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
From the standpoint of a global macro economist, this is my nomination for the most important graph of the year. (See the end of this blog if you wish to suggest alternatives.) It explains why the world’s largest economy, the US, has defied the pessimists by mounting a decent recovery in 2010. Read more
Both the Federal Reserve and the ECB are now purchasing government debt in large scale. Yet neither of them seems at all eager to admit that they are doing anything unconventional with their monetary policy. In fact, some of the recent statements by both Ben Bernanke and Jean-Claude Trichet are not as straightforward and transparent as they might have been. Read more
Most forecasts for growth in the US economy have been revised upwards in recent weeks, and the financial markets have eliminated fears of a double dip recession, at least in the imminent future. A string of encouraging economic data have underpinned this rise in optimism. Read more
Jean-Claude Trichet, ECB president, has been here before. Early in his life as governor of the Bank of France in 1993, Mr Trichet faced down a tidal wave of market pressure and prevented the franc from being devalued. Read more
Today’s publication of the latest FOMC minutes will probably unveil significant downward revisions to the Committee’s inflation and gross domestic product forecasts for 2011, as well as a large upward revision to its unemployment forecast. More interestingly, the minutes will show whether the FOMC is broadly united on the strategy of quantitative easing which it has now adopted. Read more
In this blog in the Wall Street Journal, Sudeep Reddy reminds us of a Bernanke speech in 2004, in which the now-chairman of the Fed used a golf analogy to justify making a series of gradual changes in monetary policy when the authorities are unsure about the effectiveness of the policy weapon in use at the time. Read more
US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has written to his G20 colleagues suggesting that they should adopt a new approach to managing external trade imbalances. Specifically, he wants the G20 to agree to a limit on their current account surpluses and deficits over a period of years, and also to correct these imbalances if they seem likely to drift away from the agreed targets. This is a good idea, because multilateral action on global imbalances would be vastly preferable to a disorderly bilateral dispute between the US and China. But the Geithner plan, as currently drafted, is fraught with difficulties. Read more
Ben Bernanke’s speech in Boston on Friday seems to have disappointed those who were expecting him to announce concrete measures to restart quantitative easing, but we already knew from the last set of FOMC minutes that the groundwork for such an announcement had not been undertaken. That announcement will come after the committee’s next meeting on November 2nd and 3rd. Nevertheless, Mr Bernanke has nailed his colours to the mast, even more clearly than he has done in recent speeches. This is a Fed Chairman who is very dissatisfied with the depressed state of the US economy, and who is not afraid to say so. Read more
The minutes of the September meeting of the FOMC, published yesterday, suggest that the Fed is considering how to communicate its policy message more clearly to the markets. 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
Although the US economy is no longer quite as dominant as it once was in the global economy, there is no sign that the Federal Reserve is losing its primacy among the major central banks – at least, not as far as the financial markets are concerned. Read more
Ben Bernanke’s speech at Jackson Hole on Friday will reportedly discuss the pros and cons of further monetary easing in the US. This debate has suddenly taken on a new sense of urgency, because the weakening in US economic data seems to have accelerated quite markedly during August. Read more
I am becoming increasingly concerned about the extent of the slowdown which is now underway in the US economy, a trend which has not yet been fully recognised by the Federal Reserve. Read more