The recent buoyancy in global equities has raised fears that the markets have entered a major bubble, driven by the unprecedented expansion in central bank balance sheets.
To the extent central bank asset purchases have reduced government bond yields, they have certainly brought forward returns from the future into the present, thus reducing expected returns on both equities and bonds. But this is normal in a period of monetary easing, and it does not automatically mean that markets are in a bubble.
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]:
The package of quantitative easing announced today by the new regime at the Bank of Japan is one of the largest monetary injections ever announced by the central bank of a major developed economy. The only rival for that crown is the emergency easing in monetary policy which took place in most economies in late 2008. But today’s BoJ action has not been driven by any short-term emergency. It represents a deliberate change in philosophy, and a complete abandonment of everything that the Bank of Japan has said about monetary policy in the past two decades. Those who believe in quantitative easing certainly have their experiment, writ large in Tokyo.
In effect the new governor, Haruhiko Kuroda, has imported into Japan the whole of the Federal Reserve’s post-Lehman balance sheet strategy, and he will implement it in under two years, instead of the five years or more taken by the Fed. The doubling in the Japanese monetary base over a period of 21 months is in itself remarkable. Taken together with the extension of the duration of bonds purchased from less than 3 years to an average of 7 years, the injection becomes of historic proportions.
The new strategy brings, for the first time, a real prospect of breaking the deflationary psyche which has plagued Japan for so long. But it also brings risks that the strategy might work too well, with inflation expectations unhinging the bond market. Mr Kuroda is trying to pull off a difficult trick, which is “to drastically change the expectations of markets and economic entities”, and to do so in a very particular way.
The sterling exchange rate has now declined by about 7 per cent this year, thus eliminating all of the rise which occurred when the euro crisis was in full flood in 2011-12. Investors are asking three main questions about the drop in sterling. When will it end? Will it succeed in boosting UK economic growth? And could it, conceivably, lead to a full blown sterling crisis?
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?
Last week, in the first of a series of blogs on the use of the central bank printing press, I argued that the deliberate decision to increase the monetary base several fold in the US, the eurozone and the UK is an almost unprecedented event in the history of economic policy. Only in Japan, in the early 2000s, has anything like this been seen before.
In this blog, the second in the series, I ask whether this remarkable injection in central bank liquidity is destined to result in rising global inflation in coming years.
In the second half of 2011, the US economy appeared to buck the impact of the eurozone crisis, with American economic data surprising on the strong side in the final quarter of the year. But, as the new year begins, it seems improbable that economic activity in the US and the eurozone can remain so divergent for much longer.
Will the weakness in the eurozone eventually bring the US economy to its knees? Or will the greater resilience of the US win the day? The answer to these questions will determine whether the global economy will experience a double-dip recession in 2012.
The data released over the holiday period seem to be pointing in a more optimistic direction than markets have recognised. A year of above-trend growth certainly looks like a stretch in the present environment of fiscal tightening and global deleveraging. But the risks of a global double-dip recession appear to be receding, at least for now.
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:
- How different will this prove to be in practice from the old status quo?
- Is it a good idea from an economic point of view?
- 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.
The debate about whether the ECB should engage in open-ended purchases of eurozone sovereign debt rages on, and the financial markets continue to follow every twist and turn with rapt attention. This debate has legal, economic and political aspects, none of which have been confronted before in exactly this form. The custom and practice of central banking, and of the relationships between central banks and fiscal policy, is being rewritten under the glare of a global spotlight, and in the harshest of circumstances.
Mervyn King. Image by Getty.
A few weeks ago, the big central banks were calmly embarking on their “exit” strategies from unconventional monetary accommodation. Then the global economy slowed but for a while inflation remained too high for the Fed or the ECB to consider further easing. Their hands were tied until inflation peaked. Recognising this, markets collapsed. But now that there are some tentative signs of inflation subsiding, the central banks are rediscovering their ammunition stores.
There are basically three types of action that they are considering. In order of orthodoxy, and stealing some of Mervyn King’s terminology, here is a taxonomy of possible measures:
1. Conventional liquidity injections
This is safe territory for the central banks, and they are willing to act swiftly and decisively if necessary. Yesterday’s injections of dollar liquidity into the European financial system are a case in point. Some European banks, especially those in France, were finding it very difficult to raise dollar financing, which they needed in order to pay down earlier dollar borrowings, and to make loans to customers in dollars. The resulting strains in the money markets were undermining confidence in the ability of these banks to remain liquid, and markets were increasingly unwilling to accept their credit. This presented a classic case for the ECB to inject liquidity, using conventional currency swap arrangements to raise dollars from the Fed. Although the ECB will incur a minimal amount of currency risk in the process, and will also incur some credit risk (which will be collateralised), this is very much business as usual for any central bank, as it was in 2008.