US

Janet Yellen has been nominated to take over as Fed chairman when Ben Bernanke steps down. Gavyn discusses with John Authers what a Fed led by Ms Yellen would mean for tapering and interest rate policy

In the endless saga over US fiscal policy, attention has shifted from the closure of some parts of the government (which happened on Tuesday) to the possibility that the Treasury Department will reach the limit of its extraordinary measures to work around the debt ceiling on or around 17 October.

The negotiating tactics of the White House are now clear. They are painting the scenario in which the debt ceiling remains frozen as completely catastrophic, perhaps hoping that market disruptions will increase pressure on the Republicans to waive through the necessary legislation. Markets, however, have so far been reluctant to co-operate. (See this earlier blog.)

In a letter to Congress on 25 September, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew described the ensuing situation as “default by another name”, and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein has said that “there is no precedent for a default”.

Investors hate the word “default” but they need to be careful about its exact meaning here. Most observers, including the major investment banks, think it very unlikely that the US would ever choose to default on any payments due on its sovereign debt, even if the debt ceiling is left permanently unchanged after 17 October.

The government could, however, go into arrears on many of its normal payments after that date. This would have serious contractionary effects on the economy, and might lead credit agencies to downgrade their ratings on US sovereign debt. 

Many people are asking why the financial markets have so far been unruffled by the political crisis which is playing itself out in Washington. That is a very good question. Yesterday was a case in point. The Financial Times website led with a story by Martin Wolf headlined “America is flirting with self destruction”. Yet equities were up on the day, and gold fell sharply.

The explanation for this conundrum, I believe, is twofold. Part of it is connected to the nature of markets, and part to the nature of this particular episode.

To start with the nature of markets, it has become very clear in recent years that asset prices are not necessarily very good at reacting in a smooth manner to changes in the perceived risk of extremely unlikely events taking place. For long periods, the markets do not react at all, and then they suddenly react in a discontinuous manner. The manner in which asset prices reacted to the risk of sovereign defaults in the euro area before and during the crisis of 2011-12 was a good example of this.

For many years, the markets acted as if there was no risk at all of default. Then, in the summer of 2011, they suddenly started to price a risk of 30 per cent or more that several sovereigns would default within the next 5 years, an assessment which now appears to have been a significant over-reaction. So the fact that markets do not price these risks for very long periods of deteriorating newsflow does not imply that the risks are in fact non existent, or that they will not suddenly appear in asset prices.

Why do markets behave in this way when, after all, the major participants are fairly rational, most of the time?

 

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. 

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: 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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 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.