The Fed

The global economic recovery that started amid the gloom of the financial crash in March 2009 is about to celebrate its 8th birthday. In the advanced economies (AEs), the GDP growth rate during this recovery has averaged only 1.8 per cent, well below normal, but unemployment has dropped from 8.1 per cent to a still fairly high 6.1 per cent. According to JP Morgan, the volatility of GDP growth has fallen to the lowest levels for four decades since 2014.

This slow but extremely steady period of expansion has of course been accompanied by much lower interest rates, which have proven terrific for asset prices. The index of total equity returns in the AEs has tripled since the bear market ended.

Janet Yellen and other officials at the Federal Reserve have said on many occasions that “recoveries don’t just die of old age”. Unless something goes wrong, the upswing in the cycle will be prone to continue. At present, econometric models that attempt to assess recession risks suggest that these risks are exceptionally low over the next 12 months.

Furthermore, the growth rate in the US and other AEs seems, if anything, to be breaking upwards. This may be because the headwinds that have held growth down for so long – excessive debt, a malfunctioning banking system, extreme risk aversion, low capital investment etc. – may finally be fading away. Perhaps the world economy is at last attaining escape velocity.

However, good times cannot last forever. It is common for euphoria to set in just when the economic and financial cycle is nearing a peak. As in 2001 and 2008, the end could come much sooner than anyone predicts [1]Read more

US monetary policy has now clearly embarked on an important new phase. For a long while, the markets have been extremely reluctant to recognise that the Federal Reserve might actually mean what it says about increasing short term interest rates by 0.25 per cent on three separate occasions this year. Remembering repeated episodes in which the Fed has failed to deliver its threatened tightening in policy since 2013, investors have concluded that dovish surprises from the Fed are endemic.

Last week, however, they woke up to the fact that FOMC really is serious about raising rates in March, and that this may be the first of three or even four rate hikes this year. After a series of hawkish speeches by several FOMC heavyweights, the coup de grâce came on Friday, when Janet Yellen warned that a rate rise in March “would be appropriate” unless economic data surprised in the meantime. She added rather ominously that policy accommodation would be removed more rapidly this year than in 2015 and 2016.

The great unknown is whether this will come as a major shock to the financial markets. It will certainly mean that investors will need to build in a faster path for rate hikes in the near term than anything that has previously been contemplated in this cycle. But the good news is that the final destination for rates does not seem to be changing, at least in the view of the FOMC. The Committee is increasing the speed of travel towards its destination, but is not changing the destination itself.

So what has justified the shift toward more hawkish thinking on the FOMC? And will this upset the equity market, which is still ignoring the prospect of higher rates? Read more

President Trump has an almost unprecedented opportunity to reshape the key personnel and legal basis of the Federal Reserve in the next 12 months, essentially rebuilding the most important economic organisation in the world in his own image, if he so chooses.

The President may be able to appoint five or even six members to the seven-person Board of Governors within 12 months, including the Chair, Vice Chair for monetary policy, and a new Vice Chair for banking supervision. He may also be able to sign into law a bill that alters aspects of the Fed’s operating procedures and accountability to Congress, based on a bill passed in 2015 by the House of Representatives.

Not surprisingly, investors are beginning to eye these changes with some trepidation.

Some observers fear that the President will fill the Fed with his cronies, ready to monetise the budget deficit if that should prove politically convenient. Others fear the opposite, believing that the new appointments will result in monetary policy being handed over to a policy rule (like the Taylor Rule) that will lead to much higher interest rates in the relatively near future. Still others think that the most important outcome will be a deregulation of the banking system that results in much easier credit availability, with increased dangers of asset bubbles and economic overheating.

It is not difficult to see how this process could work out very badly indeed. But, at present, I am optimistic that a modicum of sense will prevail. Read more

The global markets remained in reflationary mode for much of last week, a regime that has now persisted for many months. Led by the US, bond yields have been rising, mainly because inflation expectations are on the increase. Risk assets have been performing adequately, with the exception of the emerging markets.

