Daily Archives: March 30, 2011

The European Central Bank’s determination to press ahead with interest rate rises has been defended by a top policymaker, even after the escalation of the eurozone debt crisis in Ireland and Portugal, two of the region’s weakest members. Writing in the FT, Jürgen Stark, ECB executive board member, argues a “one size fits all” monetary policy ultimately benefits all members. He says the eurozone’s weakest countries receive exceptional support on a scale not possible if they were not part of Europe’s monetary union.

Mr Stark’s comments will cement expectations that the ECB will react to rising eurozone inflation by lifting its main interest rate by a quarter of a percentage point next week. The move, flagged by ECB president Jean-Claude Trichet this month, will put the central bank ahead of the US Federal Reserve and Bank of England in embarking on tighter monetary policy. Read more

Compare and contrast economic sentiment across Europe, and you will see different and diverging pictures. (Divergence, of course, is not useful in a monetary union.)

Figures released by the European Commission show that confidence fell in March in the eurozone, while holding steady in the wider EU. It is the first substantial fall in confidence for the eurozone since May of last year, the time of the Greek bail-out, though levels remain far higher (see chart, right). Sentiment worsened in most European countries, with a few larger economies pulling ahead.

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They must have read our post. S&P just downgraded Cyprus by one notch to A-, keeping the outlook negative. A negative outlook is supposed to mean a downgrade is possible within two years, all else equal. But then S&P last downgraded the debt of the small island economy in November, four months ago. S&P’s rating is now the lowest of the three rating agencies, with Moody’s at A2 (=A) and Fitch significantly above the others at AA. Fitch, however, placed the rating on credit watch negative in January, meaning the review should be completed by mid-April. S&P appears to be significantly rethinking the eurozone’s creditworthiness, particularly in light of details of the rescue fund: it has not been a good week for eurozone credit ratings, and further downgrades may follow tomorrow when Ireland releases details of its stress tests.

Martin Weale, one of the external members of the Monetary Policy Committee gave a speech last night, which was fascinating for anyone interested in the presentation of monetary policy in an uncertain world.

Policy. Regarding the UK interest rate debate, he did not have much to say, save for reiterating that CPI inflation looks likely to get close to 5 per cent. He also had a powerful argument for the Bank staff who fret that its reputation might be damaged if it raised interest rates only to discover this was wrong and had to subsequently reverse the decision. Though that scenario would be bad for the Bank’s credibility, it would also be bad to use this concern to avoid an interest rate rise only to find subsequently that it was warranted, Mr Weale said.

Uncertainty. But the comments on monetary policy were a side show in the talk to the much more meaty discussion of how to present uncertainty in economic forecasts in a way that demonstrates accurately the state of knowledge about the future, which is greater than zero but far from complete.

Mr Weale’s contribution was to suggest we split the known unknowns – arguments over theory, some model parameters and judgments on things like the right future oil price assumption – from unknown unknowns – stuff that happens. Read more

Economic sentiment in Cyprus fell sharply in the month to March, helping the small eurozone nation to keep its unenviable position of second-from-last in the sentiment stakes. (Last is Greece.)

The banking sector probably isn’t helping. In a report last week, ratings agency Moody’s estimated that about €2.7bn would be needed to recapitalise the banks if assumptions made in stress tests materialised. Compare that to the €500m fund announced on Monday by Cyprus bank governor Athanasios Orphanides and your economic sentiment might dip a little, too. Read more

Many investors fear that the Fed’s impending exit from QE2 will have a very damaging effect on the financial markets. Whether they are right will depend on the nature of the exit, and its impact on bond yields. An end to the Fed’s programme of bond purchases, without any increase in short rates, is unlikely to be sufficient, on its own, to trigger a major bear market in bonds and equities. But an end to the Fed’s “extended period” language on interest rates would be a much greater threat. I still do not expect this to happen soon.

Recently, the Fed has purchased 60-70 per cent of all the bonds which have been issued to finance the US budget deficit. Some influential analysts (Bill Gross of Pimco among them) argue that bond yields will rise sharply when the Fed withdraws its life support from the bond market. But there are some powerful advocates, including the Fed chairman himself, for an entirely contrary point of view. Ben Bernanke told Congress in February that he did  not expect to see “a big impact” on bond yields when the Fed ended its asset purchases.

The Fed has hardened its thinking on this question in the past couple of years. It has  decided that QE reduces bond yields via its effect on the total stock of outstanding bonds, and not via its impact on the flow of bonds purchased in any given period. If this is the case, then

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