Monetary policy

The minutes of the Fed’s FOMC meeting on 18th and 19th June were published on Wednesday, but the markets remain confused and divided about the central bank’s true intentions on the stance of monetary policy. Surveys of market participants show that they are almost evenly split between those who expect QE3 to come this year, and those who do not. And usually highly informed commentators have differed sharply about the hidden meaning in this set of minutes.

Robin Harding of the FT concluded that the tone was dovish, heralding the likely arrival of QE3 if the economy remains weak. Tim Duy, in his excellent Fed watch blog, says that Ben Bernanke is sceptical about the efficacy of a further increase in the balance sheet, and is looking for different options to ease. That could take a while. Jon Hilsenrath at the Wall Street Journal said that the Fed is in a state of “high alert” about the economy, but has not yet decided to pull the trigger, partly because “many Fed officials are uncomfortable with the mix of unconventional tools that they have to address the soft economy”. In particular, there are growing concerns that further purchases of treasury securities will damage the workings of the market in government debt. The Fed staff has been asked to report back on this in future meetings. Read more

As the eurozone crisis enters a critical phase, market attention is once more focused on the central banks to contain the crisis. They have promised in advance to provide unlimited liquidity to solvent financial institutions if necessary in coming weeks, which is now their standard response to financial shocks. However, the slowdown in global activity caused by the euro crisis may mean that they are thinking of acting more aggressively than that. A further large bout of unconventional easing is now on the agenda. Read more

Risk assets rose slightly last week, and global equities are still trading within about 2 per cent of their highs for the year. The resilience of equities was slightly surprising in a week which saw both a disappointing set of US GDP data and a Fed policy statement which was on the hawkish side of expectations. Goldman Sachs’ economists commented that the US economy and financial markets are “moving into a tougher environment”, in which the economy is slowing and the Fed is shifting its policy reaction function in a less stimulative direction.

One reason why risk assets have remained firm recently, is that earnings in the latest company reporting season have once again been beating expectations in the US and the eurozone. According to Jan Loeys at JP Morgan, US corporate earnings per share for 2012 Q1 have come in 8 per cent higher than analysts’ expectations, while the drop in eurozone earnings has been 4 per cent less than feared. Clearly, corporate financial strength has been helping investment sentiment, but that would not persist for very long if the Fed really did change its tune on monetary policy. Read more

The minutes of the Federal Open Market Committee meeting on March 13 have surprised the markets. The committee seems to have shifted in a markedly more hawkish direction than was reflected in the statement issued after the meeting, and the bar to quantitative easing 3 now seems to be rather high. Perhaps we should have expected this, given the fact that speeches by chairman Ben Bernanke and Bill Dudley since the meeting had given no hint of any further easing. But the breadth of the committee’s shift away from easing was certainly not expected.

It is easy to find hawkish phrases in the minutes. The US Federal Reserve staff has not only upgraded its real gross domestic product projections, and increased its inflation forecasts, but has also reduced its estimate of the output gap. Only “a couple” of FOMC members saw any case for further easing, and then only if growth falters or inflation falls below target. There was even some discussion of changing the guidance on keeping short rates “exceptionally low” up to the end of 2014, a move which would really shock markets.  Read more

A large and important change is underway in global economic policy. This change will determine whether the developed economies can grow their way out of recession. Although the new strategy has been tried before by individual economies, this is the first time it has been adopted on such a global scale. If it fails, it is far from clear that policy-makers have a ready-made alternative plan waiting in the wings. Read more

The Bank of England meets on Thursday with expectations running high that the MPC will announce a further large dose of quantitative easing. Even if they pass this month, which seems possible, this is likely to be only a temporary postponement. Whenever it comes, the next move will be another bout of “plain vanilla” QE, involving the purchase of £50-75bn of government bonds, and taking the overall Bank of England holdings to over one third of the total stock of gilts in issue.

Meanwhile, the Fed is still debating whether to increase its holdings of long dated securities, and if so whether to focus once again on government debt, or to re-open its purchases of mortgages. Any further QE would be contentious on the FOMC, but there is probably still a majority in favour.

