Monetary policy

US monetary policy has now clearly embarked on an important new phase. For a long while, the markets have been extremely reluctant to recognise that the Federal Reserve might actually mean what it says about increasing short term interest rates by 0.25 per cent on three separate occasions this year. Remembering repeated episodes in which the Fed has failed to deliver its threatened tightening in policy since 2013, investors have concluded that dovish surprises from the Fed are endemic.

Last week, however, they woke up to the fact that FOMC really is serious about raising rates in March, and that this may be the first of three or even four rate hikes this year. After a series of hawkish speeches by several FOMC heavyweights, the coup de grâce came on Friday, when Janet Yellen warned that a rate rise in March “would be appropriate” unless economic data surprised in the meantime. She added rather ominously that policy accommodation would be removed more rapidly this year than in 2015 and 2016.

The great unknown is whether this will come as a major shock to the financial markets. It will certainly mean that investors will need to build in a faster path for rate hikes in the near term than anything that has previously been contemplated in this cycle. But the good news is that the final destination for rates does not seem to be changing, at least in the view of the FOMC. The Committee is increasing the speed of travel towards its destination, but is not changing the destination itself.

So what has justified the shift toward more hawkish thinking on the FOMC? And will this upset the equity market, which is still ignoring the prospect of higher rates? Read more

Exactly a year ago this week, the mood in the financial markets started to darken markedly. As 2015 had drawn to a close, financial markets had seemed to have weathered the first increase in US interest rates since 2006 in reasonable shape. The Federal Open Market Committee had telegraphed its step to tighten policy in December 2015 with unparalleled clarity. Forewarned, it seemed, was forearmed for the markets.

Meanwhile, China had just issued some new guidance on its foreign exchange strategy, claiming that it would eschew devaluation and seek a period of stability in the RMB’s effective exchange rate index. This had calmed nerves, which had been elevated since the sudden RMB devaluation against the dollar in August 2015.

A few weeks later, however, this phoney period of calm had been completely shattered. By mid February, global equity markets were down 13 per cent year-to-date, and fears of a sudden devaluation of the RMB were rampant. It seemed that the Fed had tightened monetary policy in the face of a global oil shock that was sucking Europe and China into the same deflationary trap that had plagued Japan for decades. Secular stagnation was on everyone’s lips.

We now know that the state of the global economy was not as bad as it seemed in February, 2016. Nor was the Fed as determined as it seemed to tighten US monetary conditions in the face of global deflation. And China was not set upon a course of disruptive devaluation of the RMB. Following the combination of global monetary policy changes of February/March last year, recovery in the markets and the global economy was surprisingly swift.

A year later, the key question for global markets is whether the Fed and the Chinese currency will once again conspire to cause a collapse in investors’ confidence. There are certainly some similarities with the situation in January 2016. The Fed has, once again, tightened policy, and China is battling a depreciating currency. But there are also some major differences that should protect us this time. 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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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

When Janet Yellen announced last week that the Federal Open Market Committee had considered, but decided against, a rate rise in September, many commentators concluded that the Fed had taken a decisive shift towards dovishness. Yet the markets, so far, have not really shared this interpretation. Since Thursday’s press conference by the chair of the US Federal Reserve, the interest rate path expected by the bond markets has dropped very slightly; but the dollar has risen and equities have remained weak.

There is little sign that investors’ assessment of the Fed’s underlying policy stance has been altered by what is increasingly seen as nothing more than a “postponement” of the almost inevitable rate hike later this year. Whatever it intended to do, the Fed has not cleared the air. 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

Mario Draghi

  © Hannelore Foerster/Getty Images

And then there were none. On Thursday, the European Central Bank became the last of the major central banks to announce a large programme of quantitative easing, involving the purchase of over €1tn of assets, mostly eurozone government bonds, in the next 18 months.

Is this the “credible regime change” which economists like Paul Krugman say is the only way that central banks can affect growth and inflation when interest rates have reached the zero lower bound? It would be too optimistic to say “yes”, but it is certainly a major philosophical shift by the conservative standards of the ECB. Originally designed slavishly on the Bundesbank model, the ECB has declared independence from its German forebears today.

But the long delays in reaching this point have made the eurozone deflation threat more severe than it need have been. Whether this belated recognition of reality is a case of better late than never, or too little too late, remains to be seen.