This reflationary regime has been driven by much stronger global economic activity since mid-2016, and latterly by a belief that Donald Trump’s election victory will lead to US fiscal easing, along with the possibility of the “politicisation” of the Federal Reserve, implying overly accommodative monetary policy.

There are various ways in which this regime could end. The world economy could suddenly go back to sleep, as it has on many occasions since 2009. The US fiscal easing could become bogged down in the Washington “swamp”. Or the Fed could become unexpectedly hawkish, stamping on the first signs of inflationary growth in the American economy. This last risk is probably under-estimated, and is worth considering in detail. Read more

The response of the financial markets to the US election result has been almost as contradictory as the rabble rousing campaign of the President-elect himself. Unmitigated gloom in the hours after the Trump victory was swiftly followed by a euphoric atmosphere in US markets.

Investors are apparently assuming that the new administration will usher in a mix of fiscal reflation, prudent monetary policy, deregulation and tax cuts that will prove very good for the American economy. Trade controls are seen as damaging the emerging economies, but not the US. A steeper yield curve is seen as reflecting a “better” mix between fiscal and monetary policy.

With one very graceful acceptance speech, Donald Trump has suddenly morphed into Ronald Reagan in the markets’ consciousness. Read more

As investors anxiously await the key monetary policy decisions from the Federal Reserve and the Bank of Japan next week, there have been signs that the powerful rally in bond markets, unleashed last year by the threat of global deflation, may be starting to reverse. There has been talk of a major bond tantrum, similar to the one that followed Ben Bernanke’s tapering of bond purchases in 2013.

This time, however, the Fed seems unlikely to be at the centre of the tantrum. Even if the FOMC surprises the market by raising US interest rates by 25 basis points next week, this will probably be tempered by another reduction in its expected path for rates in the medium term.

Instead, the Bank of Japan has become the centre of global market attention. The results of its comprehensive review of monetary policy, to be announced next week, are shrouded in uncertainty. So far this year, both the content and the communication of the monetary announcements by BoJ governor Haruhiko Kuroda have been less than impressive, and the market’s response has been repeatedly in the opposite direction to that intended by the central bank.

As a result, the inflation credibility of the BoJ has sunk to a new low, and the policy board badly needs to restore confidence in the 2 per cent inflation target. But the board is reported to be split, and the direction of policy is unclear. With the JGB market now having a major impact on yields in the US, that could be the recipe for an accident in the global bond market. Read more

This month’s regular update from the Fulcrum nowcast models shows that global economic activity is growing fractionally below its trend rate, and is little changed from last month’s report. Global recession risks have therefore fallen recently to more normal levels, compared to the elevated risks seen in February. However, neither the advanced economies nor the emerging markets appear to be sustaining a break-out to above trend growth.

The overall picture is therefore one of steady but disappointing growth, with little indication of a major cyclical acceleration at present. In particular, growth in the US remains subdued, and seems to be running at or below the 2 per cent threshold apparently required by the Federal Reserve to justify a June/July increase in interest rates. Although the jury is out on this point, Friday’s weak employment data have given extra weight to the subdued nature of our recent US nowcasts.

We also report for the first time forecasts for global GDP growth over the next 12 months derived from the dynamic factor models that are used to produce the nowcasts. These forecasts are a natural extension of the nowcast models. They should be used in conjunction with other forecasting methods to assess the statistical likelihood of activity “surprises” relative to consensus forecasts in the months ahead.

The latest results suggest that US GDP growth in the period ahead may well come in below the latest consensus forecasts.

The full set of the latest global nowcasts is available hereRead more

The latest and, so far, the most severe scare about global deflation started with the oil price collapse in mid 2014, and reached its peak with the sharp drop in global industrial production in mid 2015, swiftly followed by the Chinese devaluation episode in August. Fears of an imminent slide towards a global industrial recession haunted the markets, and both expected inflation and bond yields in the advanced economies approached all-time lows.

