Janet Yellen, Fed chair © Getty Images
As the Federal Reserve’s open markets committee meets for its crucial two-day session in Washington, Janet Yellen faces her first real policy test since assuming the chair in February 2014. Amazingly, she is already almost halfway through her first term. But, so far she has had the relatively easy task of piloting the exit from quantitative easing. The exit plan had already been mapped out by Ben Bernanke, and it was not particularly contentious inside the committee.
The decision on whether to raise interest rates this week is, however, proving more divisive. Among her key lieutenants, vice-chair Stanley Fischer seems somewhat hawkish, while William Dudley has stated the case for the doves. John Williams, her successor at the helm of the San Francisco Fed, and a key ally, also seems inclined to a more dovish view than he championed earlier in the summer.
Mr Williams recently told the Wall Street Journal that he would “honestly, honestly, honestly” want to hear the opinions of his colleagues at this week’s meeting before making up his mind. Does he protest too much, I wonder? Perhaps the decision has already been taken, but the Yellen camp wants to allow the hawks a full and fair hearing before announcing that rates would remain unchanged. Read more
Global investors have been in thrall to the central banks ever since quantitative easing (QE) started in 2009 and, of course, all eyes are on the Federal Reserve this week. The Fed has now frozen its QE programme, and may raise rates sometime this year, though perhaps not as early as next Thursday. Nevertheless, global investors have been comforted by the extremely large increases in balance sheets proposed by the Bank of Japan (BoJ) and the ECB, and the overall scale of worldwide QE has seemed likely to remain sizeable for the foreseeable future.
However, in recent months, an ominous new factor has arisen. Capital outflows from the emerging market economies (EMs) have surged, and have resulted in large declines in foreign exchange reserves as EM central banks have intervened to support their exchange rates.
Since these reserves are typically held in government bonds in the developed market economies (DMs), this process has resulted in bond sales by EM central banks. In August, this new factor has more than offset the entire QE undertaken by the ECB and the BoJ, leaving global QE substantially in negative territory.
Some commentators have become concerned that this new form of “quantitative tightening” will result in a significant reversal of total central bank support for global asset prices, especially if the EM crisis gets worse. This blog examines the quantities involved, and discusses the analytical debate about whether any of this matters at all for asset prices. 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
President Xi Jinping (L) with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang © Getty Images
It would be easy to dismiss the recent extreme turbulence in global financial markets as a dramatic, but ultimately unimportant, manifestation of illiquid markets in the dog days of summer. But it would be complacent to do so. There is something much more important going on, involving doubts about the competence and credibility of Chinese economic policy and the appropriateness of the US Federal Reserve’s monetary strategy. These doubts will need to be resolved before markets will fully stabilise once more.
The August turbulence was triggered initially by a renewed collapse in commodity prices. For the most part, this was due to excessive supply in key energy and metals markets, and the sell-off only became extreme when there were panic sales of inventories, and a final unwinding of “commodity carry” trades. This inverse bubble was a commodity market event, not a reflection of weak global economic activity. In fact, taken in isolation, it would probably have been beneficial for world growth, albeit with very uncertain time lags.
However, that reckoned without the China factor. Activity growth in China had rebounded slightly following the piecemeal policy easing in April, but the data available so far for August suggest that the growth rate has subsided again to about 6 per cent, roughly 1 per cent below target. Although this is very far from a hard landing, it undermined confidence. Read more
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For many months, as dark clouds have gathered over the Chinese economy, it has seemed obvious that the authorities might be tempted to press an escape button that has been used by all the other major economies since 2008. That button is labelled “devaluation”. Yet, until Tuesday, this temptation was stoutly resisted. Premier Li Keqiang has never seemed particularly attracted to a traditional Asian devaluation strategy. Indeed, export-led growth is the reverse of the economic rebalancing that he has always championed.
China has now clearly blinked, and the renminbi has fallen by 4 per cent in two days. However, as so often in China, it is impossible to tell from official statements whether a major regime shift has actually taken place.
The PBOC is trying to describe the devaluation as nothing more than a tactical shift to allow market forces to work more actively, thus allowing the currency to enter the SDR fairly soon. But the PBOC has also warned that the short term market moves might be quite large. They may be seeking to dress up a deliberate devaluation in the clothes of a “market friendly” reform.
If China really has pressed its own escape button, the consequences for everyone else will be far reaching. Read more
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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
Global Growth Report Card, June 2015
According to Fulcrum’s “nowcast” factor models, global economic activity has improved significantly in the past month, with data from China and Japan recording stronger growth than has been seen for some time.
The eurozone remains fairly robust (if only by its own rather unimpressive standards), but the US has failed so far to bounce back from a sluggish first quarter, even after the strong jobs report last Friday. There have been further downward revisions to forecasts for US GDP growth in the 2015 calendar year, including notably by the International Monetary Fund. This will be yet another year in which US growth has failed to match the optimistic expectations built into consensus economic forecasts at the start of the year.
