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.
Financial markets began 2014 in an ebullient mood. Omens of economic recovery in the developed world buoyed investors across the globe. Troubles in emerging markets, it was thought, would amount only to a handful of little local difficulties.
It did not last.
In developed markets, the past three weeks have seen the steepest falls in equity prices since mid-2013, when fears that the US Federal Reserve would begin phasing out its massive bond-buying programme caused interest rates to surge. This time, however, there has been no rise in short-term interest rates in the US or Europe, and bond yields have fallen slightly. There has been no change then in the market’s reading of the Fed or the European Central Bank’s policy stance.
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.
The financial markets, after many months of forward guidance and supposedly “transparent” communication from the Fed, were very surprised by the FOMC’s latest decision to delay the start of tapering its asset purchases. This can be seen most clearly in the immediate 0.15 per cent drop in the yield on ten year treasuries, which reflects the extent of the lurch towards dovishness shown by the committee.
Prior to the announcements, the market thought that it knew two things with a high degree of confidence. First, the Fed chairman had said explicitly that the start of tapering was likely “in the next few meetings” and then clarified that this meant “before the end of the year”. Second, he had given explicit guidance that the end of tapering would occur around the middle of 2014, by which time the unemployment rate was expected to be below 7.0 per cent.
Given that the starting and ending dates for tapering were well pinned down, only the pace in between seemed to be up for debate. This left little room for manoeuvre on the final total for the Fed balance sheet, which was thought to be around $4.1 trillion (or 24 per cent of GDP).
All of this has now been thrown into considerable uncertainty following the chairman’s latest press conference. It is no longer as likely that the start of tapering will come this year, though December now seems to be the best single bet. Not can it be assumed that the 7 per cent unemployment rate is a good guide about the end point. Although the FOMC’s economic projections still show unemployment dropping below this rate somewhere around mid-2014, the chairman seemed to pour cold water on the importance of the 7 per cent figure, a consideration he himself had voluntarily introduced in the June press conference.
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.