Category Archives: Monetary policy

The FX market needs to rethink inflation

Though you wouldn’t think it to see the way the market reacts, inflation is bad for currencies. If your prices rise relative to other countries your currency needs to fall to . equalise prices. Countries with high inflation have typically seen sharply declining currencies to offset the effect on relative prices. But typically, when inflation comes out higher than expected in the major economies, the market responds by pushing the currency in question up, not down. Why? Because the assumption is that the relevant central bank will raise rates to combat inflation pressures or not cut rates as much as it would otherwise, more than offsetting the move in inflation. Or at least that yields will rise to more than compensate for the rise in inflation. But the world doesn’t actually work like that, and hasn’t worked like that since at least the financial crisis and probably before.

The charts below show US and German CPI inflation plotted against real 3 month T-bill rates and real 10 year yields. If the FX market was right and central banks and markets responded to higher (lower) inflation with higher (lower) real yields, you would expect there to be a positive correlation between inflation and real yields. Broadly speaking that was the case in the 80s, though only broadly speaking. Not much happened in the 90s, with inflation and real yields broadly steady on a trend basis. But from around 2004 there has been a very clear negative correlation between inflation and real yields. Inflation has mostly fallen, and when it has, real yields have risen. Why? Because either central banks have had more pressing concerns than current inflation, as was the case immediately after the 2008 crash, or because they reached a lower bound in yields preventing them from reducing real yields any further, so effectively nominal rates were fixed. This means that a decline in inflation has, ex post, actually made a currency more not less attractive for the last 10 years.

us-cpi-real-yields-1us-cpi-real-yields-2cpi-and-real-yields

Source: FRED, FX Economics

Now, it may be that there will come a point where central banks and markets start to react to higher inflation by pushing real rates up. In the US, this may not be too far away, but it still looks a long way off in the Eurozone and Japan, where higher inflation would be seen as a good thing and won’t be offset by higher nominal short term rates, never mind higher real rates. Although the markets may allow longer term yields to rise somewhat, it is still doubtful that rises in inflation will be offset by higher real yields (i.e nominal yields rising more than inflation) in the near term. Even if they are, the point about higher nominal yields is that they compensate the FX market for the decline in the currency that will happen because of inflation. A rise in inflation accompanied by an equal rise in yields should in theory have no immediate effect on a currency. The currency should be expected to be a little weaker going forward because of higher inflation, but the investor is exactly compensated for the lower expected value with higher yields.

So why do FX markets react as they do? Because it is clear that they see higher inflation as a positive thing for currencies because of the perceived implication for yields and central bank policy. It may simply be money illusion. That is, higher inflation, will at the margin, mean higher nominal rates, but at this stage and for the last 10 years this has not meant higher real rates, as is clear from the charts. Or is it just that the market is stuck in some sort of 80s mindset imposed on it by people who have simply observed the past – i.e. that higher than expected inflation typically meant currencies rallied, so all the models (carbon and silicon) are programmed that way for evermore?

Whatever the reason, it’s time the market woke up and smelled the coffee.  Central banks are not straining at the leash to raise real rates to head off rising inflation. In fact, the (broadly) effective zero lower bound in nominal rates has meant many are hoping to get inflation higher precisely because it’s the only way they can get real rates lower.

So higher inflation should be seen for what it is. It is an effective real currency appreciation. Prices are higher relative to the rest of the world just as they would be if the currency had fallen. The proper FX market response to that is to reduce the value of the currency to equalise domestic and foreign prices accordingly, not to push the currency up in the expectation of a central bank response that isn’t going to come, and if it did wouldn’t fully offset the inflation move anyway.