Despite some lingering doubts about the US, the improvement in global growth this month has significantly reduced the tail risk that the world might be heading towards a more serious slowdown. The reduced risk of a more severe global slowdown, along with signs of a bottoming in headline inflation in most economies, has probably been a factor behind the sell-off in bond markets in recent weeks, as the perception of global deflation risks has faded.
The regular proxy for global activity that we derive from our “nowcast” factor models (covering the main advanced economies plus China, see graph on the right) shows that activity growth is now running at 3.5 per cent, which means that the slight dip in the growth rate that we identified around March/April has now been eliminated. Although the “recovery” in growth is only around 0.7 per cent from the low point, it is nevertheless significant because it suggests that the risk that a hard landing in China could drag the world economy into a more severe downturn has diminished, at least for now. Read more
Ever since the crash in 2008, the central banks in the advanced economies have had but one obsession — how to set monetary policy to ensure the maximum growth rate in aggregate demand. Interest rates at the zero lower bound, followed by a massive increase in their balance sheets, was the answer they conjured up.
Now, those central banks contemplating an exit from these policies, primarily the US Federal Reserve and the Bank of England, are turning their attention to the supply side of their economies. When, they are asking, will output reach the ceiling imposed by the supply potential of the economy?
The Bank of England has been in the lead here, with the Monetary Policy Committee recently conducting a special study of the supply side in the UK. Its conclusion was that gross domestic product is now only 0.5 per cent below potential, which implies that tighter monetary policy will soon be needed if GDP growth remains above potential for much longer.
In the US, the Fed has been much less specific than that, but the unemployment rate has now fallen very close to its estimate of the natural rate (5.0-5.2 per cent). Sven Jari Stehn of Goldman Sachs has used the Fed staffers’ supply side models to calculate that their implied estimate of the US output gap may be only 0.6 per cent, not far from the UK figure.
If the UK and US central banks were to act on these calculations, the implication would be that they no longer hold out much hope that they can ever regain the loss in potential output that has occurred in the past decade, relative to previous trends. That would be a massive admission, with an enormous implied sacrifice in future output levels if they are wrong. It would also be very worrying for financial assets, since it would draw the market’s attention to a downgrade in the Fed’s estimation of the long-run path for GDP. Read more
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Ever since the collapse in oil prices started last summer, the behaviour of the global economy and financial markets has been heavily affected by the consequences of lower energy prices. Now, however, there is gathering evidence that the primary effects of the oil shock have been absorbed into the system, and there are signs that other forces are beginning to take control. What are these forces, and how will they affect the global economy in the months ahead?
When the oil shock reached its maximum early in 2015, economists were largely agreed on its likely impact. Since it seemed to stem mainly from the supply side of the oil market, not the demand side (a fact corroborated by IMF research last week), it was thought likely to boost real global GDP growth this year by about 0.5-0.75 per cent, leading to a break-out in global growth to the upside. It also had a dark side, increasing the deflation threat in the eurozone and Japan, but this was likely to be offset by further aggressive monetary easing by their respective central banks. Read more
The financial markets listened to Janet Yellen’s speech on “normalising” monetary policy last Friday, shrugged, and moved on largely unaffected. It was, indeed, a dovish speech, of the type that had been foreshadowed at her press conference after the FOMC meeting in March (see Tim Duy for a full analysis). But it also spelled out her analytical approach to monetary policy more clearly than at any time since she has assumed the leadership of the Federal Reserve.
In the speech, the Fed chairwoman used the term “equilibrium real interest rates” no less than 25 times. This concept is very much in vogue at the Fed. The Yellen speech uses it to explain what she and Stanley Fischer mean by “normalising” interest rates. It was also at the centre of Ben Bernanke’s first forays into economic blog writing this week, which reminds us that it has some pedigree at the central bank.
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Now that the Federal Reserve has announced that its policy stance after June will be entirely “data determined”, the markets are watching the flow of information on US economic activity even more carefully than usual. Since 2010, there has been a recurring pattern in US GDP projections. They start optimistically, but are then progressively downgraded as the economic data come in.
Entering 2015, I was fairly confident that this depressing pattern would finally be overcome, but not so far. In the last few weeks, there has been a sharp downward adjustment to GDP growth estimates for the first quarter, and this has added to the market’s scepticism about whether the Fed will be ready to announce lift off for interest rates this summer. Read more
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When the Brazilian finance minister Guido Mantega complained that the Federal Reserve was waging a currency war against his country in September 2010, his comments led to a wave of sympathy and concern. The Fed’s aggressive monetary easing was causing a capital flight from the US into the apparently unstoppable emerging markets.
