central banks

Marine Le Pen

Marine Le Pen  © Getty Images

The European Central Bank has been one of the two main providers of global monetary easing since 2015, and that seems likely to persist throughout 2017. Despite its continuing importance to the setting of global monetary conditions, the bank’s policy deliberations have made only little waves in the markets since deflation risks abated last year.

The eurozone economy seems to be in an increasingly healthy state, at least from a cyclical point of view, and monetary conditions appear to be normalising across the entire region. The latest rounds of asset purchases have proved more successful than previous doses, primarily because they have reduced sovereign and other credit spreads in the troubled economies, thus bringing monetary assistance to countries that needed it most. Read more

One of the most dramatic monetary interventions in recent years has been the unprecedented surge in global central bank balance sheets. This form of “money printing” has not had the inflationary effect predicted by pessimists, but there is still deep unease among some central bankers about whether these bloated balance sheets should be accepted as part of the “new normal”. There are concerns that ultra large balance sheets carry with them long term risks of inflation, and financial market distortions.

In recent weeks, there have been debates within the FOMC and the ECB Governing Council about balance sheet strategy, and it is likely that there will be important new announcements from both these central banks before the end of 2017. Meanwhile, the PBOC balance sheet has been drifting downwards because of the large scale currency intervention that has been needed to prevent a rapid devaluation in the renminbi. Only the Bank of Japan seems likely to persist with policies that will extend the balance sheet markedly further after 2017.

Globally, the persistent increase in the scale of quantitative easing is therefore likely to come to an end in 2017, and it is probable that central bank balance sheets will shrink thereafter, assuming the world economy continues to behave satisfactorily.

Investors have become accustomed to the benefits of “QE infinity” on asset prices, and are cynical about the ability and desire of central bankers ever to return their balance sheets to “normal”. They will have to adjust to a new reality fairly soon. Read more

The robust US employment data last Friday have left almost no room for doubt that the Federal Open Market Committee will raise short term rates by 25 basis points on 15 March, and will probably warn of two or three more hikes to come this year.

Analysts seem confident that this accelerated phase of Fed tightening will involve a further rise in bond yields and the dollar, and many active fund managers are positioned for both these events to occur in coming months. Other analysts believe that the more hawkish Fed will puncture the “euphoria” in the US equity market before too long. Read more

President Trump has an almost unprecedented opportunity to reshape the key personnel and legal basis of the Federal Reserve in the next 12 months, essentially rebuilding the most important economic organisation in the world in his own image, if he so chooses.

The President may be able to appoint five or even six members to the seven-person Board of Governors within 12 months, including the Chair, Vice Chair for monetary policy, and a new Vice Chair for banking supervision. He may also be able to sign into law a bill that alters aspects of the Fed’s operating procedures and accountability to Congress, based on a bill passed in 2015 by the House of Representatives.

Not surprisingly, investors are beginning to eye these changes with some trepidation.

Some observers fear that the President will fill the Fed with his cronies, ready to monetise the budget deficit if that should prove politically convenient. Others fear the opposite, believing that the new appointments will result in monetary policy being handed over to a policy rule (like the Taylor Rule) that will lead to much higher interest rates in the relatively near future. Still others think that the most important outcome will be a deregulation of the banking system that results in much easier credit availability, with increased dangers of asset bubbles and economic overheating.

It is not difficult to see how this process could work out very badly indeed. But, at present, I am optimistic that a modicum of sense will prevail. Read more

The global markets remained in reflationary mode for much of last week, a regime that has now persisted for many months. Led by the US, bond yields have been rising, mainly because inflation expectations are on the increase. Risk assets have been performing adequately, with the exception of the emerging markets.

This reflationary regime has been driven by much stronger global economic activity since mid-2016, and latterly by a belief that Donald Trump’s election victory will lead to US fiscal easing, along with the possibility of the “politicisation” of the Federal Reserve, implying overly accommodative monetary policy.

