Category Archives: Policy

Policy mistakes should not always be reversed

cpimktfeb17-1

UK inflation is rising

The Bank of England cut rates by 25bp and increased asset purchases in August in anticipation of a loss of confidence after the Brexit vote on June 24. The objective was stated to be to “provide additional support to growth and to achieve a sustainable return of inflation to the target.” Subsequently, growth was substantially stronger than expected through the remainder of 2016, mainly due to strong consumer spending, funded by increased borrowing. Now, many (including myself) thought the cut was a mistake at the time. But we all make mistakes. The Bank’s assessment of the impact on confidence appears to have been incorrect. Of course, some might argue that growth was stronger because the Bank eased policy, and no-one can prove that is wrong, but I think it is far-fetched. The fact is that the majority of the population (or at least half) are in favour of Brexit, so there is no good reason why the vote should have undermined consumer confidence. Business confidence might have been damaged in the longer run, but very few investment decisions are changed in a short time frame, so if there is a negative impact, it is yet to be felt. In practice, the relative resilience of spending may convince businesses to hold their nerve until the new trade arrangements become clearer, which may well take some time, as long as growth doesn’t start to slip back.

So it certainly seems as if the Bank of England made a policy error. While there is still very likely to be a longer term supply side shock from Brexit, that may not happen for quite some time, and the demand side shock the Bank initially expected has not materialised thus far. So what should they do? Should they reverse their easing and admit their error? The latest Inflation Report certainly shows inflation is expected to move above target soon and stay above target for the whole forecast horizon, which would suggest there is a pretty good prima facie case to raise rates or at least halt the increase in asset purchases. But the best way to fix an error is not always to simply reverse policy. Unless the reversal is done very quickly, the environment faced is different from the one faced initially. Things have changed.

In this case, the most notable change has been the decline in the pound. This has been good in some ways, as it has helped sustain manufacturing an export confidence in the face of uncertain future trade relationships, but it will lead to substantially higher inflation going forward, starting quite soon, as higher import prices feed through to CPI. It has also already led to higher inflation expectations. The key question as to whether this is sufficient reason to reverse the policy easing is whether the coming rise in inflation leads to an increase in wages and other factors generating domestically generated inflation. At this stage this is not clear, and is important. If wages don’t respond, we will see a sharp decline in real income growth as inflation rises, and if we also see a rise in rates from the Bank, there is a danger this will lead to a sharp decline in consumer confidence, potentially at the same time as sterling rises in response to a rise in rates. This could make the current optimism about the UK economy evaporate quite quickly.

So at this stage it seems sensible to wait. Inflation is coming, and it would be as well to see how this impacts spending and confidence before acting to reverse the move made in August. There has been a lot of British bravado since the Brexit vote, but high levels of debt and declining real incomes, plus the uncertainty surrounding the trade relationship with the EU and elsewhere, suggest that confidence is likely to be fragile. After making a policy mistake it is important not to compound it. The Bank mustn’t act looking in the rear view mirror.

 

 

Advertisements

Corbyn’s cap is a bad idea

corbyn

This is not just a fashion statement, though the Mao style cap is not likely to endear Corbyn to Middle England or improve his electoral chances. It also refers to his idea of a wage cap at somewhere between his own salary (137k) and 50m. He sensibly backed away from that idea as the day went on yesterday, but unfortunately has tarnished the whole idea of dealing with excessively high pay with his ill thought out plan. Excessive  pay is an important issue, but the key point is that it is excessive, not that it is high.

He gave footballers’ high pay as an example, but footballers’ high pay is a very poor example. Footballers are talented, and are paid a lot because their talent is in demand. Their ability is broadly measurable and certainly observable, even though there may be some disagreements about the contributions that players make, and clubs compete for their services in the open market. In general they are highly trained, have committed their whole lives to honing their specific skills, and are competing in an extremely competitive market. Pay is high, but reflects both high demand for their services and the very low probability of being successful.