 

 

 

 

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EUR weighed down by GBP not Draghi

eurandgbp

Looking at the markets, it seems as if Draghi said that the ECB would be easing further come December, or at the very least March. The EUR has gone into a tailspin since the ECB meeting, and journalists are queuing up to blame Draghi. The trouble is, no-one seems quite sure what he said that triggered the move. One headline said “Euro close to 8-month lows vs dollar Friday after ECB chief Mario Draghi ruled out an abrupt end to QE.” Another headline “Euro wallows near March lows after Draghi quashes tapering talk”. So did he quash taper talk, or did he say the ECB would taper? Because if you don’t end abruptly, you taper (it’s one or the other). And which is better for the EUR? Because when it was suggested that the ECB would taper a month or so ago (by some unnamed committee member that Draghi emphasised had no insight) the EUR went up. So presumably if they don’t taper it goes down? Except Draghi said they would taper. Which I would have thought was sensible, and less likely to be EUR positive than an abrupt end to QE if anyone thought about it. Which all probably goes to show how silly the original “taper tantrum” was, but doesn’t really explain why the EUR has been so weak since Draghi’s press conference, especially since the effects of the initial taper tantrum were fairly short-lived in any case because on reflection most saw that the initial story didn’t mean a great deal, true or not.

In reality I don’t think the market really saw anything new in Draghi’s comments, but in the absence of anything new, the downtrend in EUR/USD remains in place. EUR/USD has been in a downtrend since the Brexit vote, and with the market expecting a Fed rate hike in December and currently seeing a probable Clinton victory as favourable (presumably because it is essentially the status quo – no nasty surprises), the burden of proof is now on those that want to oppose the EUR/USD downtrend. It is interesting that the Brexit situation appears to be the key factor that has pushed EUR/USD lower, though the UK is a small economy by comparison to the US and Eurozone giants. It is certainly the case that EUR/USD has never regained the 1.1377 high seen on June 24 and had been edging higher into the vote. It is hard to see that the economic news form the two economies since then has been particularly USD positive or EUR negative. If anything the opposite is true. Certainly since the beginning of this year the performance of the Eurozone in both growth and inflation has been broadly in line with expectations, while US growth has significantly underperformed. In fact, the OECD currently expect US GDP growth to be weaker than the Eurozone’s this year, and although many expect the Fed to raise rates in December, this is significantly less tightening than had been anticipated  at the start of the year.

So we need some change in market perceptions for the EUR to stop falling, at least until we reach the key levels in the 1.05-1.08 area in EUR/USD. A less negative view of Brexit from the perspective of both the UK and the Eurozone is the most obvious potential trigger, though that doesn’t seem imminent with the EU ruling out negotiation until the UK invokes Article 50, which most likely will be in Q1 2017. The other main possibility is a change in the perception of the Fed, though the way things have turned out this year suggests that even if the Fed don’t raise rates in December, the hit to USD strength may only be temporary unless the ECB turn out to be unexpectedly hawkish at their December meeting. The third chance of a Trump victory is one I hope we don’t have to consider.

Fed hike overpriced

us-gdp

The latest OECD forecast for 2016 US GDP growth is 1.4%. That would be the lowest since the recovery began – i.e the lowest since the -2.8% in 2009. It is also lower than the 1.5% forecast for the Eurozone, and lower than the 1.7% forecast for the UK. Yet the market is currently pricing a 70% probability of the FOMC raising its funds rate target by December, while all the talk is about when the UK will cut rates again and whether the ECB will ease again. Of course, current growth is not necessarily the prime determinant of the Fed’s decision. They are forward-looking, and focus on dual targets of inflation and employment, but growth is the major consideration for both these objectives, and while future growth is expected to be better, growth has disappointed all this year so forecasts of future strong growth require a degree of optimism. We have the Q3 GDP data for the US on October 28th. The consensus forecast is still around 2.7%, but the Atlanta Fed GDPNow model is currently showing a forecast of 1.9%. If we were to get another sub-2% growth number in Q3, the probability of the Fed tightening in December would surely dip sharply.

Of course, the reason most are looking for a December rate hike is not because they have done a deep assessment of the economic rationale and put a lot of trust in their forecasts of growth and inflation. It is because they think the Fed have said they will. The three dissents at the September FOMC notably included former arch-dove Eric Rosengren, and many see this as a signal that the Fed is preparing for a December move. But the latest speech from Yellen ought to cast a bit of doubt on this assessment. Yellen didn’t specifically indicate a policy intention, but she did suggest a possible willingness to try to run a faster economy in order to recover some of the lost output seen since the recession. As she put it – “If we assume that hysteresis is in fact present to some degree after deep recessions, the natural next question is to ask whether it might be possible to reverse these adverse supply-side effects by temporarily running a “high-pressure economy,” with robust aggregate demand and a tight labor market.” If she wants to try this, raising rates when growth hasn’t reached 2% in any of the last three quarters, as would be the case if Q3 GDP comes in sub 2%, doesn’t seem to be a sensible tactic. We certainly don’t have “robust aggregate demand” on this reading.

