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
The long farewell to quantitative easing, one of the most remarkable experiments in the history of macroeconomic policy, starts now. In the wake of the strong US employment data in recent months, the Federal Reserve finally announced that it will taper its asset purchases from January onwards. The Fed’s balance sheet will stabilise in 2014, but will not begin to decline for several more years.
Variously described as the saviour of the global economy, totally irrelevant, a drug for the financial system or the harbinger of future inflation, QE is still controversial and insufficiently understood. Macro-economists are destined to be studying its effects for decades to come. Here are some early reflections. Read more
The Federal Reserve told us in December last year that it would maintain its asset purchases until the outlook for the US labour market had improved substantially. Does Tuesday’s rather anaemic jobs data release meet this criterion any more than it did last month, when the Fed decided not to taper its asset purchases? Not really.
The underlying pace of job gains is certainly not rising, and may even have fallen slightly. But the unemployment rate dropped to 7.2 per cent, and the pace of decline suggests that the 6.5 per cent threshold for considering interest rate rises could be reached in mid-2014, ie before the balance sheet tapering has ended! This gives Janet Yellen, the incoming Fed chairman, an early problem: she will surely have to reduce that 6.5 per cent threshold soon.
In this blog, we use some statistical tools which have been developed by the regional districts of the Fed to frame a judgment about the underlying state of the labour market, updated to include this week’s new information . 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 . 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
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
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
The FOMC will meet on Wednesday with the markets feeling confident that there will be no change in monetary policy. This means that the $85bn per month rate of balance sheet expansion will probably remain in place. But recently chairman Ben Bernanke has conceded, rather reluctantly, that the Fed’s exit strategy from quantitative easing will soon need to be reconsidered by the committee, and the debate could start at this month’s meeting. In any event, with economists now upgrading their forecasts for US GDP for the first time in quite a while, the markets are increasingly focused on whether the exit can be handled successfully.
The first question is whether the exit will be gradual or abrupt. The chairman’s personal preference is very well known: it should be gradual, and extremely well flagged in advance. But Mr Bernanke might not be in office after next January, and there are others on the FOMC who could have different ideas. Furthermore, economic and market circumstances could change. In 1994, GDP growth and inflation both rose markedly, and the Fed slammed on the brakes without any warning. The resulting 3 per cent rise in the Fed funds rate delivered a major shock to the financial system. Read more
It is now almost universally accepted that the major central banks were woefully mistaken in ignoring the build up of credit risk in the years before 2008. Whether they should have acted through raising interest rates or by tightening regulations on the financial system is still under dispute, but the abject consequences of doing nothing are plain for all to see.
This has naturally made policymakers very determined not to make the same mistake again. But they are also aware that they do not want to be a group of generals focused on winning the last war. In the past, these decisions have not proved easy to make in real time. Consequently, a great deal of recent research has been aimed at doing better in future.
The Fed has been in the front line of this work, but the Bank for International Settlements has joined in with some very valuable insights and empirical work, led by Claudio Borio. Although there is clearly a very active exchange of views occurring at the Fed, the bottom line for investors is that restrictive monetary action in the US, in response to a build up of excessive financial risk, is not likely for quite some time. Read more
The markets were impacted yesterday by two very different sets of monetary policy minutes from the Fed and the Bank of England. In the case of the Fed, the worry is that the central bank is back-tracking on its commitment to maintain open-ended QE until the labour market has improved “substantially”. Meanwhile, at the Bank of England, the concern is that monetary policy might be too easy in the context of a declining exchange rate, and an inflation outlook that will exceed the official target for at least the next two years.
Although coming at the monetary policy problem from entirely different angles, these concerns have one thing in common. It has become increasingly difficult for both the Fed and the BoE to communicate their policy regime clearly to the markets in an environment where their policy committees have become openly split about the right stance to pursue in the months ahead. Read more