Compare this with the chief executive of a large public company. The skills required are more amorphous. Leadership, strategic thinking, man management, and ruthlessness may all be required, but it is very hard to quantify whether CEOs are making a difference. If their companies are outperforming in their sector it may be a partial guide, but that may be because of their workers or company specific factors unrelated to them. Nevertheless, it’s necessary to measure performance in some way, and the company’s performance is a better guide to CEO performance than most, because the CEO’s objective should presumably be to maximise shareholder value (subject to some constraints of acceptable behaviour). Other employees can no doubt have more specific objectives, but for CEOs the bottom line should be the…er….bottom line.

But the argument many give for paying CEOs of large companies big salaries is that the larger the company, the greater the potential for the CEO to add value. If a CEO makes a decision that raises revenue by 1% it makes a difference of 100m for a company with 1obn in annual revenue, but only 10m for a company with 1bn in annual revenue. But this cuts both ways. If the company underperforms by 1% the CEO will be losing the company more money the larger the company is. This suggests that larger companies’ CEO salaries should be more volatile. Potentially larger but more dependent on performance. But you don’t see too many pay deals where the CEO has to pay the company money, so any deal has to accept that the CEO gets a basic salary that can only be increased by the bonus. On this logic, surely the larger the company the lower the CEO’s basic salary should be and the higher the gearing to performance.

Anyway, this is the sort of detail that Mr Corbyn didn’t seem to consider before jumping into the debate with both feet. A salary cap is precisely the wrong way of going about things, as it would just mean a lot of underperforming CEOs earning a lot of money regardless of performance. Admittedly this is not very different from the current situation, but with lower salaries, given the general lack of sensitivity of CEO salaries to performance. In that sense Corbyn is right in recognising there is a problem, but his solution was initially ill thought out, and subsequent attempts at a more sensible presentation of ideas have been tarnished by his initial floundering.

 

ECB promises are worthless

draghi

There has been much discussion about whether the ECB has tapered or not. They have reduced the size of their monthly purchases but extended them until the end of the 2017 rather than the expected 6 months from March, so that the promised total of asset purchases is actually greater than had been expected (the market was looking for a promised 6 months of EUR80bn = 480bn but they have 9 months of 60bn = 540bn). But this is still a tapering. Why? Because promises are worthless.

The ECB’s “guarantee” that purchases will be at least 60bn a month for at least 9 months is no such thing. Of course, they are very likely to stick to the letter of this promise, but if circumstances changed so that a tightening of monetary policy was necessary, would they really choose not to enact one? How irresponsible would that be? If they did fail to respond to the need to tighten the markets would react anyway. Anticipation of higher inflation would lead to substantially higher bond yields regardless of whether the ECB chose to continue with a policy that is clearly misguided.

There is a clear logical problem with the ECB (or any other central bank) making promises about future policy while at the same time pledging to stick to its remit of hitting its inflation (or any other) target. While in practice it is unlikely to have a problem sticking to its promises, that is because the promises are well within the range of policy options that they would design to hit their targets under normal circumstances. Had the ECB chosen to go with 80bn a month for 6 months, the odds are they would have extended this again beyond 6 months, probably with smaller volume, since even Draghi has admitted that they are unlikely to stop their asset purchases dead, but  rather taper off. But unexpected things can happen, and if they do the ECB may be forced to renege on their promises. If a tightening in policy is necessary, they might choose a different method and thus stick to the letter of their promise, but the promise itself is still valueless if there are circumstances in which the ECB would renege, whether in spirit or in letter.

The market has chosen to accept Draghi’s protests and not see the taper as a taper. But it is a taper. Future policy promises are worth nothing because central banks will do what they perceive is right at the time, and will effectively override any policies they have committed to if circumstances demand. It is time the markets stopped taking notice of this nonsensical approach of promises. Forward guidance is one thing – providing an idea of what they expect to do – though events have shown even this is wrong often enough to have very limited value. Promises are a step too far, and imply either omniscience  – so that there can never be a need to renege on a promise – or irresponsibility – with central banks prepared to sacrifice correct policy to stick to a promise they made under different circumstances. Central banks are not omniscient, and should not be irresponsible – so promises of this short are worthless and worse, potentially damaging.