The tightness of the labour market is perhaps the best argument for higher rates. Traditional economics has tended to focus on the labour market as the main driver of inflation, as a tight market drives up wages and costs. However, there are three points to make on this. First, that although the US is no doubt close to full employment, the unemployment rate in the US hasn’t fallen in the last year, at least partly because of the weakness in growth. Second, average weekly earnings growth hasn’t been rising. If anything it’s been falling, with the 3 mth y/y average dipping below 2% in October for the first time since February 2014. Third, Yellen’s latest speech highlights that the labour market hasn’t really been the driver of inflation in recent years. As she notes “the influence of labor market conditions on inflation in recent years seems to be weaker than had been commonly thought prior to the financial crisis.” So although the unemployment rate is quite low by historic standards, it’s not falling and doesn’t appear to be putting upward pressure on wages.

As for inflation, the Fed’s preferred measure – the PCE deflator – is steady at 1% and hasn’t been above 2% since 2012. While oil price fluctuations may move it short-term, it is not currently an issue the Fed has to worry about. If anything, the concern is still to convince the market and the public that inflation is likely to rise from here. Recent years have proved that deflation is a much harder issue to deal with.

So I find it very hard to make a case for higher rates based on the current state of growth, inflation and unemployment, and the latest speech from Yellen suggests to me that she does too. The rate hike last December was based on much stronger growth expectations and some evidence that growth is moving back above trend looks necessary to me to justify another move. Given her recent speech I suspect Yellen feels the same.

Now, there are of course other arguments for raising rates. The side-effects of holding rates very low are generally perceived to be damaging, with savers penalised and asset owners rewarded. Inequality increases as a result. But this is a reason to want rates higher in the longer run, not necessarily now.

It will take a lot to change the market’s mind on the Fed, but it seems to me that the current 70% probability priced in for a (November or) December hike is overly confident. The Q3 GDP data may change this view, but it may require a Fed comment or two to move expectations even if the GDP data do disappoint, given the market’s current tendency to need to be led by the nose. Many on the Fed who want a hike clearly aren’t really basing it on the current behaviour of the economy.

 

Carney, Prince of pessimism

hamlet

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”. Hamlet

The most striking thing to me about yesterday’s raft of information and decisions from the Bank of England was the willingness to act on the basis of forecasts of significant near term economic weakness based on, let’s face it, remarkably little solid evidence. This has continued the trend of the Bank supporting the view that the Brexit vote is a disaster and will lead to a major economic slowdown, a view that is becoming self-perpetuating.

Now, of course, the Bank of England has to try to act on the basis of forecasts, and if it merely responds to coincident or lagging indicators of the economy it risks being seen to be “behind the curve” or setting policy “looking in the rear view mirror”. But we are in a unique situation here. No-one has ever left the EU before. We don’t know what the UK trade arrangements will be in the future, and these will in any case not be in place for more than another two years. The Bank takes the view that the ultimate result will be some reduction in UK supply capacity in 2019 and beyond, though it admits the extent of this effect is very uncertain. Fair enough. But the measures announced yesterday were not really intended to deal with this, but with the short-term demand reaction. It is here that I think the Bank is on very shaky ground, for several reasons.

First of all, we should need no reminding that the Bank’s record of forecasting under Carney has been woeful, from the initial unexpectedly sharp decline in unemployment which quickly left his conditions for raising rates looking ridiculous, to the more recent indications that rates were likely to go up rather than down. Carney’s reputation as an “unreliable boyfriend” is therefore to some extent justified, though I would argue his fault is not so much a lack of foresight – as all forecasters know, being wrong is the norm – as suggesting he has more confidence in his foresight and consequently his understanding of the correct policy path than he had any real right to. Of course, there are uncertainty bands around all the Bank of England Inflation report forecasts, but Carney has always tried to provide an impression of greater commitment to a view than these suggest, in contrast to his predecessor Lord King, who increasingly emphasised that neither he nor anyone else knew the answers to many of the questions he was asked.

