The Fed

Paul Krugman has written two interesting comments (here and here) on my recent “Keynesian Yellen versus Wicksellian BIS” blog. Paul says that the Bank for International Settlements should not be labelled “Wicksellian”, and then asks a typically insightful question: what constitutes “artificially” high asset prices? Some of the discussion below on this point may seem a bit arcane, but in fact it could prove highly relevant for investors.

The crux of the matter is Knut Wicksell’s definition of the (unobservable) natural rate of interest, and its difference from the actual interest rate, as set by the central banks [1]. Krugman says that the Wicksellian or natural interest rate is that which would produce equilibrium between savings and capital investment in the real economy (“full employment”), and therefore leads to stable inflation. If the central banks set the actual rate below the natural rate, inflation will rise, and vice versa.

Since US inflation has generally been stable or falling for years, Krugman infers that the Federal Reserve must have been setting the actual interest rate at about the right level, or even too high (because of the zero lower bound). The further implication is that if current low interest rates are justified, so too are the high asset prices that they have triggered. In that sense, they are not “artificial” [2]. Read more

The US official statisticians have today issued revised statistics for GDP dating all the way back to 1929. It may be alarming for investors and policy makers to hear that our understanding of economic “truth” needs to be amended for the last 84 years, but the changes have not in fact made much fundamental difference to the debates which matter for the economy today.

In particular, there has been very little change in the Fed’s likely view of the amount of slack which remains in the economy, though the latest version of growth in the last few quarters, including the publication of data for 2013 Q2 for the first time, may persuade them that economic momentum is a little firmer than previously believed.

The most dramatic-sounding news in today’s release is that the level of nominal GDP has been revised up by 3.4 per cent in 2013 Q4. This follows a number of methodological changes, the most important of which is to treat R&D spending as a positive contributor to investment and GDP, rather than as an input to the production process. But since this change impacts GDP levels for decades in the past, it does not make much difference to our understanding of the economy’s capacity to grow in the immediate future. It simply involves viewing the same objective truth through a different coloured lens. For most practical purposes, this change can be ignored.

There are, however, three areas where the revisions could be significant: Read more

When we look back on the FOMC meeting on June 19 2013, it will probably be seen as the moment when the Fed signalled that it was beginning the long and gradual exit from its programme of unconventional monetary easing. The reason for this was clear in the committee’s statement, which said that the downside risks to economic activity had diminished since last autumn, presumably because the US economy had navigated the fiscal tightening better than expected and the risks surrounding the euro had abated.

This was the smoking gun in the statement. With downside risks declining, the need for an emergency programme of monetary easing was no longer so compelling. The Fed has been the unequivocal friend of the markets for much of the time since 2009, and certainly ever since last September. That comfortable assumption no longer applies.

Fed chairman Ben Bernanke, however, went to great lengths to mitigate the hawkish overtones of this message in several respects. The asset purchase programme would be ended only when the US unemployment rate has fallen to 7 per cent, which the central bank expects to happen by mid-2014, he said. In the meantime, the pace of asset purchases could be increased as well as reduced, depending on the incoming economic data. Read more

Professor Jeremy Stein is a much respected financial economist from Harvard who in May became a member of the board of governors at the Federal Reserve. Until last week, the markets had paid him relatively little attention, but that is now destined to change. The important speech he delivered in St Louis on Thursday about credit bubbles differed significantly from one of the main planks in the Bernanke/Greenspan doctrine of the past 15 years. It does not have immediate policy implications, but it could easily do so within two years.

The speech, which is nicely summarised here by Matthew Klein at The Economist, deserves to be read in full by all market participants. (One member of the FOMC told me last week that the speech was “geeky”, but that was intended, and taken, as a high compliment!)

In summary, the speech argues that the credit markets have recently been “reaching for yield”, much as they did prior to the financial crash. Although not yet as dangerous as in the period from 2004-2007, this behaviour is shown by the rapid expansion of the junk bond market, flows into high-yield mutual funds and real estate investment trusts and the duration of bond portfolios held by banks.

Governor Stein suggests (hypothetically) that this may become a policy headache within 18 months and, in a break with the Bernanke/Greenspan doctrine, he indicates that the right weapon to deal with this might well be to raise interest rates, rather than relying solely on regulatory and other prudential policy to control the process. This would obviously come as a big surprise to the markets, which have tended to view the Fed’s stated concerns about the “costs of QE” as so much hot air. Read more

Professor Michael Woodford of Columbia University is an extremely renowned macro-economist, and rightly so, but only recently has he occupied a central place in market thinking. Since his paper on US monetary policy at Jackson Hole, and the favourable remarks which Ben Bernanke made about him, everyone is trying to understand what his influence on the Fed might eventually mean.

His writing can be complex and intricate, which is in the nature of the subject, but his current policy recommendation is quite clear: the Fed should adopt a target for the level of nominal GDP which would have the effect of increasing price inflation, and inflation expectations in the period ahead, and thus reduce the real rate of interest.

If the controlling majority which surrounds the chairman on the FOMC has fundamentally accepted the thinking which backs these recommendations, as many investors believe, then there has been a profound change in Fed strategy. However, I am not convinced that this is the case. Mr Bernanke has not yet crossed the inflation Rubicon. Read more

Ben Bernanke has boldly gone where no Fed chairman has gone before him with his third round of quantitative easing. Gavyn Davies discusses with the FT’s Long View columnist John Authers why Mr Bernanke has chosen this path – and its risks:

  Read more

Ben Bernanke

Ben Bernanke. Image by Getty.

Ben Bernanke, Fed chairman, will speak about “Monetary Policy Since the Crisis” at the Jackson Hole Symposium at 10 am (EDT) on Friday. The markets have learned to focus intently on such occasions, since there is something in the clean air of Wyoming which seems to inspire Mr Bernanke. On several occasions in recent years, the tone he has adopted at Jackson Hole has set the trend in financial markets for many months to come.

This year, there are doubts about what the chairman might say. The markets have already assumed that a further monetary easing by the Fed is just around the corner, almost certainly to be announced at the next FOMC meeting on September 12-13. At the very least, this will probably involve an extension of the Fed’s guidance on “exceptionally low” levels for the federal funds rate from the end of 2014 at least to mid 2015.

However, there is uncertainty in the markets about whether the FOMC is minded to do anything more aggressive than that in September. That possibility was raised by the dovish set of minutes for the 31 July/1 August FOMC meeting which were published last week. The key question is whether Mr Bernanke will choose to clarify the ambiguities in these minutes in either direction. 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

Risk assets rose slightly last week, and global equities are still trading within about 2 per cent of their highs for the year. The resilience of equities was slightly surprising in a week which saw both a disappointing set of US GDP data and a Fed policy statement which was on the hawkish side of expectations. Goldman Sachs’ economists commented that the US economy and financial markets are “moving into a tougher environment”, in which the economy is slowing and the Fed is shifting its policy reaction function in a less stimulative direction.

One reason why risk assets have remained firm recently, is that earnings in the latest company reporting season have once again been beating expectations in the US and the eurozone. According to Jan Loeys at JP Morgan, US corporate earnings per share for 2012 Q1 have come in 8 per cent higher than analysts’ expectations, while the drop in eurozone earnings has been 4 per cent less than feared. Clearly, corporate financial strength has been helping investment sentiment, but that would not persist for very long if the Fed really did change its tune on monetary policy. Read more


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. Read more