Uncompetitive exchange rates and domestic credit booms in the EMs were the result of US quantitative easing. American monetary policy makers showed little sympathy, arguing that the US had its own domestic inflation and unemployment mandates to worry about. If the dollar fell in the process, so be it.
That episode proved short lived. The Brazilian real is now a chronically weak currency. Yet the term “currency wars” has stuck. It is now alleged that almost all the major central banks are engaged in weakening their currencies, if not against each other then certainly relative to commodities, goods and services. Read more
When the Federal Open Market Committee meets on March 17-18, it will be able to drop the word “patient” from its statement without shocking the markets. After some confusion, the Fed’s intentions on the date of lift off now seem fairly priced, with Fed funds rate contracts showing a probability of more than 50 per cent that the first move will come in June. The behaviour of the dollar, and of core inflation, are likely to determine whether June or September is eventually chosen for lift off.
Once that is out of the way, the markets will turn their attention to a much harder question: how rapidly will rates rise after lift off? The market currently expects a much more gradual path than the median shown in the FOMC’s “dot” chart, but there is huge uncertainty about this question on the committee. As the graph above shows, the interest rate forecasts for individual members of the FOMC, which will be updated on Wednesday, have a very wide range.
According to Fed vice-chairman Stanley Fischer, the rationale for rate rises is that the Fed wants to embark on a process of “normalisation”, and he is adamant that today’s rates are “far from normal”. That, of course, raises the question: how should we define normal? On this, the leadership group on the FOMC is not offering much guidance, but a common way of answering the question among macro economists is to consult the Taylor rule. Read more
As the market awaits the Federal Reserve’s statements on Wednesday, the focus is on whether the FOMC will choose to signal a significant shift in a hawkish direction since its last meeting in July. Many investors believe that the key litmus test for this will be whether it chooses to drop two words from its July statement.
These words are “considerable time”. If that phrase disappears, then the market will need to absorb the fact that the Fed has deliberately chosen to force an upward adjustment in forward interest rate expectations, for the first time in this economic cycle. Read more
As the US labour market recovers, should investors brace themselves for an earlier rate rise? I spoke to global economy news editor Ferdinando Giugliano about whether the Fed may change course this month.
“Pent up wage deflation” is an unfamiliar and somewhat abstruse term dropped into the economic lexicon last week by Janet Yellen at the annual Jackson Hole conference. Originally coined by researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, the term is destined to be widely discussed because it is clearly influencing the US Federal Reserve chair’s thinking. If it exists, it would explain why wage inflation seems abnormally low, given the recent rapid drop in unemployment, and that could eliminate one important reason for keeping US interest rates at zero per cent for the “considerable period” promised by the central bank.
Ms Yellen is right to be aware of the concept, and to keep it under review, but in my view the Fed is unlikely to shift in a hawkish direction solely because of it. This blog explains the theoretical and empirical reason why this is the case.
(Warning some of these arguments are quite intricate – skip to the end if you want to avoid the economic debate and just want the policy implication.) Read more
Paul Krugman has written two interesting comments (here and here) on my recent “Keynesian Yellen versus Wicksellian BIS” blog. Paul says that the Bank for International Settlements should not be labelled “Wicksellian”, and then asks a typically insightful question: what constitutes “artificially” high asset prices? Some of the discussion below on this point may seem a bit arcane, but in fact it could prove highly relevant for investors.
The crux of the matter is Knut Wicksell’s definition of the (unobservable) natural rate of interest, and its difference from the actual interest rate, as set by the central banks . Krugman says that the Wicksellian or natural interest rate is that which would produce equilibrium between savings and capital investment in the real economy (“full employment”), and therefore leads to stable inflation. If the central banks set the actual rate below the natural rate, inflation will rise, and vice versa.
Since US inflation has generally been stable or falling for years, Krugman infers that the Federal Reserve must have been setting the actual interest rate at about the right level, or even too high (because of the zero lower bound). The further implication is that if current low interest rates are justified, so too are the high asset prices that they have triggered. In that sense, they are not “artificial” . Read more
Ben Bernanke’s tenure as Federal Reserve chairman ends this week. Financial Times markets and investment columnist John Authers speaks to Gavyn Davies, principal of Fulcrum Asset Management, who analyses the massive expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet under Mr Bernanke, and the course he has set for his successor, Janet Yellen
As we enter 2014, the five-year bull market in developed market equities remains in full swing. Recently, I argued that equities now look overvalued, but not egregiously so, and that the future of the bull market could depend on when the level of global GDP started to bump up against supply side constraints, forcing a genuine tightening in global monetary conditions.
Today, this blog offers a year end assessment of three crucial issues that relate to this: the supply side in the US; China’s attempt to control its credit bubble; and the ECB’s belief that there is no deflation threat in the euro area. At least one of these questions is likely to be the defining macro issue of 2014 and beyond. Read more