Inflation

The leading central banks in the developed economies have, of course, been the main actors underpinning the global bull market in risk assets since 2009. For long periods their stance has been unequivocally dovish as they have deliberately tried to strengthen an anaemic global economic recovery by boosting asset prices.

In the past week, we have had major statements of intent from Janet Yellen, the new US Federal Reserve chairwoman; from the European Central Bank; and from the Bank of England. After multiple hours of fuzzy guidance about forward guidance, the clarity of previous years about the global policy stance has become much more murky. Central banks are no longer as obviously friendly to risk assets as they once were – but they have not become outright enemies, and they are unlikely to do so while they are concerned that price and wage inflation will remain too low for a protracted period.

It is now quite difficult to generalise about what central bankers think. However, a few of the necessary pieces of the jigsaw puzzle slotted into place in the past week. 

The governing council of the European Central Bank meets on Thursday amid rising expectations in the market that it will signal another easing in monetary policy, either in February or March. Most ECB watchers now expect the council to cut the refinance rate by around 15 basis points before quarter end (from 0.25 per cent to 0.10 per cent), and some expect the deposit rate to be reduced into negative territory for the first time. This action would be in response to recent volatility in money market rates, and an unexpectedly low inflation rate of 0.7 per cent for the euro area in January.

If the ECB was to follow this course of action in the next couple of months, it would represent another relatively minor adjustment in its policy stance in response to surprisingly low inflation data. It is still thinking in terms of incremental changes in policy, rather than anything more dramatic. This, of course, follows from the fact that the ECB has a pessimistic view of the growth in potential output since 2008, implying that the output gap is fairly small, and that inflation in the medium term will gradually return to the target of “below but close to” 2 per cent.

This view is, however, being increasingly challenged by the data. Some forecasters now see the 12-month inflation rate falling to only 0.5 per cent in the spring, depending on the behaviour of oil prices. More importantly, core inflation also continues to drop. After the next round of interest rate cuts, the central bank will genuinely be at the zero lower bound for the first time ever. The ECB will therefore face a major problem if the inflation data confound again, and head towards zero. 

In recent months, inflation has again reared its head as a problem in the developed economies. But this is not because it is too high. In most countries, headline CPI inflation has been falling significantly since the end of 2011, and it has now dropped to less than 1 per cent in both the US and the euro area.

Furthermore, the pervasive decline in headline inflation has been accompanied by a similar decline in core inflation rates, which are also hovering at worryingly low levels in most countries. In fact, out of the 25 developed economies that publish regular data on Haver Analytics, only Iceland is currently experiencing an inflation rate that could be considered markedly too high by any of these measures. 

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. 

After more than 20 years, and 82 issues, Sir Mervyn King has delivered his last Inflation Report. The transparency and rationality of this innovation has been one of Britain’s most important gifts to the world in recent times, even if the UK has not actually been very good at controlling inflation itself since 2008. As its main architect and, in his own words, the UK’s “consistent monetary referee”, Sir Mervyn deserves great credit. I hope that, in retirement, he will receive it.

The economic message of today’s report is a familiar one. Inflation has been revised down so that it is shown to hit the 2 per cent target in two years’ time, and real GDP is forecast to recover gradually. Similar forecasts have proven too optimistic in the past, but this time there are clear indications that the Bank will be introducing new forms of policy easing in the next few months, which may underpin the economic recovery.

Following the astonishing arrival of Governor Kuroda in Japan, Mr Carney must be sorely tempted to follow suit in trying to jolt UK economic expectations towards a new equilibrium. He is likely to get plenty of encouragement in this from the chancellor, who emphasised in the Budget that “monetary activism” is a core part of his overall economic strategy.

In fact, Mr Osborne has asked the Bank to focus in the August Inflation Report on how the UK might adopt forward policy guidance, with thresholds, following the example of what the Fed did (successfully) last December. This is an unusually specific request from the Treasury, and even Sir Mervyn seemed sympathetic to this approach today.

In the context of high British inflation, there are serious impediments to repeating the fireworks unleashed by the BoJ, but some progress can be made, Fed-style. What exactly can we expect? 

Kuroda gives first press conference as governor of BoJThe 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. 

Predictably, the chancellor has rejected calls for a radical change in his economic strategy. Plan A has not morphed into Plan B. If anything, it has become Plan A-plus, with the underlying path for fiscal tightening left unchanged, and a little more flexibility for the Bank of England to pursue unconventional monetary stimulus.

UK real GDP is still stuck some 5 per cent below its pre-crisis level, the worst record among the major economies, apart from Italy. Some of this is certainly due to the problems which the Coalition inherited. However, about half of the shortfall in UK growth in recent years, compared to that in the US, is due to the tightening of 5 per cent of GDP in fiscal policy since 2009/10.

The dominant criticism of the government from mainstream economists is, of course, that the poor performance of UK GDP is due to a shortfall in aggregate demand, which in turn is primarily due to these fiscal measures. The Chancellor’s reply is that the UK could have faced a fiscal crisis without his budgets. The fact that public debt is now forecast to rise to 85 per cent of GDP in 2017/18 suggests that his concerns are not easy to dismiss as scare-mongering. 

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? 


Ben Bernanke has been very focused on the Fed’s “communications strategy” for several years now, and has patiently pushed the FOMC in his desired direction during a series of detailed discussions. Now it seems that he has reached his destination, and will reveal all (or almost all) in his press conference after the FOMC meeting which begins on Tuesday. Always a fan of explicit inflation targets, the chairman seems finally to have won agreement from colleagues on establishing a formal objective for core inflation of about 2 per cent, though the FOMC will also need to keep Congress happy by talking about its long term unemployment objectives as well. More unconventionally, each member of the FOMC will also publish for the first time their projections for the Fed funds rate extending to 2016.

What is the motivation behind these changes? Mr Bernanke has normally justified such steps in terms of stabilising expectations about the Fed’s genuine intentions, especially on inflation and the forward path for interest rates. At a time when the extension of the balance sheet is causing political difficulties for the Fed, and when inflation expectations could become unhinged by the rapid expansion of the monetary base, the chairman is looking for alternative ways of easing monetary conditions without printing more money. Modern macro-economics suggests that operating on expectations is one of the most powerful tools available to him, though he is using it much more cautiously than many economists would like to see. 

The recent fall in equities represents a belated recognition by the markets that the global economy has been much weaker than consensus economic forecasts indicated earlier in the year. Unlike last summer, when the same thing happened, the markets have also begun to recognise that policy makers have little ammunition left in the locker to combat the downturn.

The political will needed to ease fiscal policy, even temporarily, has evaporated on both sides of the Atlantic. And monetary policy has been hamstrung by the rise in inflation, which has clearly changed the thinking of the Fed. So where is the escape route?