to fulfil the mandate of the ECB. This is how they justified the introduction of the Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT) programme, which saved the euro last autumn.

They have also said that the power of the ECB in this area is limited, and have argued repeatedly that effective action will require co-operation from member governments and from the European Investment Bank (EIB). It is therefore probable that discussions are under way between the ECB and member states to decide what can be done. There are two options which could have significant beneficial effects. Read more

Kuroda gives first press conference as governor of BoJThe package of quantitative easing announced today by the new regime at the Bank of Japan is one of the largest monetary injections ever announced by the central bank of a major developed economy. The only rival for that crown is the emergency easing in monetary policy which took place in most economies in late 2008. But today’s BoJ action has not been driven by any short-term emergency. It represents a deliberate change in philosophy, and a complete abandonment of everything that the Bank of Japan has said about monetary policy in the past two decades. Those who believe in quantitative easing certainly have their experiment, writ large in Tokyo.

In effect the new governor, Haruhiko Kuroda, has imported into Japan the whole of the Federal Reserve’s post-Lehman balance sheet strategy, and he will implement it in under two years, instead of the five years or more taken by the Fed. The doubling in the Japanese monetary base over a period of 21 months is in itself remarkable. Taken together with the extension of the duration of bonds purchased from less than 3 years to an average of 7 years, the injection becomes of historic proportions.

The new strategy brings, for the first time, a real prospect of breaking the deflationary psyche which has plagued Japan for so long. But it also brings risks that the strategy might work too well, with inflation expectations unhinging the bond market. Mr Kuroda is trying to pull off a difficult trick, which is “to drastically change the expectations of markets and economic entities”, and to do so in a very particular way. Read more

Predictably, the chancellor has rejected calls for a radical change in his economic strategy. Plan A has not morphed into Plan B. If anything, it has become Plan A-plus, with the underlying path for fiscal tightening left unchanged, and a little more flexibility for the Bank of England to pursue unconventional monetary stimulus.

UK real GDP is still stuck some 5 per cent below its pre-crisis level, the worst record among the major economies, apart from Italy. Some of this is certainly due to the problems which the Coalition inherited. However, about half of the shortfall in UK growth in recent years, compared to that in the US, is due to the tightening of 5 per cent of GDP in fiscal policy since 2009/10.

The dominant criticism of the government from mainstream economists is, of course, that the poor performance of UK GDP is due to a shortfall in aggregate demand, which in turn is primarily due to these fiscal measures. The Chancellor’s reply is that the UK could have faced a fiscal crisis without his budgets. The fact that public debt is now forecast to rise to 85 per cent of GDP in 2017/18 suggests that his concerns are not easy to dismiss as scare-mongering. Read more

The sterling exchange rate has now declined by about 7 per cent this year, thus eliminating all of the rise which occurred when the euro crisis was in full flood in 2011-12. Investors are asking three main questions about the drop in sterling. When will it end? Will it succeed in boosting UK economic growth? And could it, conceivably, lead to a full blown sterling crisis? Read more

It is now almost universally accepted that the major central banks were woefully mistaken in ignoring the build up of credit risk in the years before 2008. Whether they should have acted through raising interest rates or by tightening regulations on the financial system is still under dispute, but the abject consequences of doing nothing are plain for all to see.

This has naturally made policymakers very determined not to make the same mistake again. But they are also aware that they do not want to be a group of generals focused on winning the last war. In the past, these decisions have not proved easy to make in real time. Consequently, a great deal of recent research has been aimed at doing better in future.

The Fed has been in the front line of this work, but the Bank for International Settlements has joined in with some very valuable insights and empirical work, led by Claudio Borio. Although there is clearly a very active exchange of views occurring at the Fed, the bottom line for investors is that restrictive monetary action in the US, in response to a build up of excessive financial risk, is not likely for quite some time. Read more

The chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke. Getty Images

There have been three important developments in central banking in the past week, which together indicate that their approach to inflation targeting, one of the few features of pre-2007 policy orthodoxy that has survived the financial crisis, may now be subject to radical change. (See Robin Harding on the “quiet revolution” at the central banks.) It is greatly premature to declare that inflation targeting is dead, but things are clearly on the move.

In the UK, the incoming Bank of England governor Mark Carney has suggested nothing less than the abandonment of the short-term inflation objective altogether, and has mooted the possibility of a nominal GDP level target, which is a beast with very different stripes. In Japan, the new Abe government intends to impose a higher (2 to 3 per cent) inflation target on the central bank, which can probably be hit only by pushing the yen lower.

In the US, there has been a clear shift in the Fed’s policy reaction function, or “Taylor Rule”, increasing the weight placed on unemployment and reducing the weight on inflation. The nature and importance of the Fed’s policy shift has not yet been fully understood, because it was not really spelled out by Chairman Bernanke in his press conference this week. Read more

Mark Carney will not take up his position as governor of the Bank of England until July 1 2013, but in the interim he will be speaking frequently about monetary policy in his current role as governor of the Bank of Canada. It is inevitable that his words will now be judged in a new light, especially when he makes generic comments about monetary policy, rather than specific remarks confined to the Canadian situation.

This is why his speech on “guidance” on Tuesday was so interesting. Although he stated that this speech did not contain any direct signals about policy in Canada or anywhere else, it did give clear indications about his general thinking on the future of unconventional monetary easing. To add, his thinking appears to be different in several important respects from that of the Bank of England’s current governor and the monetary policy committee. Mr Carney is not exactly naive, and he must surely have realised his words would be interpreted in this wayRead more