There have been a few false alarms about a possible upsurge in inflation in the US in the past few years, even as core inflation on most measures has remained extremely subdued. There is an entrenched belief among some observers that the huge rise in central bank balance sheets must eventually leak into consumer prices, and they have not been deterred by the lack of evidence in their favour so far.
Another such scare has been brewing recently. Core CPI inflation is running at 1.9% on a year ago, even after today’s reassuring data for June. James Bullard, the President of the St Louis Fed, is warning that an upside inflation surprise is feasible in the near future, if indeed it is not already happening. Although Mr Bullard describes himself as the “north pole of inflation hawks”, he has not previously been a doom monger about immediate prospects for inflation, so his views deserve to be taken seriously. Read more
The Federal Reserve broke new ground last week when its Monetary Policy Report to Congress specifically warned that the valuations of smaller firms, especially in the biotech and social media sectors of the US equity market, seem “substantially stretched”. Although there was no sign that the Fed planned to take any action to bring down valuations in these sectors, this remark naturally led to a sharp sell-off in shares.
The Fed’s overall message on asset prices last week was a little more bearish than previously. They once again said that overall equity market valuations are “generally in line with historical norms“, but they warned that extremely low implied volatility in the options market possibly reflected “reach for yield” behaviour among some investors. Read more
One of the most notable aspects of the response of western democracies to the cataclysmic economic events of the past decade has been the absence of any attempt to restrict the powers of the central banks. Far from it. With little political controversy, they have been allowed to increase their balance sheets by over 20 per cent of GDP, enormously widen their regulatory role, and profoundly alter the distribution of wealth in our societies.
Cynics will say that it is easy for politicians to approve of central banks when they choose voluntarily to pursue unprecedentedly easy monetary policy. It is when this is reversed that political problems would normally be expected to arise. But, in the US, we are now seeing signs that some members of Congress are seeking to shackle the Fed, not because policy has been too tight, but because they think it has been too accommodative. Read more
Paul Krugman has written two interesting comments (here and here) on my recent “Keynesian Yellen versus Wicksellian BIS” blog. Paul says that the Bank for International Settlements should not be labelled “Wicksellian”, and then asks a typically insightful question: what constitutes “artificially” high asset prices? Some of the discussion below on this point may seem a bit arcane, but in fact it could prove highly relevant for investors.
The crux of the matter is Knut Wicksell’s definition of the (unobservable) natural rate of interest, and its difference from the actual interest rate, as set by the central banks . Krugman says that the Wicksellian or natural interest rate is that which would produce equilibrium between savings and capital investment in the real economy (“full employment”), and therefore leads to stable inflation. If the central banks set the actual rate below the natural rate, inflation will rise, and vice versa.
Since US inflation has generally been stable or falling for years, Krugman infers that the Federal Reserve must have been setting the actual interest rate at about the right level, or even too high (because of the zero lower bound). The further implication is that if current low interest rates are justified, so too are the high asset prices that they have triggered. In that sense, they are not “artificial” . Read more
The Bank for International Settlements (BIS) caused a splash last weekend with an annual report that spelled out in detail why it disagrees with central elements of the strategy currently being adopted by its members, the major national central banks. On Wednesday, Fed Chair Janet Yellen mounted a strident defence of that strategy in her speech on “Monetary Policy and Financial Stability”. She could have been speaking for any of the major four central banks, all of which are adopting basically the same approach .
Rarely will followers of macro-economics have a better opportunity to compare and contrast the two distinct intellectual strands in the subject, as explained in real time by active policy makers. Faced with exactly the same set of evidence, the difference in interpretation is stark, as is the chasm between them on monetary and fiscal policy.
Martin Wolf has already done a superb job in dissecting the BIS report. To a large extent, the dispute can be viewed as old wine in new bottles: the “Wicksellian” BIS versus the “Keynesian” Yellen . But the Great Financial Crash has provided the two schools with plenty of new evidence to deploy. Read more
The revised data for US real GDP that were published last week would ordinarily have caused a major shock in global markets. The latest estimate shows an annualised decline of -2.9 per cent in Q1, down from a previous estimate of -1.0 per cent. If confirmed in future releases, this would be the weakest quarter for US real GDP outside a recession since the Second World War.
The markets largely ignored this piece of news because investors still seem convinced that the first quarter was hit by a series of temporary shocks to GDP. The extreme weather was clearly the main such shock, but there was also an outsized downward revision to the official estimate of consumers’ expenditure on health services. This alone knocked 1.2 percentage points off the GDP growth outcome for the quarter.
