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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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And then there were none. On Thursday, the European Central Bank became the last of the major central banks to announce a large programme of quantitative easing, involving the purchase of over €1tn of assets, mostly eurozone government bonds, in the next 18 months.
Is this the “credible regime change” which economists like Paul Krugman say is the only way that central banks can affect growth and inflation when interest rates have reached the zero lower bound? It would be too optimistic to say “yes”, but it is certainly a major philosophical shift by the conservative standards of the ECB. Originally designed slavishly on the Bundesbank model, the ECB has declared independence from its German forebears today.
But the long delays in reaching this point have made the eurozone deflation threat more severe than it need have been. Whether this belated recognition of reality is a case of better late than never, or too little too late, remains to be seen.
The markets are likely to assess the package with three litmus tests: is it big enough, are the restrictions placed on the bond purchases too restrictive, and does it matter that the decisions were far from unanimous, with the Bundesbank probably opposed to some key elements? In my view, the good clearly outweighs the bad. Read more
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The markets are waking up to the fact that the euro area faces a critical few weeks in which its economic path for 2015, and maybe for much longer, will be largely determined. Three inextricably linked events will dominate the economic landscape in January: the preliminary opinion of the Advocate General of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) on the legality of central bank bond purchases, due on January 14; the decision of the European Central Bank’s governing council on the size and type of “sovereign” quantitative easing (QE), due on January 22; and the Greek election on January 25.
At the optimistic end of the spectrum, the euro area might emerge with a more complete monetary framework that for the first time enables it to pursue monetary policy effectively at the zero lower bound for interest rates, and with the sanctity of the currency area reinforced. At the pessimistic end, the ECB could become shackled with an ineffective version of QE just when the euro area is officially entering outright deflation, and the single currency itself might become incompatible with political realities in Greece.
The outcome will also have much wider global implications. The markets have remained relatively relaxed about the likely exit of the Federal Reserve from its own zero interest rate policy in 2015, but only because the ECB and Bank of Japan are injecting more monetary stimulus. If large scale ECB action is removed from this equation, sentiment on global risk assets may darken considerably. Read more
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Last week’s press conference by ECB President Mario Draghi left the markets disappointed and somewhat perplexed about the shift towards quantitative easing that had just been sanctioned by the governing council (GC). Because this was focused on private sector assets, in the form of asset backed securities and covered bonds, there were doubts about whether the new policy could be implemented in sufficient size to deal with the deflationary threat in the euro area.
Mr Draghi was noticeably hesitant about giving any firm indication about the likely scale of the programme. Although private sector quantitative easing (QE) is likely to suit the needs of the euro area rather well, as I argued here, the absence of any firm guidance on scale certainly undermined the beneficial announcement effects of the policy change.
The ECB president addressed this issue on Thursday in an appearance at Brookings in Washington. This time, freed from the need to speak for the entire GC, he clearly changed his tune on the scale of the programme. But this highlighted the extent of the gap between his view and that of Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann, who presented his position in a revealing interview with the Wall Street Journal on Monday. It is far from obvious how this disagreement will be bridged. Read more
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Mario Draghi’s remarkable speech at Jackson Hole has raised expectations that ECB purchases of sovereign debt will be soon announced by the governing council, if not this Thursday, then perhaps by the end of the year. In all the excitement about QE, the importance of Mr Draghi’s remarks about fiscal policy have gained less attention in the markets.
Mr Draghi’s speech broke new ground for an ECB president, and this could herald a significant change in the stance of fiscal policy in the entire euro area. Unusually, fiscal policy could be as interesting for markets as monetary policy in the months ahead.
Traditionally, ECB presidents have always argued in favour of fiscal austerity, and have of course refused to countenance any form of monetisation of budget deficits. The stance on monetisation changed a few months ago, and now even the Bundesbank accepts that QE is within the terms of the treaties.
But the Germanic approach to the fiscal stance (ie the level of budget deficits, as opposed to how they are financed), is only now being seriously questioned by the ECB for the first time. Not surprisingly, this is reported to have triggered consternation in Germany, and approval in France.
Mr Draghi’s new views on fiscal policy stem from a change in his underlying analysis of the economic problem facing the euro area. This has led the ECB president to throw his weight behind a fiscal plan which is slowly emerging from the European Commission, in conjunction with France and Italy. Now that the ECB has gone public on this, the pressure on Germany to give ground has increased markedly. The debate on this subject within Germany itself is clearly becoming crucial. 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
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
The chancellor’s Autumn Statement exactly marks the halfway point in the current UK parliament, and sets a course for the next election which will now be hard to change. When the coalition embarked on its economic strategy in 2010, it was fully expected that there would be a bleak electoral patch in mid-term, but the Treasury believed that the strategy would be seen to be successful by 2015. In point of fact, however, the mid term blues have been worse than predicted, and GDP forecasts for the remainder of the parliament have been sharply downgraded.
Mr Osborne has reacted to these developments by amending his budgetary strategy in two respects. First, he has allowed the fiscal stabilisers to operate in full, so the effects of the GDP downgrades have been reflected in extra public borrowing in 2011/12 and 2012/13. Sensibly, he has not been overly rigid and there has been no attempt stick to his original fiscal path. As a result, there has been almost no tightening in the underlying fiscal stance this year, and the planned tightening for next year is about 1 per cent of GDP, similar to the plans in other major economies.