Central bankers, unlike many others, have not lost faith in the efficacy of QE. The vast majority of them not only believe that additional asset purchases can further reduce long term bond yields at a time of zero short term interest rates, but also that this can increase real GDP growth, compared with what otherwise would have occurred. Are they right? Read more

Mount Fuji, Japan. AFP/Getty Images

Mount Fuji, Japan. AFP/Getty Images

Until recently, Keynes’ notion of a liquidity trap was of great interest to macro-economists, but was viewed by investors as a rare aberration which, outside Japan, could be safely ignored. In the aftermath of the 2008 credit crunch, all that has changed. Many developed economies seem to be falling into a liquidity trap, and may stay there for several years. What does this imply about asset returns? (This blog is a slightly longer version of an article which first appeared in the FT’s Market Insight column on 24 January, 2012.) Read more

Federal Reserve. Getty Images

Getty Images

In 1951, an epic struggle between a US president who stood on the verge of a nuclear war, and a central bank that was seeking to establish its right to set an independent monetary policy, resulted in an improbable victory for the central bank. President Harry Truman, at war in Korea, failed in a brutal attempt to force the Federal Reserve to maintain a 2.5 per cent limit on treasury yields, thus implicitly financing the war effort through monetisation. This victory over fiscal dominance is often seen as the moment when the modern, independent Fed came into existence.

The idea that the central bank should place a cap on the level of bond yields is firmly back on the agenda, at least in the eurozone. This week, Italian prime minister Mario Monti said that he was increasingly optimistic that his country’s bond yields might soon be capped. Although he stopped short of saying that this would be done by the European Central Bank, there really are no other viable candidates to achieve this. Furthermore, many economists are arguing that this is the right policy, since Italy is now following a sustainable budgetary policy which deserves to be rewarded by ECB action in the bond market. Read more

Amid all the focus on the UK’s decision to use its veto, it is important not to miss the main economic outcome of the summit, which is that the agreement heralds a new era in European policymaking. The German approach to fiscal policy will now be writ large across the eurozone. This raises three key questions:

  1. How different will this prove to be in practice from the old status quo?
  2. Is it a good idea from an economic point of view?
  3. Does it allow the European Central Bank in future to play the same role in the eurozone as the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England have been playing in the US and the UK?

My initial take on the deal is that it will be sufficient to dampen the acute phase of the crisis, but that the absence of a clear long-term strategy for growth means that there could still be a long period of chronic problems ahead. Read more

Mario Draghi

Mario Draghi — Getty Images

In Mario Draghi’s first meeting as the new president of the ECB on Thursday, he already faces a decision which could determine the eventual fate of the euro. This is not a decision about whether to cut short term interest rates. They will be cut, decisively, before the year end. Nor is it a decision about the maintenance of non-standard measures to inject liquidity into the eurozone’s banking sector. These measures will be maintained and increased.

Instead, his historic decision will be whether to use the balance sheet of the central bank to purchase the troubled debt of countries like Italy and Spain, and thus effect a large transfer of resources between the member states of the eurozone – a transfer which the political leaders of the zone have so far been unable to undertake. It is becoming increasingly clear that, among European institutions, only the ECB has the constitutional authority and the financial muscle to undertake such a transfer. But is it appropriate territory for a central bank to enter? That is President Draghi’s dilemma. Read more

The Fed decision was fairly close to what was anticipated in this earlier blog – all “twist” and no “shout”. However, on balance, the statement was slightly more dovish than I expected. Concerns about downside risks to economic activity were at least as great as in last month’s FOMC statement, with new downside risks from financial strains being specifically mentioned, and this has swayed the majority of the committee to introduce a slightly more aggressive operation “twist” than expected. Inflation concerns, while marginally greater than in the August FOMC statement, are clearly insufficient to impress the committee, which remains biased towards further easing even after today’s announcement.

 Read more

The decision of the Swiss National Bank to set a limit on the strength of the Swiss franc so that it cannot trade below a minimum rate of CHF 1.20 against the euro is one of the most dramatic interventions seen in the foreign exchange markets for many years. The Swiss economy may only account for 0.8 per cent of global gross domestic product, but its currency and the influence of its central bank far outweigh its economic size. Read more

Opinion is sharply divided about what the Fed intended to signal in the statement issued on Tuesday. Some have seen the statement as very dovish, because it said that the Fed intended to leave short rates at “exceptionally low levels” until mid 2013 – the first time that a specific date of this sort has ever been set by the FOMC.