It is a mystery why this has occurred, given that the launch of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) in January was expected to boost health expenditure considerably. There is chance that the official data have been severely under-recorded in this area, but nobody knows quite why.
Another reason why the markets are ignoring any recession risk in the US is that the GDP data are at odds with many other sources of information on the underlying growth rate in the American economy, including the improving employment data, buoyant business surveys, and robust manufacturing and durable goods reports. Read more
The markets were little moved by Fed Chair Yellen’s press conference last week, though there was a slight sigh of relief that the Fed did not follow the example of the Bank of England in shifting towards hawkishness. The FOMC’s neutral stance, for the moment, was no great surprise.
More interesting is the fact that the FOMC’s “dot plot” showed that there is still a wide disparity of opinion among committee members about the appropriate level of interest rates in 2015 and 2016.
This disparity is much greater than the difference in the individuals’ economic forecasts would appear to justify, so it suggests that the policy reaction functions between the hawks and the doves remain very far apart. This argument has been shelved during the period of tapering, when the Fed is on autopilot. But the debate is very much alive beneath the surface. And Ms Yellen still seems to be firmly in the dovish camp.
(Note: some of this debate is slightly technical. Readers not interested in the technicalities should jump to the final section on Yellen’s “balanced approach”.) Read more
Mark Carney delivered a substantial hawkish surprise to the markets in his Mansion House speech on Thursday. After appearing to be a convinced dove ever since he became BoE Governor in July 2013, he now says that the first UK interest rate rise could come “sooner than expected”, with the decision on the timing of the first rise “becoming more balanced”. Market expectations of forward short rates in 2015 immediately jumped by 20 basis points.
Although the Governor is still talking about a very gradual rise in UK rates, he appeared to have changed the dovish tone of the forward guidance given by the BoE last year. This has made investors nervous, with many asking whether Fed Chair Janet Yellen may do the same in her press conference on Wednesday.
This seems unlikely, because the US economic recovery is still lagging that in the UK. Nevertheless, the parameters within which investors view forward guidance, including the Fed’s “dots” showing the future path for interest rates, may have been somewhat shaken. Read more
The US employment report on Friday was notable because it showed that the number of jobs in the American economy now exceeds the high point reached in January 2008 for the first time since the Great Recession. Another important signal that the economy is returning to normal, it might be claimed.
But a period of more than six years with zero growth in jobs in the American economy is anything but normal. According to the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, the US would need to create an extra 6.9 million jobs before the labour market could really be said to be back to normal, in the sense that all those who want employment would be fully satisfied.
The same point can be made about the path for real GDP in almost every developed economy since 2007. While several economies have now returned to their previous peak levels of output, very few have approached the previous long term trendlines which had been established for decades before that. For the developed economies as a whole, output remains about 12 per cent below these trendlines.
Because this level of output has never actually been attained in the real world, there is little sense of tangible loss about this, notably in the political sphere. Nevertheless, the opportunity cost could still be enormous. Read more
The European Central Bank’s decision to reduce the interest rate on deposits at the central bank to minus 0.10 per cent went as far as even the most ardent doves could reasonably have expected. Rates can probably fall no further. As Mario Draghi, the ECB president, said: “For all practical purposes, we have reached the lower bound.”
For that reason, the more technical elements of the package announced on Thursday in Frankfurt are in some ways the most significant. There was a €400bn injection of liquidity, in what the ECB called a “targeted longer-term refinancing operation” – a near copy of the Bank of England’s Funding for Lending Scheme. There was a form of quantitative easing, in which the central bank will buy securities backed by private sector loans. And there was the cessation of a “sterilisation” exercise, which had previously damped the monetary effect of the ECB’s purchases of government bonds.
Fears of a crash in the Chinese property market are widespread in the financial markets. That is nothing new. The domestic real estate sector has been growing at breakneck speed ever since private property ownership was first permitted in 1998, and on several occasions, most recently in 2012, there have been dire warnings from western investors that housing supply was far outstripping demand.
An easing in monetary policy headed off a hard landing two years ago, but this may only have delayed the inevitable. The renewed correction in the market in mid 2013, which now seems to be gathering momentum, is certainly the main downside risk in the global economy in 2014.
Following the devastating global impact of the US property crash of 2005-08, it is little wonder that investors are paranoid that China might be treading the same path. But there are many differences between the US then and China now. The US housing crash was transformed into something far more serious by excesses in the financial sector, and by adverse wealth effects on consumer spending.
Even though China has also built up severe credit excesses in its shadow banking sector, it is hard to make the macro arithmetic add up to a shock comparable in size to the 2008 US/global meltdown.