But, just when everything seemed so bleak, the flow of economic information changed direction. Global industrial production rallied, and China stabilised its currency. On Friday, the US jobs and wages data were much stronger than expected. Inflation data in the advanced economies have passed their low points for this cycle, and the rise in headline 12-month inflation in the next three months could surprise the markets.

This certainly does not mean that the repeated warnings of the inflationistas will suddenly be proved right. It may not even mean that long-run deflationary pressures in the global economy have been fully overcome: global growth rates are still below trend, and spare capacity is rising in the emerging world. But the peak of the latest, commodity-induced deflation scare is in the past. Read more


Janet Yellen, Fed chair  © Getty Images

As the Federal Reserve’s open markets committee meets for its crucial two-day session in Washington, Janet Yellen faces her first real policy test since assuming the chair in February 2014. Amazingly, she is already almost halfway through her first term. But, so far she has had the relatively easy task of piloting the exit from quantitative easing. The exit plan had already been mapped out by Ben Bernanke, and it was not particularly contentious inside the committee.

The decision on whether to raise interest rates this week is, however, proving more divisive. Among her key lieutenants, vice-chair Stanley Fischer seems somewhat hawkish, while William Dudley has stated the case for the doves. John Williams, her successor at the helm of the San Francisco Fed, and a key ally, also seems inclined to a more dovish view than he championed earlier in the summer.

Mr Williams recently told the Wall Street Journal that he would “honestly, honestly, honestly” want to hear the opinions of his colleagues at this week’s meeting before making up his mind. Does he protest too much, I wonder? Perhaps the decision has already been taken, but the Yellen camp wants to allow the hawks a full and fair hearing before announcing that rates would remain unchanged. Read more

The extreme turbulence of the financial markets in August resulted in a temporary rise in the Vix measure of US equity market volatility to levels that have been exceeded on only a few occasions since 2008. Markets have now settled down somewhat, but it is far from clear whether the episode is over. In order to reach a judgment on this, we need to form a view on what caused the crisis in the first place.

The obvious answer is “China”. The response of the Chinese authorities to the stock market bubble, and the manner in which the devaluation of the renminbi was handled, raised questions about policy credibility that added to ongoing concerns about hard landing risk in the economy. The conclusion that a China demand shock was the main driving force behind the global financial turbulence was given added credence by the simultaneous collapse in commodity prices, and in exports from many emerging economies linked to China.

It would be absurd to deny that China had an important role in the crisis of August 2015. But was it the only factor involved? After all, China’s growth rate does not seem to have slowed very much. Furthermore, standard econometric simulations of the impact of a China demand shock on the major developed economies suggest that the effects should not be very large, and certainly not large enough to explain the scale of the decline in global equity prices, or in the “break-even” inflation rates built into US and European bond markets.

It is conceivable that bad news from China triggered a sudden rise in risk aversion among global investors that exacerbated the shock itself. It also possible that markets were responding to the fact that the Federal Reserve apparently remained determined to raise US interest rates before year end, regardless of the new deflationary forces that were being triggered by events in China.

New econometric work published today by my colleagues at Fulcrum suggest that the perception of an adverse monetary policy shock may have been important in explaining the financial turbulence, in which case the Fed needs to tread extremely carefully as it approaches lift-off for US rates. Read more

Downturn In Oil Prices Rattles Texas Oil Economy

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Ever since the collapse in oil prices started last summer, the behaviour of the global economy and financial markets has been heavily affected by the consequences of lower energy prices. Now, however, there is gathering evidence that the primary effects of the oil shock have been absorbed into the system, and there are signs that other forces are beginning to take control. What are these forces, and how will they affect the global economy in the months ahead?