There are various ways in which this regime could end. The world economy could suddenly go back to sleep, as it has on many occasions since 2009. The US fiscal easing could become bogged down in the Washington “swamp”. Or the Fed could become unexpectedly hawkish, stamping on the first signs of inflationary growth in the American economy. This last risk is probably under-estimated, and is worth considering in detail. Read more

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump  © Getty Images

Presidential elections have often marked major changes in American attitudes towards fiscal policy.

The arrival of President Kennedy in 1960 represented the beginning of Keynesian fiscal activism. President Nixon’s election in 1968 marked the high point of inflationary budgetary policy designed to finance the Vietnam War.

President Clinton in 1992 ushered in a period in which the reduction of public debt was paramount. The elections of President Reagan in 1980, and George W. Bush in 2000, marked eras in which tax cuts took precedence over budget balance, and counter-inflation policy was ceded to the Federal Reserve.

As the 2016 election approaches, investors are wondering whether another major change in the approach to fiscal policy is in the works. Is a lurch towards fiscal stimulus the “next big thing” in Washington? Possibly, but I am not convinced. Read more

The new UK chancellor Philip Hammond

The new UK chancellor Philip Hammond  © Getty Images

Until recently, the rate of expansion in global central bank balance sheets seemed likely to remain extremely high into the indefinite future. Although the US Federal Reserve had frozen its balance sheet, both the European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan were pursuing open-ended programmes of asset purchases, and the Bank of England actually increased its intended stock of assets by £50bn in August. Global central bank balance sheets were rising by about 2 percentage points of GDP per annum – a similar rate to that seen since 2012.

Some commentators argued that the central banks would never step aside from their programmes of balance-sheet expansion. After QE1, 2 and 3, we would get “QE infinity”. Others argued that unlimited quantitative easing would result in disaster, either through rapidly rising inflation, or bubbles in asset markets.

Neither of these dark outcomes has occurred. Instead, it seems that policy makers are moving away from QE because it is no longer effective and no longer necessary. “QE infinity” is coming to an end, not with a bang but with a whimper. Read more

Fiscal policy activism is firmly back on the agenda. After several years of deliberate fiscal austerity, designed to bring down budget deficits and stabilise public debt ratios, the fiscal stance in the developed economies became broadly neutral in 2015. There are now signs that it is turning slightly expansionary, with several major governments apparently heeding the calls from Keynesian economists to boost infrastructure expenditure.

This seems an obvious path at a time when governments can finance public investment programmes at less than zero real rates of interest. Even those who believe that government programmes tend to be inefficient and wasteful would have a hard time arguing that the real returns on public transport, housing, health and education are actually negative [1].

With monetary policy apparently reaching its limits in some countries, and deflationary threats still not defeated in Japan and the Eurozone, we are beginning to see the emergence of packages of fiscal stimulus with supply side characteristics, notably in Japan and China.

Investors are asking whether this pivot towards fiscal activism is a reason to become more bullish about equities and more bearish about bonds, on the grounds that the new policy mix will be better for global GDP growth. This is directionally right, but it is important not to exaggerate the extent of the pivot. Read more

As investors anxiously await the key monetary policy decisions from the Federal Reserve and the Bank of Japan next week, there have been signs that the powerful rally in bond markets, unleashed last year by the threat of global deflation, may be starting to reverse. There has been talk of a major bond tantrum, similar to the one that followed Ben Bernanke’s tapering of bond purchases in 2013.

This time, however, the Fed seems unlikely to be at the centre of the tantrum. Even if the FOMC surprises the market by raising US interest rates by 25 basis points next week, this will probably be tempered by another reduction in its expected path for rates in the medium term.

Instead, the Bank of Japan has become the centre of global market attention. The results of its comprehensive review of monetary policy, to be announced next week, are shrouded in uncertainty. So far this year, both the content and the communication of the monetary announcements by BoJ governor Haruhiko Kuroda have been less than impressive, and the market’s response has been repeatedly in the opposite direction to that intended by the central bank.

