Most investors have been able to muster only two cheers for the year that has just ended.

In 2015, the performance of the main asset classes just about managed to maintain the broad pattern that has been seen since the equity bull market started in March 2009 but there are now definite signs of market fatigue. And although some major trends were obvious in retrospect — weak oil prices, falling euro, rising dollar, tumbling emerging currencies – they recorded sharp reversals that many macro investors failed to navigate in real time.

Global equities returned about 2 per cent in local currency terms [1], less than in recent years. In dollar terms, returns were slightly negative and market peaks in May 2015 have not yet been re-attained. A top may be forming, but as yet there is little sign that a major bear market trend has started.

Government bonds returned about 1 per cent, defying widespread predictions of a trend reversal, and yields were almost exactly flat during the year. Commodity prices plummeted by 33 per cent, continuing the crash that started in mid 2014, and they eventually took credit markets down with them. US high yield securities, for example, returned -9 per cent in 2015. Emerging markets (with the perplexing exception of Chinese equities, the best performing of the major markets) were also hit by the commodity melt-down and generally continued to under-perform developed market assets, in equities, credit and currencies.

Overall, then, the magic mix of moderate gross domestic product growth combined with extremely easy monetary conditions has continued to work in the developed markets. However, overall global asset market returns (bonds plus equities in local currencies, equally weighted) were only about 1.5 per cent, suggesting that some of the magic is wearing thin.

Looking ahead, it seems likely that 2016 will, at best, see similarly low asset returns. That, anyway, is overwhelmingly the consensus central view among mainstream forecasters. But as the bull market matures, it seems inevitable that one year soon we will experience a major setback to asset prices. Will 2016 be that year? 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

Janet Yellen

Janet Yellen, Fed chair  © Getty Images

This week has seen speculation about a mutiny from two members of the Federal Reserve’s board of governors against the leadership of Janet Yellen and Stanley Fischer, both of whom continue to say that they “expect” US rates to rise before the end of the year. Although “mutiny” is a strong term to describe differences of opinion in the contemplative corridors of the Fed, there is little doubt that the institution is now seriously split on the direction of monetary policy.

Furthermore, these splits could extend well beyond the date of the first rate hike to the entire path for rates in the next few years. Ms Yellen faces an unenviable task in finding a compromise path that both sides of the Federal Open Market Committee can support. Read more

When Janet Yellen announced last week that the Federal Open Market Committee had considered, but decided against, a rate rise in September, many commentators concluded that the Fed had taken a decisive shift towards dovishness. Yet the markets, so far, have not really shared this interpretation. Since Thursday’s press conference by the chair of the US Federal Reserve, the interest rate path expected by the bond markets has dropped very slightly; but the dollar has risen and equities have remained weak.

There is little sign that investors’ assessment of the Fed’s underlying policy stance has been altered by what is increasingly seen as nothing more than a “postponement” of the almost inevitable rate hike later this year. Whatever it intended to do, the Fed has not cleared the air. Read more


> on March 5, 2015 in Beijing, China.

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

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

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

Yellen Discusses Monetary Policy At Federal Reserve Bank In San Francisco

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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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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

The Federal Open Market Committee of the Federal Reserve is no longer expected to announce a further round of monetary easing when it concludes its two day meeting in Washington on Wednesday. The fact that the hawks have lost enthusiasm for more quantitative easing is scarcely surprising, given the fall in unemployment, and the stickiness of inflation.

But until very recently the hawks have not been in control of the committee. What is more surprising is that the powerful group of doves which includes Ben Bernanke, Bill Dudley and Janet Yellen, and which normally has disproportionate weight on the FOMC, has also taken QE off the agenda .

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Opinion is sharply divided about what the Fed intended to signal in the statement issued on Tuesday. Some have seen the statement as very dovish, because it said that the Fed intended to leave short rates at “exceptionally low levels” until mid 2013 – the first time that a specific date of this sort has ever been set by the FOMC.

Others, however, concluded that the statement contained nothing really new, since the markets had already assumed that short rates would be close to zero for the next two years. Furthermore, the fact that there were three dissents from the majority decision has led some to deduce that the further large step to more quantitative easing (QE3) is still a long way off. On this view, nothing really changed. Read more

Ben Bernanke

Ben Bernanke. Image by EPA.

The financial markets seem determined to interpret today’s statement by the Fed chairman in a dovish light, but a careful reading of his words does not support that point of view. True, Mr Bernanke outlined the possible ways in which monetary policy might be eased further if recent economic weakness should prove more persistent than expected. But he gave equal weight to the possibility that “the economy could evolve in a way that would warrant less-accommodative policy”.

There was no hint in the text about which of these outcomes he considered the more likely. We already knew from yesterday’s FOMC minutes for the June meeting that the committee is split about the likely evolution of policy, and we were waiting to see today whether the chairman would throw his weight behind either the doves or the hawks. He failed to do either. Read more

The ongoing discussions in Washington about the US public debt ceiling are raising some interesting ideas, some of which are highly unorthodox. One such idea is that the debt ceiling itself can simply be ignored because any attempt by Congress to restrict the ability of the United States to meet its debts appears, on the surface, to contravene section four of Amendment XIV of the Constitution.

This Amendment states that “The validity of the public debt…shall not be questioned.” I will leave this matter for debate among constitutional lawyers (see here and here), but as a simple economist I would question whether the US would retain its triple A status if the administration continued to make payments in contravention of an explicit act of Congress, which the President believed to be unconstitutional. What would happen to the “full faith and credit” of the United States if the Supreme Court subsequently ruled that the President was wrong? Read more

William Dudley, the President of the New York Fed, is an intellectual heavyweight with whom I was fortunate enough to work for a couple of decades. Long experience has taught me not to ignore his views on the economy. He made an important speech last Friday,  spelling out the dovish view on monetary policy which is currently held by the most senior members of the FOMC, probably including Ben Bernanke.

Although the speech was careful to go no further than the statement which followed the last FOMC meeting in September, it explained in considerable detail why the Fed now believes that inflation is too low, and why he at least also believes that a further round of QE is the right response to the situation. Read more