Second, he has extended the time period over which the fiscal austerity will take effect, so that his formal fiscal objectives will be reached in 2016/17, instead of 2015/16. The fiscal stance will tighten by about 1 per cent of GDP in each of the next 5 years. The same amount of fiscal austerity, spread over a longer period, is the consequence of these changes. Read more
As the IMF meetings close in Tokyo this weekend, it is obvious that governments are struggling to find the correct balance between controlling public debt, which now exceeds 110 per cent of GDP for the advanced economies, and boosting the rate of economic growth. The former objective requires more budgetary tightening, while the latter requires the opposite. Is there any way around this?
One radical option now being discussed is to cancel (or, in polite language, “restructure”) part of the government debt that has been acquired by the central banks as a consequence of quantitative easing (QE). After all, the government and the central bank are both firmly within the public sector, so a consolidated public sector balance sheet would net this debt out entirely. Read more
The minutes of the Fed’s FOMC meeting on 18th and 19th June were published on Wednesday, but the markets remain confused and divided about the central bank’s true intentions on the stance of monetary policy. Surveys of market participants show that they are almost evenly split between those who expect QE3 to come this year, and those who do not. And usually highly informed commentators have differed sharply about the hidden meaning in this set of minutes.
Robin Harding of the FT concluded that the tone was dovish, heralding the likely arrival of QE3 if the economy remains weak. Tim Duy, in his excellent Fed watch blog, says that Ben Bernanke is sceptical about the efficacy of a further increase in the balance sheet, and is looking for different options to ease. That could take a while. Jon Hilsenrath at the Wall Street Journal said that the Fed is in a state of “high alert” about the economy, but has not yet decided to pull the trigger, partly because “many Fed officials are uncomfortable with the mix of unconventional tools that they have to address the soft economy”. In particular, there are growing concerns that further purchases of treasury securities will damage the workings of the market in government debt. The Fed staff has been asked to report back on this in future meetings. Read more
The weakness of global equities and other risk assets in recent weeks has clearly been driven by the deterioration in the eurozone crisis, but that has not been the only factor at work. There has also been concerted weakness in economic activity indicators in all the major economies, while the central banks have been sitting on their hands. That is never a good combination for asset returns.
This week, however, the markets’ hopes have been rising that the major central banks are once again preparing to ease monetary conditions, if not via a formally co-ordinated announcement, then in a series of separate steps which would amount to a powerful monetary boost to the global economy. Although this policy change may take a couple of months to transpire, it does indeed seem to be on the way. The pause in monetary easing which became clear in February/March has once again proved to be only temporary. Read more
For the first time in quite a while, the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England has today made a knife-edge decision which genuinely might have gone either way. The outcome, which was to leave the total of quantitative easing unchanged at £325bn, tells us something about the inflation fighting credentials of the MPC, which have been widely questioned in the financial markets. And it also tells us something about the way in which other central banks, including the Fed, might react to similar, if less strained, economic circumstances in coming months. Read more
How rapidly should governments correct their fiscal deficits, which in the long run are unsustainable in the US, UK, Japan and many countries in the eurozone?
That is a question which continues to dominate the policy debate among economists. Rapid correction undoubtedly damages near term economic growth, but is intended to reduce the risk of a sovereign debt crisis coming suddenly out of the blue. Slow correction does the opposite. There is no theoretically “correct” policy on this. The result depends on how the near term loss of output should be weighed against the risk and consequences of a fiscal crisis, which is an empirical matter. (See this earlier blog: Assessing the risk of a financial crisis, which attempts to measure the risk of fiscal crisis.)
It is possible for reasonable economists to disagree about this, and for the “right” policy to be different in different countries. However, occasionally a piece of research comes along which changes the “dial” on the debate, and I believe that applies to the important Brookings Paper published last week by Brad DeLong and Larry Summers. This paper, which is well summarised here and here, essentially implies that the trade-off between near-term GDP growth and the probability of fiscal crisis can be irrelevant, because temporary fiscal expansions, at a time when interest rates are at the zero bound, are eventually self-financing. Read more
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? Read more
The explosion in central bank balance sheets continues. As explained in this earlier blog, the ECB, the Fed and others have become the holders of last resort for much of the private sector risk which no-one else is willing to touch. Today’s announcement of a record liquidity injection by the ECB, along with a further rise in the Fed’s balance sheet as part of the dollar swap programme, looks particularly dramatic, but it really just represents a continuation of a process which has been underway for many months now.
Whatever they may claim to the contrary, the ECB is finding that it has no choice but to use the central bank balance sheet to stabilise the euro crisis. I am not complaining about that. The alternative would have been far, far worse. But we should call a spade a spade. This is quantitative easing on a significant scale, and the lines between this form of QE, and the direct monetisation of budget deficits, which is forbidden by the spirit of the eurozone treaties, are becoming increasingly blurred. Read more
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. Read more
The key focus of the coming week in financial markets will be the speech of Fed chairman Ben Bernanke at the Jackson Hole conference on Friday. Last year, the same speech was taken as confirmation that the Fed intended to embark on QE2, and this eventually triggered a 30 per cent rise in risk assets over the next six months. With the economy still weakening, the Fed is once again in easing mode, and some in the markets are hoping for another full dose of QE. They are likely to get something rather different. Read more
Risk assets like global equities have had a very bad day, but they are still trading fairly close to their highs for the year. This is surprising, given the continuing slowdown in the global economy, and the failure of policy makers in Europe and the US to come to terms with the serious problems facing them.
Particularly worrying is the growing evidence that the US economy is struggling even to hold unemployment constant, while fiscal and monetary policy have both become moribund for the time being. The markets still seem confident that US growth will spontaneously reignite in coming months, without requiring any help from expansionary policy. If they are wrong, there are few signs that US policy would be able to respond quickly or coherently. 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