As a result, the inflation credibility of the BoJ has sunk to a new low, and the policy board badly needs to restore confidence in the 2 per cent inflation target. But the board is reported to be split, and the direction of policy is unclear. With the JGB market now having a major impact on yields in the US, that could be the recipe for an accident in the global bond market. Read more

Professor Christopher Sims

Professor Christopher Sims  © Getty Images

The most far reaching speech at the Federal Reserve’s Jackson Hole meeting last week was not the opening address by chairman Janet Yellen, interesting though it was, but the contribution on the fiscal theory of the price level (FTPL) by Professor Christopher Sims of Princeton University.

The FTPL is normally wrapped in impenetrable mathematical models, and it has therefore remained obscure, both to policy makers and to investors. But the subject is now moving centre stage, as Prof Sims’ lucid explanation makes very apparent. It has important implications for the conduct of macro-economic policy, especially in Japan and the eurozone member states.

In these countries, Prof Sims is challenging the claim that further quantitative easing can achieve the 2 per cent inflation target, without explicit co-operation with the government budget. In the US, he is disputing Ms Yellen’s assertion last week that the Fed has further unconventional monetary weapons in reserve if the economy is hit by negative shocks in the future. Read more

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The influence of the global economy on the decisions of the US Federal Reserve has become a topic of frontline importance in recent months.

Since the start of 2016, events in foreign economies have conspired to delay the FOMC’s intended “normalisation” of domestic interest rates, which had apparently been set on a firmly determined path last December.

This delay has taken the heat out of the dollar. But the key question now is whether weak foreign activity will continue to trump domestic strength in the US.

To judge from last week’s surprisingly hawkish FOMC minutes, which I had not expected, the Fed seems to be reverting to type (see Tim Duy). Many committee members have downplayed foreign risks and have returned to their earlier focus on the strength of the domestic US labour market, which in their view is already at full employment. Read more

Just when it all seemed very bleak, the global economy has shown some tentative signs of a rebound in recent weeks. The improved data significantly reduce recession risks in the near term.

Last month, in our regular report on the results of our “nowcasts” for world economic activity, we pointed to a sharp weakening in eurozone growth, leading to new lows for global growth in the recent slowdown. The US and China both seemed to be stuck in a prolonged malaise, and the world growth rate had slumped to more than one percentage point below trend.

Furthermore, momentum was negative. Economic commentators, including the IMF and the major central banks, were warning of increased downside risks to global economic projections. In fact, they are still issuing these warnings.

This month, however, the data have failed to co-operate with the pessimists.

Global activity growth has bounced back to 2.6 per cent, compared to a low point of 2.2 per cent a few weeks back. Much of this recovery has occurred in the advanced economies, with our nowcast for the United States showing a particularly marked rebound after more than 12 months of progressive slowdown.

It would be wrong to place too much importance on a single month’s data, especially when the nowcasts are heavily influenced by business and consumer surveys.

These surveys have remained mixed, but downward momentum has been partly reversed in most advanced economies, especially in the US where the regional Fed surveys for March have been identified by the nowcast models as major upside surprises. In fact, sentiment had become so pessimistic that even slightly better data have represented positive surprises relative to economists’ expectations, according to the Citigroup Surprise Indices.

These better numbers still leave the global economy growing at 0.7 per cent below trend, so spare capacity in the world system is still rising, and long term underlying inflation pressures should therefore still be dropping.

Better, but still not very good, is this month’s verdict. Full details of this month’s nowcasts can be found hereRead more

BELGIUM-EU-SUMMIT

Mario Draghi, ECP president  © Getty Images

Even central bankers can learn from their past mistakes. The package of measures unveiled on Thursday by the European Central Bank is an intelligent response to the criticisms levelled against it for the debacle of its previous, underwhelming easing in December, and against the Bank of Japan for its misguided experiment with negative rates last month.