So it would be foolish to take the Bank’s forecasts as gospel, even in normal times, and one of the main points made by the Bank yesterday was that these were more uncertain times than usual and that there had been “sharp rises in indicators of uncertainty in recent months”. Once again, fair enough, But the Bank goes on to conclude that such uncertainty could lead to a reduction in spending, particularly major spending commitments. Well, maybe, but maybe not. The impact of uncertainty is very – er – uncertain. Uncertainty squared, if you like.

Of course, as former MPC member Charles Goodhart has noted, we always think the situation is uncertain, and this is not an excuse for doing nothing. That only leads to vacillation. The Bank has taken a view that further monetary accommodation is needed because the risks are on the downside. Again, as Goodhart has pointed out, the impact of these measures is unlikely to be very large, as monetary policy has close to run out of bullets, but they are unlikely to do any harm, at least directly.

So my problem is not with the measures per se, or even the broad slant of the analysis, but with the presentation.  The Bank accepts that there is a lot of uncertainty, and worries that this will lead to less spending. But the reaction of people and businesses is not set in stone. It is about confidence and sentiment. The Bank’s policy reaction is not so much about the actual shape of the trade relations in years to come, but the reaction of firms and consumers to worrying about it. The best way of dealing with this is not to say – “yes, things are pretty awful, so here are some measures that might be a bit of a help if things turn out to be as bad as we fear”. It is to take as positive approach as possible, say that we don’t really know what is going to happen down the road, but there is no real need to change our behaviour now as the picture in two or three years time is really entirely unknown. Brexit may not even be the most important thing that happens over that period. For instance, if the Eurozone’s nascent recovery continues, helped by some expansionary fiscal policy, it may swamp any negative Brexit impact (if there is any).

Now, there is of course some need for transparency, and Carney has taken the view that it was the responsibility of the Bank to put out its best guess of the impact of Brexit ahead of the vote. But I feel this was the first error that has been compounded by subsequent acts. You don’t have to believe, like some on the Treasury Select Committee, that there was a sinister political motive behind the Bank’s negative forecasts ahead of the vote, to think that a more humble view would have been far less damaging. If the Bank had merely said that the impact was uncertain and it would react when there was some greater clarity, the idea that a big slowdown was inevitable would not have become so ingrained, and firms and consumers would be less inclined to believe they should put off big spending projects. The latest Bank action might still have been the same, but could have been presented as an insurance policy rather than a reaction to an inevitable sharp downturn. Now we are in danger of talking ourselves into a downturn, and producing a fiscal expansion we can ill afford to offset it.

Perhaps Carney should have spent more time reading Shakespeare rather than learning about DSGE models. Then he would know that “there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so”.

Helicopter time?

While they refused the chance to alter policy in July the Bank of England have indicated a high probability of some easing in August. Why wait three weeks? Some suggest it is to see what the data says, but in practice there will be no really reliable data between the meetings relating to the post vote economy. We have had a weak July PMI reading from Markit, but this is a sentiment survey and it’s hard to gauge whether this weakness will translate into real reductions in spending. The reason for delay can only be to have more time to design the appropriate response, to be able to present the rationale more effectively in the Quarterly Inflation Report, and to consult with the new government to see what the fiscal policy intentions are.

Why is an easing needed? The EU vote is seen as a shock that will reduce growth mainly via weaker investment, though it is possible consumption and exports could also weaken as a result of the hit to confidence. Any policy adjustment should therefore be designed to encourage growth and investment. What are the options?

1 – A rate cut

This seems unlikely to be particularly effective. Companies that need to borrow (generally SMEs) are not restricted by the cost but by the availability of borrowing. Very few companies would borrow more if rates were cut.

The main impact of a rate cut may therefore be via pound. But despite the potential long term advantage of a lower pound for exporters, very little would be gained by driving the pound lower still in the short term. Indeed, a lower pound would probably be bad for growth near term because a lower pound would mean higher prices, lower real incomes and lower consumption. While the lower level of the pound should eventually prove supportive for exports, there is unlikely to be any quick impact when the UK trading arrangements are so up in the air.