Others, however, concluded that the statement contained nothing really new, since the markets had already assumed that short rates would be close to zero for the next two years. Furthermore, the fact that there were three dissents from the majority decision has led some to deduce that the further large step to more quantitative easing (QE3) is still a long way off. On this view, nothing really changed. Read more

The recent fall in equities represents a belated recognition by the markets that the global economy has been much weaker than consensus economic forecasts indicated earlier in the year. Unlike last summer, when the same thing happened, the markets have also begun to recognise that policy makers have little ammunition left in the locker to combat the downturn.

The political will needed to ease fiscal policy, even temporarily, has evaporated on both sides of the Atlantic. And monetary policy has been hamstrung by the rise in inflation, which has clearly changed the thinking of the Fed. So where is the escape route? Read more

The ongoing discussions in Washington about the US public debt ceiling are raising some interesting ideas, some of which are highly unorthodox. One such idea is that the debt ceiling itself can simply be ignored because any attempt by Congress to restrict the ability of the United States to meet its debts appears, on the surface, to contravene section four of Amendment XIV of the Constitution.

This Amendment states that “The validity of the public debt…shall not be questioned.” I will leave this matter for debate among constitutional lawyers (see here and here), but as a simple economist I would question whether the US would retain its triple A status if the administration continued to make payments in contravention of an explicit act of Congress, which the President believed to be unconstitutional. What would happen to the “full faith and credit” of the United States if the Supreme Court subsequently ruled that the President was wrong? Read more

The Fed announced today that the US economic situation is far from satisfactory, but that there is nothing much that it can (or will) do about it. Real GDP growth is, by its own admission, lower than the FOMC expected in April, and unemployment has been higher than anticipated. However, its concerns about inflation have risen and, significantly, it has dropped the previous assertion that “measures of underlying inflation are still subdued”.  Chairman Bernanke believes that part of the recent slowdown is temporary, but admits that he is not fully confident that he understands the underlying causes. The FOMC is becalmed, and perhaps slightly bemused. Read more

The US employment numbers for May seemed to surprise the markets, but in fact they confirmed what we already knew from a string of earlier data releases, which is that the economy has slowed very markedly in recent months. The debate now is whether this slowdown has been triggered mainly by transitory factors – the fallout from the Japanese earthquake, stormy weather, and a spike in gasoline prices above $4/gallon – or whether it reflects a more fundamental malaise in the economic recovery.

The equity markets have remained fairly upbeat about this, and most economists are still strongly of the view that this is just another mid-cycle slowdown of the sort which occurred last year. This still seems to be the most probable outcome (as I will argue here on Sunday). But what if this optimism is wrong? Is there a Plan B? Read more

The Bank of England’s latest Inflation Report was certainly a downbeat document. Mervyn King, Bank governor, said there are “difficult times ahead”, because the economy is still undergoing a slow adjustment to the impact of the financial crisis. By reducing its GDP growth forecasts while simultaneously increasing its inflation projections, the Bank has signalled that it believes the UK is now facing a series of supply side problems – and those are always the most difficult for any central bank to handle. Read more

The behaviour of the world’s two main central banks, and the relationship between them, have profound effects on global financial markets. As a broad rule of thumb, the ECB (and the Bundesbank before it) have tended to act in a very similar manner to the Fed, except about 6-12 months later. In fact, that is one of the most well established rules in the analysis of monetary policy making.

It does not imply that the ECB deliberately “copies” the Fed, which it clearly does not do. But it does imply that circumstances have usually produced this symbiotic relationship between the two key central banks. When this relationship has been broken in the past, it has usually spelled trouble. Read more

The combination of a rapidly growing economy, and a surge in oil prices, has raised questions about the strength of the doves’ hand at the Fed. Previously in firm control, the doves had until yesterday been silent about the recent mixture of strong GDP growth and rising headline inflation. Was the case for exceptionally easy monetary policy beginning to fray at the edges? Not in the mind of New York Fed President Bill Dudley, who is among the most eloquent spokespersons for the dovish standpoint. Read more