The announcement by Mario Draghi, ECB president, represents just about the best effort that can be adopted nowadays to use unconventional monetary policy to restore inflation to target. It is not overly huge in scale, but is multi-faceted and well directed at the special problems plaguing the eurozone economy. Read more

China's Central Bank Governor Zhou Xiaochuan Holds A Press Conference

Zhou Xiaochuan, PBoC governor  © Getty Images

The long and detailed interview given by the People’s Bank of China governor, Zhou Xiaochuan, to Caixin Weekly on Tuesday is in one sense very un-Chinese. It provides a much more fulsome statement of foreign exchange policy, as viewed from the central bank, than anything available in the past. After months in which the governor has been conspicuously absent from the public fray, he has now chosen to go on the attack.

Mr Zhou sees the recent exchange rate crisis as out of line with economic fundamentals in China, and for that reason essentially temporary. He describes a new currency regime that is best characterised as a dirty floating regime, measured against the renminbi basket, not the dollar. “Speculative” attacks on that regime will be opposed and defeated by the central bank. In the longer term, the peg against the basket can be adjusted if fundamentals change, and the links between the two will be explained in more detail in the future.

This statement will further reduce the risk of a competitive devaluation of the renminbi in the near term. But does that mean that the China currency crisis is over? Read more

The risk of a large devaluation in the Chinese renminbi is once again spooking markets, which are firmly convinced that this as a very bad contingency for global risk assets in 2016. As last year ended, investors became more relaxed about the threat, following a series of veiled announcements from the PBoC about its currency strategy. These statements seemed to suggest that the central bank would broadly stabilise the effective exchange rate against a currency basket from now on, while allowing greater flexibility against a (possibly) rising dollar.

Since the dawn of the new year, however, investors have become much more concerned that a larger devaluation may be in the works, either through the choice of the Chinese authorities, or because the outflow of private capital is getting out of hand. Some bears in the currency markets believe that China could soon be suffering from a genuine exchange rate crisis, in which its enormous foreign exchange reserves could be quickly drained.

That would indeed be a severe shock to global markets, since it would effectively export the deflationary forces that are overpowering the Chinese manufacturing sector to the rest of the world, and would probably require direct measures to restore the health of the Chinese financial system. But it still seems unlikely to happen, for now at least. Read more

The latest and, so far, the most severe scare about global deflation started with the oil price collapse in mid 2014, and reached its peak with the sharp drop in global industrial production in mid 2015, swiftly followed by the Chinese devaluation episode in August. Fears of an imminent slide towards a global industrial recession haunted the markets, and both expected inflation and bond yields in the advanced economies approached all-time lows.

But, just when everything seemed so bleak, the flow of economic information changed direction. Global industrial production rallied, and China stabilised its currency. On Friday, the US jobs and wages data were much stronger than expected. Inflation data in the advanced economies have passed their low points for this cycle, and the rise in headline 12-month inflation in the next three months could surprise the markets.

This certainly does not mean that the repeated warnings of the inflationistas will suddenly be proved right. It may not even mean that long-run deflationary pressures in the global economy have been fully overcome: global growth rates are still below trend, and spare capacity is rising in the emerging world. But the peak of the latest, commodity-induced deflation scare is in the past. Read more

The extreme turbulence of the financial markets in August resulted in a temporary rise in the Vix measure of US equity market volatility to levels that have been exceeded on only a few occasions since 2008. Markets have now settled down somewhat, but it is far from clear whether the episode is over. In order to reach a judgment on this, we need to form a view on what caused the crisis in the first place.

The obvious answer is “China”. The response of the Chinese authorities to the stock market bubble, and the manner in which the devaluation of the renminbi was handled, raised questions about policy credibility that added to ongoing concerns about hard landing risk in the economy. The conclusion that a China demand shock was the main driving force behind the global financial turbulence was given added credence by the simultaneous collapse in commodity prices, and in exports from many emerging economies linked to China.

It would be absurd to deny that China had an important role in the crisis of August 2015. But was it the only factor involved? After all, China’s growth rate does not seem to have slowed very much. Furthermore, standard econometric simulations of the impact of a China demand shock on the major developed economies suggest that the effects should not be very large, and certainly not large enough to explain the scale of the decline in global equity prices, or in the “break-even” inflation rates built into US and European bond markets.

