Central Banks

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. 

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. 

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 Keqiang

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. 

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. 

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? 

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. 

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? 

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. 

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.