When the oil shock reached its maximum early in 2015, economists were largely agreed on its likely impact. Since it seemed to stem mainly from the supply side of the oil market, not the demand side (a fact corroborated by IMF research last week), it was thought likely to boost real global GDP growth this year by about 0.5-0.75 per cent, leading to a break-out in global growth to the upside. It also had a dark side, increasing the deflation threat in the eurozone and Japan, but this was likely to be offset by further aggressive monetary easing by their respective central banks. Read more

Yellen Discusses Monetary Policy At Federal Reserve Bank In San Francisco

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The financial markets listened to Janet Yellen’s speech on “normalising” monetary policy last Friday, shrugged, and moved on largely unaffected. It was, indeed, a dovish speech, of the type that had been foreshadowed at her press conference after the FOMC meeting in March (see Tim Duy for a full analysis). But it also spelled out her analytical approach to monetary policy more clearly than at any time since she has assumed the leadership of the Federal Reserve.

In the speech, the Fed chairwoman used the term “equilibrium real interest rates” no less than 25 times. This concept is very much in vogue at the Fed. The Yellen speech uses it to explain what she and Stanley Fischer mean by “normalising” interest rates. It was also at the centre of Ben Bernanke’s first forays into economic blog writing this week, which reminds us that it has some pedigree at the central bank.

 Read more

Yellen Discusses Monetary Policy At Federal Reserve Bank In San Francisco

  © Getty Images

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

The Federal Reserve Begins Last Meeting Of 2008

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When the Brazilian finance minister Guido Mantega complained that the Federal Reserve was waging a currency war against his country in September 2010, his comments led to a wave of sympathy and concern. The Fed’s aggressive monetary easing was causing a capital flight from the US into the apparently unstoppable emerging markets.

Uncompetitive exchange rates and domestic credit booms in the EMs were the result of US quantitative easing. American monetary policy makers showed little sympathy, arguing that the US had its own domestic inflation and unemployment mandates to worry about. If the dollar fell in the process, so be it.

That episode proved short lived. The Brazilian real is now a chronically weak currency. Yet the term “currency wars” has stuck. It is now alleged that almost all the major central banks are engaged in weakening their currencies, if not against each other then certainly relative to commodities, goods and services. Read more

When the Federal Open Market Committee meets on March 17-18, it will be able to drop the word “patient” from its statement without shocking the markets. After some confusion, the Fed’s intentions on the date of lift off now seem fairly priced, with Fed funds rate contracts showing a probability of more than 50 per cent that the first move will come in June. The behaviour of the dollar, and of core inflation, are likely to determine whether June or September is eventually chosen for lift off.

Once that is out of the way, the markets will turn their attention to a much harder question: how rapidly will rates rise after lift off? The market currently expects a much more gradual path than the median shown in the FOMC’s “dot” chart, but there is huge uncertainty about this question on the committee. As the graph above shows, the interest rate forecasts for individual members of the FOMC, which will be updated on Wednesday, have a very wide range.

According to Fed vice-chairman Stanley Fischer, the rationale for rate rises is that the Fed wants to embark on a process of “normalisation”, and he is adamant that today’s rates are “far from normal”. That, of course, raises the question: how should we define normal? On this, the leadership group on the FOMC is not offering much guidance, but a common way of answering the question among macro economists is to consult the Taylor rule. Read more

“Pent up wage deflation” is an unfamiliar and somewhat abstruse term dropped into the economic lexicon last week by Janet Yellen at the annual Jackson Hole conference. Originally coined by researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, the term is destined to be widely discussed because it is clearly influencing the US Federal Reserve chair’s thinking. If it exists, it would explain why wage inflation seems abnormally low, given the recent rapid drop in unemployment, and that could eliminate one important reason for keeping US interest rates at zero per cent for the “considerable period” promised by the central bank.

Ms Yellen is right to be aware of the concept, and to keep it under review, but in my view the Fed is unlikely to shift in a hawkish direction solely because of it. This blog explains the theoretical and empirical reason why this is the case.

(Warning some of these arguments are quite intricate – skip to the end if you want to avoid the economic debate and just want the policy implication.) Read more

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