It is conceivable that bad news from China triggered a sudden rise in risk aversion among global investors that exacerbated the shock itself. It also possible that markets were responding to the fact that the Federal Reserve apparently remained determined to raise US interest rates before year end, regardless of the new deflationary forces that were being triggered by events in China.

New econometric work published today by my colleagues at Fulcrum suggest that the perception of an adverse monetary policy shock may have been important in explaining the financial turbulence, in which case the Fed needs to tread extremely carefully as it approaches lift-off for US rates. Read more

Fed Chair Janet Yellen Holds News Conference Following Federal Reserve Policy Meetings

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Last week, the Federal Reserve was forced to admit that it had mistakenly released the forecasts made by the board of governors’ economic staff for the June meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee. These forecasts are normally kept secret, until they are released with a five-year time lag.

This embarrassing error could not have come at a worse time for the board, since it is already under considerable pressure from Congress over the alleged misuse of public information in the recent past. Although there is no suggestion that this latest mistake involves any privileged access to secret information, it does mean that the Fed has accidentally made public much more information about its internal forecasts than it usually wishes to.

The rest of us therefore have more information than usual to work on. As this blog noted last weekend, the economic staff’s projections indicate a worryingly pessimistic view of the supply side of the US economy, with only a small output gap at present, and very low productivity growth in the future. If validated by future data, this pessimistic view will involve a much lower medium-term growth rate for the US economy than has generally been assumed by official and private economists, and eventually that might start to worry the equity markets. Read more

The latest results from Fulcrum’s “nowcast” models of the global economy, based on data published up to last week, indicate that the dip in global economic activity that was apparent in the early part of this year has now been fully reversed. In fact, in early July the models are reporting that underlying global activity growth has risen to 3.5 per cent, which is the highest since last November, when the Chinese and US economies both embarked on a slowdown. That now appears to have been temporary, and the world economy has resumed growing at near its trend rate.

There has been a simultaneous improvement in activity growth in many regions of the world in the past two months – including in the US, the UK, Japan and China – which increases our confidence that the pick-up in activity is genuine.

However, it is noteworthy that while US activity has now re-accelerated, the euro area has slowed moderately from the firm growth (by its own standards) reported earlier in the year. Therefore a gap of almost 1 percentage point has opened up between US (2.6 per cent) and euro area (1.7 per cent) growth, after a period in which the two regions were running neck-and-neck.

Within the euro area, there has been a marked recent slowdown in Spain, which had previously been the strongest of the major European economies. It is possible that the Greek crisis has had some effects on economic confidence in Spain, as shown in recent weakness in business survey data.

In the emerging economies, recent data have been mixed, with the improvement in China offset by pronounced weakness in Brazil, Russia and some smaller Asian economies. It is too early to conclude that the slowing in activity in the emerging economies is definitively over, but the signs are improving somewhat. Read more

LATVIA- EU-SUMMIT

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As the Greek drama dominated news bulletins throughout the first half of 2015, there was generally little impact on global financial markets, outside Greece itself. It is true that eurozone equities underperformed the world equity market after mid April, but the euro actually strengthened over this period, and the yield spreads between peripheral eurozone bond markets and German bunds widened only slightly, at least until this week.

This general aura of market calmness had consequences for the talks themselves, since it emboldened the Germans and other EU negotiators to take an even harder line with the Syriza-led Greek government. With no hint of a concession to take back to Athens, Mr Tsipras had nothing to sell to the left of his party.

Paradoxically, the fact that the markets remained quiet for months has therefore increased the chances of a major accident taking place as political nerves fray.

The prolonged period of market insouciance should not lull any of Europe’s leaders, headed towards Brussels for an emergency summit on Monday, into a false sense of security. There is no guarantee that the markets would remain relaxed in the case of a Greek default or exit from the euro. The real test starts now. Read more