(Apologies for greater length than usual in this blog – skip to “GDP effects” for the bottom line.) Read more
There is much talk about how and when the central banks will exit from unconventional monetary accommodation, at least in the US and the UK. So far, it is all talk and not much action.
A few months ago, it all looked very different. The Fed’s “taper tantrums” from May 2013 onwards had demonstrated that markets could be very vulnerable to any hint of an end to monetary accommodation, and US monetary conditions had tightened as bond yields rose.
The People’s Bank of China had embarked on what seemed likely to be a prolonged squeeze of the shadow banking sector. The ECB was refusing to ease its stance, despite an apparent threat of outright deflation. The Bank of England was thought likely to act against the UK housing bubble by raising rates before the end of 2014. Only the Bank of Japan seemed likely to press ahead with unlimited quantitative easing.
The markets feared that Fed tapering would soon trigger a global monetary tightening. So what has happened since? Precisely the opposite. Global financial conditions, on the best indicators available, have actually eased again in the first half of this year, and now stand near to their easiest levels since the financial crisis began.
Whether or not this will prove to be a policy mistake (please do not shoot the messenger!), it is another reminder to investors that any genuine monetary tightening could still be a very long way off. Read more
The UK’s very British economic recovery, dominated by London housing in particular and the consumer more generally, continues to strengthen. The Bank of England argued in its latest Inflation Report last week that there was no case yet for higher interest rates, and repeated its previous guidance that rate rises, when they come, will be very gradual.
But Governor Mark Carney spelled out much more clearly than ever before that he is now concerned about the risks to financial stability posed by the housing sector, and he came very close to promising that the Financial Policy Committee will take regulatory steps to dampen the market at its meeting in June.
The UK housing market is therefore shaping up to be the first major test of the new macro prudential weapons that the central banks now have at their disposal. The need for these new arsenals is very apparent, but it is much less clear whether they will actually work. Read more
Macro prudential policy has been designed in the wake of the great financial crash to solve a dilemma which policy makers faced, and failed to resolve, in the late 1990s and the mid 2000s. In those periods, consumer price inflation was subdued, persuading the central banks to restrain the rise in policy interest rates. Yet the financial sector entered phases of excessive risk taking, and these eventually ended in the equity crash of 2000 and the implosion of subprime credit in 2008.
The Greenspan doctrine, that interest rates should be set to achieve macroeconomic objectives, while the effects of financial excesses could be mopped up later, was found to be badly mistaken. In its place, the monetary authorities have unveiled a new set of cyclical regulatory and prudential controls that can be tightened when financial excesses occur, while inflation remains below targets. There are increasing signs that some central bankers, notably in the Bank of England and the Federal Reserve, think that the time is coming to use these new weapons as an alternative to rate rises.
Is this view justified? And will the weapons work, if deployed? Read more
China was promoted to the largest economy in the world last week, at least according to the implications of a new data set released by the World Bank. The new figures, which were not warmly welcomed by the Chinese authorities, involved a downward revision to the prices of non traded goods and services in China, therefore increasing the real value of GDP measured at purchasing power parity exchange rates. In 2014, China will overtake the US on this definition.
While the absolute size of the Chinese economy is clearly of interest (see Martin Wolf’s lucid analysis here), it was inevitable that China would overtake the US on the basis of PPP measures within a few years, so the latest revelation was not exactly a shock. Furthermore, PPP-based comparisons have many drawbacks, as Michael Pettis explains here.
The new price data are, however, important in another respect. This concerns the valuation of the yuan, and has direct implications for Chinese exchange rate policy, which could be on the verge of a profound change. In fact, Beijing’s attitude towards its currency could turn out to be the most important change in global macro economic policy so far in 2014. Read more
The FOMC meeting this week is not likely to see any policy fireworks, but it will mark the departure of Governor Jeremy Stein, who returns to academic life at Harvard at the end of May. He has only been on the Board for two years, but he has made an intellectual mark in a critical area where leading members of the FOMC have been largely silent – how to set monetary policy when the need to maintain financial stability is conflicting with the near term outlook for inflation and employment.
The issue can be simply stated: should the Fed tighten policy solely because they are worried about the emergence of bubbles in asset prices?
After the financial crash of 2008, this should be a subject close to the heart of the new Chair Janet Yellen and her senior colleagues. Up to a point, it is. An enormous amount of attention has been given to the new financial architecture that has followed the crash, and Chair Yellen has already spoken specifically about the importance of too-big-to-fail, and the reform of the wholesale money markets.