The markets are likely to assess the package with three litmus tests: is it big enough, are the restrictions placed on the bond purchases too restrictive, and does it matter that the decisions were far from unanimous, with the Bundesbank probably opposed to some key elements? In my view, the good clearly outweighs the bad. 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

Mario Draghi

  © CARLO HERMANN/AFP/Getty Images

Last week’s press conference by ECB President Mario Draghi left the markets disappointed and somewhat perplexed about the shift towards quantitative easing that had just been sanctioned by the governing council (GC). Because this was focused on private sector assets, in the form of asset backed securities and covered bonds, there were doubts about whether the new policy could be implemented in sufficient size to deal with the deflationary threat in the euro area.

Mr Draghi was noticeably hesitant about giving any firm indication about the likely scale of the programme. Although private sector quantitative easing (QE) is likely to suit the needs of the euro area rather well, as I argued here, the absence of any firm guidance on scale certainly undermined the beneficial announcement effects of the policy change.

The ECB president addressed this issue on Thursday in an appearance at Brookings in Washington. This time, freed from the need to speak for the entire GC, he clearly changed his tune on the scale of the programme. But this highlighted the extent of the gap between his view and that of Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann, who presented his position in a revealing interview with the Wall Street Journal on Monday. It is far from obvious how this disagreement will be bridged. Read more

The leading central banks in the developed economies have, of course, been the main actors underpinning the global bull market in risk assets since 2009. For long periods their stance has been unequivocally dovish as they have deliberately tried to strengthen an anaemic global economic recovery by boosting asset prices.

In the past week, we have had major statements of intent from Janet Yellen, the new US Federal Reserve chairwoman; from the European Central Bank; and from the Bank of England. After multiple hours of fuzzy guidance about forward guidance, the clarity of previous years about the global policy stance has become much more murky. Central banks are no longer as obviously friendly to risk assets as they once were – but they have not become outright enemies, and they are unlikely to do so while they are concerned that price and wage inflation will remain too low for a protracted period.

It is now quite difficult to generalise about what central bankers think. However, a few of the necessary pieces of the jigsaw puzzle slotted into place in the past week. Read more

The governing council of the European Central Bank meets on Thursday amid rising expectations in the market that it will signal another easing in monetary policy, either in February or March. Most ECB watchers now expect the council to cut the refinance rate by around 15 basis points before quarter end (from 0.25 per cent to 0.10 per cent), and some expect the deposit rate to be reduced into negative territory for the first time. This action would be in response to recent volatility in money market rates, and an unexpectedly low inflation rate of 0.7 per cent for the euro area in January.

If the ECB was to follow this course of action in the next couple of months, it would represent another relatively minor adjustment in its policy stance in response to surprisingly low inflation data. It is still thinking in terms of incremental changes in policy, rather than anything more dramatic. This, of course, follows from the fact that the ECB has a pessimistic view of the growth in potential output since 2008, implying that the output gap is fairly small, and that inflation in the medium term will gradually return to the target of “below but close to” 2 per cent.

This view is, however, being increasingly challenged by the data. Some forecasters now see the 12-month inflation rate falling to only 0.5 per cent in the spring, depending on the behaviour of oil prices. More importantly, core inflation also continues to drop. After the next round of interest rate cuts, the central bank will genuinely be at the zero lower bound for the first time ever. The ECB will therefore face a major problem if the inflation data confound again, and head towards zero. Read more

The long farewell to quantitative easing, one of the most remarkable experiments in the history of macroeconomic policy, starts now. In the wake of the strong US employment data in recent months, the Federal Reserve finally announced that it will taper its asset purchases from January onwards. The Fed’s balance sheet will stabilise in 2014, but will not begin to decline for several more years.

Variously described as the saviour of the global economy, totally irrelevant, a drug for the financial system or the harbinger of future inflation, QE is still controversial and insufficiently understood. Macro-economists are destined to be studying its effects for decades to come. Here are some early reflections. Read more

The US official statisticians have today issued revised statistics for GDP dating all the way back to 1929. It may be alarming for investors and policy makers to hear that our understanding of economic “truth” needs to be amended for the last 84 years, but the changes have not in fact made much fundamental difference to the debates which matter for the economy today.

In particular, there has been very little change in the Fed’s likely view of the amount of slack which remains in the economy, though the latest version of growth in the last few quarters, including the publication of data for 2013 Q2 for the first time, may persuade them that economic momentum is a little firmer than previously believed.

The most dramatic-sounding news in today’s release is that the level of nominal GDP has been revised up by 3.4 per cent in 2013 Q4. This follows a number of methodological changes, the most important of which is to treat R&D spending as a positive contributor to investment and GDP, rather than as an input to the production process. But since this change impacts GDP levels for decades in the past, it does not make much difference to our understanding of the economy’s capacity to grow in the immediate future. It simply involves viewing the same objective truth through a different coloured lens. For most practical purposes, this change can be ignored.