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.

 

 

 

 

A crisis for UK democracy?

power-of-the-press-5-638

A bit on the markets in a minute, but first a bit of a rant.

If the Daily Mail call High Court judges “enemies of the people” simply for saying that parliament has to sanction the triggering of Article 50, what will it do if some MPs choose to vote against the wishes of their constituents?

This is a difficult issue for some MPs. After all, some are in constituencies that voted to Remain but themselves support Brexit. Others are in Leave constituencies but were in favour of Remaining. The Daily Mail would argue that the people have spoken with the referendum, but the result was close, and had more young people voted might have gone the other way. It might go the other way if it was done again today. So in my view MPs should vote in line with their own views. But they won’t. Even if they are in “Remain” constituencies, and are pro-Remain themselves, very few MPs will vote down a bill to trigger Article 50. Partly because they will be put on the front page of the Daily Mail if they do. And they remember what happened to Jo Cox. This is not a good way to govern a country, and reminiscent of some unpleasant regimes.

Unless MPs are prepared to act as responsible human beings and stand up to their party, the press and the noisy section of their constituents, they are becoming an irrelevance. They are mere ciphers. They are not being allowed to make their own decisions about anything important. It is important to have a role for personal conscience.

The further irony is that Brexit was (according to the Leave camp anyway) supposed to be about taking back control of our government from the EU. But if MPs are effectively just servants of the government, we are effectively being governed by royal prerogative. Come back Oliver Cromwell.

Anyway, rant over. The markets.

Sterling has managed a little rally in response to the High Court decision that parliament has to trigger Article 50, but this doesn’t look like it will be enough to sustain a strong rally in GBP for at least two reasons.

1) Although GBP is now a lot cheaper than it was, it is not dramatically cheap against the USD or the EUR given the big UK current account deficit and the lack of (real) yield attraction available in GBP.

2) Even if the High Court decision is upheld by the Supreme Court, it doesn’t mean no Brexit. Brexit is still extremely likely to happen. There might be some impact on the shape of the Brexit, but even this isn’t clear. If the government sticks to its guns on rejecting free movement and the EU sticks to its guns on making free movement a condition for single market access, it seems doubtful that parliament will really be able to have much real effect. What does seem likely (though not certain) is that there will be a significant delay in triggering Article 50 because of the time it is likely to take to put a bill through the Commons and Lords (average time one year). There could be a simple resolution to speed things along, but this would mean parliament would have to have its say at a later date.

So the vote has created extra uncertainty around Brexit, and has perhaps increased the chances of a softer version and a longer delay. This is mildly supportive for GBP, but some argue that the delay and uncertainty only makes things worse as firms are unable to plan for the future. I’d say this is outweighed by the increased chance of a softer Brexit, but not so much as to justify a dramatic GBP rally. EUR/GBP may manage to get back to the 0.86 area, but unless there is a lot more promise of a soft Brexit or some evidence on Eurozone weakness and/or UK strength gains beyond this are hard to justify. Still, it looks like it might be enough to stabilise GBP in the 0.86-0.91 range.

I have put this in terms of EUR/GBP rather than GBP/USD because coming into the US election the picture for the USD is obviously very uncertain. Most take the view that a Clinton victory will be USD positive, and market behaviour in the run up to the election suggests this is the case, but with a Clinton victory now priced as around an 80% chance, the market reaction may not be huge. The Fed is very likely to hike if markets respond positively – even neutrally – to the election, and that should be enough to sustain the USD against most currencies, though which currencies it gains most against will to some extent depend on the (uncertain) medium term equity market reaction to the combination of a Clinton win and higher US rates.

This is all pretty much the consensus view, and I’m not going to speculate too much on what happens if Trump wins, except to say that I’m not sure the impact will be that sustained. In the end, Washington will put fairly substantial limits on what he is able to do.

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.