Yet the vast majority of the Fed’s recent communication has been on the familiar topics of estimating slack in the labour market, and the consequences of this for inflation. In its statements and minutes, the FOMC has generally given very little attention to the difficult question of how to maintain financial stability and thus avoid the next “Minsky moment”. Read more
Before the financial crash in 2008, it was frequently claimed that the developed economies had permanently ended the cyclicality of prior eras. In fact, a name – the “Great Moderation” – was invented to describe the stable period from 1984-2008, when the variability of real GDP growth and inflation both fell markedly. Recessions did occur during these years, but they represented short and fairly shallow punctuations between extended periods of moderate expansion.
That was before the Great Recession of 2008-09, by far the deepest since the 1930s. The financial crash made the term “Great Moderation” seem hubristic, if not absurd, and for a while it was banished from the lexicon. But now it is back.
Economists like John Normand at J.P. Morgan (from whom I have stolen the title to this blog), and Dominic Wilson’s team at Goldman Sachs, have recently argued that the developed economies might have embarked on the Great Moderation, Version 2.0 (GM 2.0). Jason Furman, Chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, suggested something similar last week, though he also argued strongly that this was not a sufficient condition for a healthy economy to exist.
GM 2.0, if it persists, is likely to share some similarities with 1.0, but there are also major differences. These comparisons may be instructive for policy makers and investors in the period ahead. Read more
The OECD pointed out last week that the ratio of public debt/GDP will reach all time historic highs in 2014, at about 120 per cent. Taken in isolation, this could certainly viewed as a worrying fact, with bad implications for the future of real interest rates and possibly inflation. A couple of days later, however, the IMF published a fascinating chapter in its latest World Economic Outlook (WEO) on global real interest rates, showing that the global real rate has fallen from about 6 per cent in the early 1980s to about zero today.
Both of these facts are of course very well known, but placed side-by-side, they still represent a stark contrast:
They also present a conundrum for policy makers and investors. Why has the surge in public debt not resulted in a large rise in real borrowing costs for the government, and for the wider economy? And what does this tell us about the future of the risk free real rate in the global economy?
The risk free rate is the bedrock of asset valuation, and is often presented as one of the great “constants” in economic models. But in the past few decades, it has been anything but constant.
Although the European Central Bank took no concrete action on Thursday in the face of a decline in consumer price inflation to only 0.5 per cent in March, president Mario Draghi’s statement contained new language which has moved the goalposts for future action by the bank. By stating that the governing council is now unanimously willing to adopt quantitative easing in order to cope with prolonged low inflation, the statement substantially alleviates the risk of secular “lowflation” that has been worrying investors for some time.
To recognise the importance of this change of stance, consider what the ECB has said about QE in the past. A few years ago it tended to dismiss the option on the grounds that it was too close to direct financing of government budget deficits, and was therefore against the terms of the euro treaties. More recently, while becoming gradually less dismissive of QE on constitutional grounds, it has been unwilling to concede that unconventional monetary easing was necessary, saying that conventional measures were still available, and would be used first. Read more
The Ukraine crisis has been widely described as the most dangerous confrontation between Russia and the west since the end of the Cold War. Today’s talks between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov offer hope that the crisis might be defused, with the US suggesting what seems like a joint US/Russian demilitarised “protectorate” in the Ukraine, in exchange for Russian withdrawal from the Crimea.
We shall see whether that satisfies President Putin, whose recent rhetoric about Russia being “cornered for centuries” suggests that he might have much wider plans.
So far, the global financial markets, outside Russia, have been almost completely unaffected by events in the Ukraine. Initially, there was some decline in the stock markets of European economies with significant trading and banking links with Russia, including Germany, but recently these losses have been reversed.
The low probability of direct military confrontation between Russia and the west in the Ukraine is obviously key to this. Perhaps the markets also believe that the crisis will blow over without a major outbreak of tit-for-tat sanctions, beyond the limited restrictions on individuals which have been announced so far. Or perhaps they have concluded that, while the west can greatly damage the Russian economy, the same cannot happen in reverse.
What has become obvious is that the Russian economy itself is very vulnerable indeed to a worsening in the crisis. The burgeoning capital outflow since the start of 2014 has, in effect, imposed a form of economic “sanctions” on the Russian economy, without the need for western governments to take much action of their own. Western leaders clearly believe that this could turn out to be President Putin’s Achilles heel, though this reckons without the possibility that he will opt for riskier foreign adventures in an attempt to distract attention from economic weakness at home. Read more