There are, however, three areas where the revisions could be significant: Read more

In the past decade, the world’s central banks – first in the emerging and then in the developed world – have embarked on a Great Expansion in their balance sheets which is unprecedented in modern times. This blog sketches the anatomy of the Great Expansion and attempts to project what will happen as the US Federal Reserve tapers its asset purchases in the next 18 months.

The latest episode in the saga has, of course, involved the Fed’s attempt to distinguish between “tapering” and “tightening”, a distinction which the markets have been reluctant to recognise [1]. The US forward interest rate curve shows the first rate increase occurring very close to the time when the Fed is planning to stop buying assets in mid-2014. Whether it intended to do so or not, the Fed has de facto tightened US monetary policy conditions and will have to work hard to reverse this. 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 volatility in financial markets since Mr Bernanke gave evidence to Congress yesterday is a not-so-gentle reminder of what might happen when the Fed eventually begins to withdraw monetary accommodation. The Chairman’s warning that the FOMC might reduce the pace of its asset purchases “in the next few meetings” has clearly spooked the markets, especially those (like Japanese equities) where bullish positions had become very crowded.

The Fed’s main message at present is that it will “increase or reduce the pace of its asset purchases…as the outlook for the labor market or inflation changes”. This seems deliberately designed to inject some uncertainty into market psychology, and thereby prevent an excessive risk taking. Mr Bernanke said that he takes the risk to financial stability “very seriously”.

But the overall tone of the Chairman’s written evidence yesterday strongly suggested that the Fed is still a long way from contemplating any significant change in monetary policy. After all, tapering QE would only imply that the pace at which policy is being eased is being reduced. An outright tightening of policy still seems to be several years away. 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

The recent rise in eurozone equities, along with a sharp further decline in peripheral bond spreads, has occurred in the face of continuing disappointing data on economic activity. Real GDP in the eurozone seems to be declining at a 2 per cent annualised rate in the current quarter, and the pivotal German economy is showing worrying signs of being dragged into the mire with the troubled south (see this earlier blog).

Markets are in one of those periods (which usually prove temporary) where they interpret bad economic news as being good news for asset prices, because weaker growth will result in easier policy from the central banks. In the eurozone, expectations are high that the European Central Bank will deliver lower interest rates on Thursday, and specific measures designed to address the provision of liquidity to small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in the south seem probable.

But a more radical easing in monetary conditions may prove necessary to drag the economy out of recession, and prevent inflation from falling further below the target, which is defined as “below but close to 2 per cent”. In March, the ECB staff forecast for inflation in 2014 was 0.6-2.0 per cent, which seems barely consistent with the mandate, especially as the recession shows no sign of ending and fiscal policy is still being tightened. Any other major central bank would be urgently reviewing its options for aggressive easing, and the markets could become very disillusioned if they sense that the ECB is unwilling to do the same.

So what, realistically, can the ECB do? The following table gives a fairly comprehensive list of the options which are definitely available within the mandate [A], those which might be available if the ECB chose to interpret its mandate more widely [B], and those which are clearly unavailable under any circumstances [C]:

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Professor Jeremy Stein is a much respected financial economist from Harvard who in May became a member of the board of governors at the Federal Reserve. Until last week, the markets had paid him relatively little attention, but that is now destined to change. The important speech he delivered in St Louis on Thursday about credit bubbles differed significantly from one of the main planks in the Bernanke/Greenspan doctrine of the past 15 years. It does not have immediate policy implications, but it could easily do so within two years.

The speech, which is nicely summarised here by Matthew Klein at The Economist, deserves to be read in full by all market participants. (One member of the FOMC told me last week that the speech was “geeky”, but that was intended, and taken, as a high compliment!)

In summary, the speech argues that the credit markets have recently been “reaching for yield”, much as they did prior to the financial crash. Although not yet as dangerous as in the period from 2004-2007, this behaviour is shown by the rapid expansion of the junk bond market, flows into high-yield mutual funds and real estate investment trusts and the duration of bond portfolios held by banks.

Governor Stein suggests (hypothetically) that this may become a policy headache within 18 months and, in a break with the Bernanke/Greenspan doctrine, he indicates that the right weapon to deal with this might well be to raise interest rates, rather than relying solely on regulatory and other prudential policy to control the process. This would obviously come as a big surprise to the markets, which have tended to view the Fed’s stated concerns about the “costs of QE” as so much hot air. Read more