2 – More QE

This may be helpful in supporting asset prices, as Bank of England buying of gilts will lead to higher cash balances for the sellers of gilts.But if there is a reduction in expectations of growth the demand for equities and other risky assets will be lower at any given level of gilt yields. So unless the Bank manage to force yields significantly lower with QE, which may be difficult from a very low starting point with inflation rising on the back of a lower pound , the extra cash may just stay as that – cash – much as it has tended to in Japan, and to some extent in past QE episodes in the UK, though this time there is less danger of the extra liquidity being soaked up by bank bond issuance with the banks better capitalised.

 

3 – Helicopter money

As I have written before (“we already have helicopter money, 09/05/2016”), helicopter money is not new or radical, we have already had it when the Bank used QE and the government allowed the deficit to balloon in 2009. In that year,  the Bank of England bought £190bn of government debt, while net debt rose by £178bn and the deficit rose £79bn from the previous year. You can argue that was about automatic stabilisers rather than a change in policy, so wasn’t a structural fiscal easing, but it was nevertheless a fiscal expansion financed by the central bank.

Of course, some argue more is required for this to be a truly money financed operation. If the government issues gilts to finance fiscal easing, and the Bank buys them in the secondary market, some don’t see this as direct financing, but it’s hard to distinguish the real effective difference between secondary and primary market buying. Of course, the gilts remain on the Bank’s and the government’s balance sheet, and could in theory be sold back to the market, but in reality this makes little difference in terms of current policy, so to renew QE at the same time as the government ease fiscal policy would not be that radical a decision.

Is this the best approach here? Well, the Bank doesn’t have control of fiscal policy, so it’s not a policy they can enact. They can provide the QE, but the government needs to make use of it by increased fiscal spending. This would be effective in stimulating demand in the short run, but the danger is that such monetary financed easing is perceived as inflationary in the longer run. However, I doubt this will be an immediate problem. Other questions about the sustainability of the UK government finances could also be raised, but I would argue this is likely to be seen as less of an issue if new debt is being bought by the Bank of England. It is nevertheless a risky strategy.

4 – Other confidence building measures

The main risk to the UK is a loss of confidence by firms who were planning to invest or foreigners planning to buy UK assets. There is little monetary policy can do about the fundamental issues, which depend on the government negotiating sensibly with Europe. Probably the most important thing the Bank can do is provide optimistic forecasts for the economy, which they can do without contradicting previous forecasts if they implement some easing measures (even though the impact of those measures will depend largely on confidence effects).

What will they do? It’s certainly not clear, and I would not see a rate cut as a foregone conclusion. The decision not to cut in the past had some valid reasons related to bank profitability, and although some of these have been addressed by reducing the banks’ capital buffer, there are certainly some who argue that a rate cut might do more harm than good by putting pressure on banks’ margins. The probable impact of a higher pound from no rate cut may not be a bad thing from these levels, preventing excessive GBP declines. (It is unlikely the pound will recover a long way). So more QE, with the decision on helicopter money effectively left up to the government may be the order of the day.

Short term risk recovery

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“It’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses”. The Blues Brothers

So we’re in a bit of limbo Brexit-wise. We don’t know when it will happen (some say even if it will happen), what trade deals will be done, who will be allowed to stay in the UK when we leave, how the elections elsewhere will go, and so on. Still, it is reasonable to say it will have some negative impact on the economy on the short-term. Increased uncertainty will reduce investment by at least a few firms, though it may only be delayed if we finish up with a comparatively benign outcome. I am less sure there will be any direct impact on consumer spending, but the decline in GBP will raise prices and reduce real incomes and spending as a result. Conversely, the impact of a weaker pound on exports may be positive eventually, but not in the short run and perhaps never. While UK exports will be cheaper, it takes time for new orders to be found, and the pound still isn’t cheap enough for the UK to compete in most areas. Plus exports to the EU may suffer because of the lack of any detail on the future relationship. All this is broadly known and in the price, but the extent of the economic impact is very uncertain.

We won’t get any post referendum data until August, and it may be that it is hard to see a clear impact for a few months even if there is a slowdown. So we’re driving if not blind, then at least in the dark with sunglasses on (like the Blues Brothers).

