US

The financial markets, after many months of forward guidance and supposedly “transparent” communication from the Fed, were very surprised by the FOMC’s latest decision to delay the start of tapering its asset purchases. This can be seen most clearly in the immediate 0.15 per cent drop in the yield on ten year treasuries, which reflects the extent of the lurch towards dovishness shown by the committee.

Prior to the announcements, the market thought that it knew two things with a high degree of confidence. First, the Fed chairman had said explicitly that the start of tapering was likely “in the next few meetings” and then clarified that this meant “before the end of the year”. Second, he had given explicit guidance that the end of tapering would occur around the middle of 2014, by which time the unemployment rate was expected to be below 7.0 per cent.

Given that the starting and ending dates for tapering were well pinned down, only the pace in between seemed to be up for debate. This left little room for manoeuvre on the final total for the Fed balance sheet, which was thought to be around $4.1 trillion (or 24 per cent of GDP).

All of this has now been thrown into considerable uncertainty following the chairman’s latest press conference. It is no longer as likely that the start of tapering will come this year, though December now seems to be the best single bet. Not can it be assumed that the 7 per cent unemployment rate is a good guide about the end point. Although the FOMC’s economic projections still show unemployment dropping below this rate somewhere around mid-2014, the chairman seemed to pour cold water on the importance of the 7 per cent figure, a consideration he himself had voluntarily introduced in the June press conference. 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

On Wednesday, the chairman of the Federal Reserve announced that the greatest experiment in the history of central banking might be nearing its end. Ben Bernanke’s announcement included many caveats, but the financial markets did not miss the message. Since 2009, the central bank has been buying financial assets – US Treasury bonds and some types of corporate debt – paid for by an expansion of the monetary base (so-called “printing money”). This kept interest rates low, which damaged savers but helped indebted businesses and households. It has also been the major prop for financial markets. Within about a year, if the Fed’s plans come to fruition, the US government deficit will need to be financed from private sector savings – not by the central bank. Asset markets will be left to fend for themselves as the biggest buyer withdraws from the arena.

That is why some hedge funds sold off bonds this week, causing a big drop in their prices – the flipside of which is a rise in borrowing costs (or “yields”). Mr Bernanke has expressed consternation that adjustments to the path for the Fed’s balance sheet, such as the one he announced this week, can have such a profound effect on the bond market. But investors are making logical inferences from central bank behaviour. The Fed does not change direction often. When it does, tightening often comes in a rapid series of interest rate rises that are not fully anticipated by investors. Read more

When we look back on the FOMC meeting on June 19 2013, it will probably be seen as the moment when the Fed signalled that it was beginning the long and gradual exit from its programme of unconventional monetary easing. The reason for this was clear in the committee’s statement, which said that the downside risks to economic activity had diminished since last autumn, presumably because the US economy had navigated the fiscal tightening better than expected and the risks surrounding the euro had abated.

This was the smoking gun in the statement. With downside risks declining, the need for an emergency programme of monetary easing was no longer so compelling. The Fed has been the unequivocal friend of the markets for much of the time since 2009, and certainly ever since last September. That comfortable assumption no longer applies.

Fed chairman Ben Bernanke, however, went to great lengths to mitigate the hawkish overtones of this message in several respects. The asset purchase programme would be ended only when the US unemployment rate has fallen to 7 per cent, which the central bank expects to happen by mid-2014, he said. In the meantime, the pace of asset purchases could be increased as well as reduced, depending on the incoming economic data. 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 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

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

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

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