The Bank of England needs to decide this week whether these conditions justify some new action. They have already eased capital requirements on the banks but many think this is just a preamble to a rate cut, as bank profitability will now be partially protected. Carney has said he believes some monetary easing is justified. Many think a rate cut will be delayed until August, but we will know very little more in August than we do now. So I expect the Bank will cut rates this week, though other measures are also possible. It probably doesn’t matter too much exactly what the measures are, as in reality the issue is building confidence rather than adjusting the cost of borrowing.

What will be the impact on the FX markets? If there is no action risk will suffer and with it the pound as well as the other “risky” currencies. If there is a cut an initial dip in the pound may well prove a buying opportunity as risk recovers. The Bank knows that something is expected and is unlikely to take the risk of doing nothing because of the probable negative impact on markets of what would be perceived as dithering. Carney has effectively forced the hand of the rest of the Monetary Policy Committee by saying action is necessary. So look for a bold Bank and a risk positive reaction, especially since the global background is better after the better US employment numbers and the withdrawal of the ludicrous Leadsom as candidate for PM. EUR/JPY (or probably better still, SEK/JPY) seem the cheapest major currency pairs to me. Of course, it may not last if the economic impact of the Brexit vote turns out to be very negative, or if the negotiations between the UK and Juncker and co. break up in acrimony. But for now, while the outcomes are unclear, expect a risk recovery as the Bank tries to build confidence.

We already have helicopter money

There has been a lot of chat about helicopter money potentially being the next new monetary policy measure to be tried after all the others have tried and failed to stimulate the developed economies. I have just watched Professor Willem Buiter telling Bloomberg that it makes sense but won’t happen because of political opposition. But it seems to me we already have it, even though it hasn’t been announced as such.

To explain. Helicopter money as suggested by Buiter and others is, in his words, a fiscal stimulus (whether in the form of adding money to every bank account or in the form of infrastructure spending) financed not be issuance of government debt but by the central bank “printing” money. While this has not officially happened, it seems to me there is no real difference between quantitative easing and helicopter money. While some might argue that there has been no fiscal stimulus directly financed by a central bank, QE is financing fiscal spending.  The fact is the central bank is buying government debt. To argue whether the fiscal spending is “new” or not is sophistry. And whether this happens in the primary or secondary markets is really irrelevant – issuance finishes up with the central bank with the primary dealers effectively acting as passive intermediary.

Now, fiscal policy settings may not have been consciously altered, but to take the UK as an example, the Bank of England started buying assets (gilts) in 2009 when the UK government budget deficit was 10.8% of GDP. How can anyone argue that the Bank was not financing government spending in doing so, and thus creating “helicopter money”. Who knows what the fiscal policy setting would have been had the Bank not enacted QE? Presumably government bond yields would have been higher had they not done so.

Now, some will argue that the difference between QE and helicopter money is that QE is not permanent. The central bank’s holdings of assets are still part of government debt and will (or at least could) be sold back to the market at some point. The fiscal expansion is still treated as an addition to the budget deficit, even if the debt is bought by the central bank. But isn’t this really a fiction? I think it’s much more likely that the central banks’ accumulated assets will never be sold back to the market and will simply be refinanced on any maturity. In any case, this a decision that will be taken at the time of maturity, and I sincerely doubt anyone’s behaviour is assuming the sale of the Bank of England’s (or the Fed’s or the BoJ’s) stock of debt.

So yes, a fiscal expansion financed by the central bank buying government debt is not just a possibility, it is a possibility that has already happened. Whether central banks will be prepared to finance future fiscal expansion is unclear, but independent central banks may choose to do so if they feel it is in keeping with their mandate (usually of inflation targeting) which many think it is. Certainly, some on the ECB would be willing to expand QE to accommodate increased fiscal spending, and several have indicated that an increase in fiscal spending is desirable in some countries. However, the structure of the Eurozone makes it more difficult to enact there than elsewhere, where there are unitary fiscal authorities with single central banks. The Italian government debt level may still be seen as problematic even if a lot of it is owed to the ECB. The same is not true of the UK debt if it is owed to the Bank of England. I suspect the Bank will find a way to grant the UK government quite favourable terms.