Opinion

Anatole Kaletsky

Behind Wall Street’s anxiety

Anatole Kaletsky
Apr 10, 2014 20:49 UTC

The recent economic news has been about as investor-friendly as anyone could imagine.

It started with last week’s strong U.S. employment figures; continued through Tuesday’s reassuring International Monetary Fund forecasts, which put the probability of avoiding a global recession this year to 99.9 percent, and culminated in dovish Federal Reserve minutes, which soothed concerns about an earlier than expected  increase in U.S. interest rates.

Considering all this good news, investors could justifiably feel surprised — even shocked — by Wall Street’s sharp falls this week. By Thursday afternoon, the Standard & Poor’s 500 had given back its entire gain for the year, and the Nasdaq 100 gauge of leading technology stocks had suffered its biggest setback since 2011. Many market analysts interpreted the negative reaction to good news as a classic sign of a market top, warning that the uninterrupted rise in share prices that began more than five years ago is overdue for a sharp reversal.

But looking at the economic and financial data, it was hard to see justification for such anxiety. Last week’s rebound in U.S. employment growth — the crucial monthly statistic that tends to set the tone for asset markets around the world — could only be interpreted as good news. Especially after the shockingly weak December payrolls that triggered the global equity correction at the start of the year.

February and March monthly employment growth reverted to almost exactly its three-year average of 184,000. For equity investors, this meant much less concern about a U.S. economic slowdown, never mind the stagnation or recession that some bearish economists were predicting as recently as a few weeks ago.

Yellen looks toward a Keynesian approach

Anatole Kaletsky
Feb 13, 2014 19:18 UTC

This has been a banner week for the world economy, inspired largely by events in the United States.

In Washington, the first congressional testimony from Janet Yellen in her position as new Federal Reserve Board chairwoman reassured and impressed two notoriously petulant audiences: Tea Party congressmen, who had assembled a posse of hostile witnesses to attack the Fed’s “easy money” policies; and panicky Wall Street investors, who had spent the previous month swooning on fears that monetary policies might not be easy enough.

The significance of Yellen’s testimony lay not in the fact that she was a bit more “dovish” than former Chairman Ben Bernanke, or seemed more committed to the new central bankers’ fad for “forward guidance,” as opposed to “quantitative easing.” More striking, if subtle, was the change in economic philosophy that Yellen represented.

Behind the wave of market anxiety

Anatole Kaletsky
Feb 6, 2014 23:33 UTC

What has caused the sudden anxiety attack that overwhelmed financial markets after the New Year? We may find out the answer at 8.30 on Friday morning, Eastern Standard Time.

Almost all agree that the market turmoil has been linked to alarming events in several emerging economies — including Turkey, Thailand, Argentina and Ukraine — that has spilled over into concerns about more important economies, such as China, Russia, South Africa, Indonesia and Brazil.

But why has near-panic hit so many emerging markets at the same time?

There seem to be four broad explanations. Whether this current volatility marks the end of the straight-line ascent in asset prices that started in March 2009, or whether it is just another opportunity to “buy on dips,” will largely depend on the relative importance of each of these factors.

A central banker’s ‘license to lie’

Anatole Kaletsky
Jan 30, 2014 21:43 UTC

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, who retires this week as the world’s most powerful central banker, cannot be trusted.

Neither can Janet Yellen, who will succeed him this weekend at the Federal Reserve.

And neither can Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England; Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, or any of their counterparts at the central banks of Turkey, Argentina, Ukraine and so on.

Have markets finally received Bernanke’s taper message?

Anatole Kaletsky
Dec 19, 2013 16:33 UTC

Thanks goodness it’s over. Financial market behavior ahead of last night’s announcement by Ben Bernanke on a gradual reduction in U.S. monetary stimulus has been tedious and irritating, rather like listening to whining children in the back of the car on a long journey: “Daddy, are we there yet?” In fact, impatient whining about when the Fed might start to “taper” has spoiled for many investors what should have been one of the most enjoyable financial journeys of all time, scaling previously unexplored market peaks and passing through unprecedented monetary vistas.

Imagine if everyone had simply taken Ben Bernanke at his word when he said in May that the Fed would continue buying bonds at the rate of $85 billion every month until it was absolutely confident that unemployment was on the way to 6.5 percent and that the scale of these purchases would only be increased or diminished if and when a change was clearly warranted by economic statistics. Investors would then have concluded, as I suggested at the time, that no significant changes in U.S. monetary policy were likely until the end of 2013.

Stock markets around the would have enjoyed their strongest year for a decade without the trauma of the spring and summer “taper tantrum.” Nobody would have been shocked or embarrassed by the “September surprise,” when the Fed very sensibly decided to keep up the pace of monetary stimulus in the face of lackluster economic figures, despite the howls of indignation from analysts who were wrong-footed by their own unsubstantiated predictions of early tapering. Finally, investors would have been fully prepared for the Fed’s decision to go ahead with tapering this week. After all, the recent strong run of U.S. employment, housing and production data provided exactly the sort of strong economic background that Bernanke had posited all along as the necessary condition for tapering, especially in conjunction with the Congressional budget deal that was ratified by the Senate at the same moment Bernanke as spoke across town.

The end of the Fed’s taper tantrum

Anatole Kaletsky
Nov 21, 2013 15:03 UTC

Following Wednesday’s publication of the Federal Open Market Committee minutes, we now know that a reduction in U.S. monetary stimulus could be on the agenda for the next FOMC meeting on December 19. How much does this matter?

When the Fed unexpectedly decided not to “taper” in September, the markets were stunned and gyrated wildly, although investors had only themselves to blame for being wrong-footed in this way. Ben Bernanke had made crystal clear his reluctance to reduce monetary stimulus as long as the U.S. economy appeared to be weakening, which appeared to be the case throughout the summer. By December 19, the situation may well be very different, since the economy will probably be improving and the U.S. fiscal stalemate may well have been resolved. If such improvements happen, the Fed will have no compunctions about wrong-footing investors again, in the opposite direction, as this column suggested last month.

So what will be the impact on the world economy and financial markets if the Fed decided to taper as early as December? The answer is, not much. As long as the Fed stands by its commitment to keep interest rates near zero for the foreseeable future, tapering will have no major economic impact. Therefore its financial significance should also be marginal, except insofar as investor psychology overwhelms rational economic analysis.

Central bank stimulus is here to stay, but what if it fails?

Anatole Kaletsky
Nov 14, 2013 16:29 UTC

If anyone still doubted that central bankers all over the world will keep interest rates at rock-bottom levels, those doubts should have been dispelled this week. Janet Yellen’s statement on Thursday to the U.S. Senate that the Fed has “more work to do” to stimulate employment, and that “supporting the recovery today is the surest path to returning to a more normal approach to monetary policy,” capped a series of surprisingly clear commitments to easy money from central bankers this week. On Wednesday Joerg Asmussen, a member of the executive board of the European Central Bank, and Ewald Nowotny, the Austrian central bank governor — both of whom had previously been reported as voting against last week’s surprise ECB rate cut — said that they might in fact support further rate cuts and even negative interest rates, as well as the possibility of breaking the taboo against U.S.-style purchases of government bonds. And Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, reiterated more strongly than ever that any early increase in British interest rates was out of the question, despite the fact that the outlook for the British economy has turned out to be much better than the BoE had expected.

But what if these zero interest rate policies produce disappointing results in the year ahead, as they have in each of the past four years? What if the world economy fails to spring back to life or just plods along with sub-par growth, despite all this stimulus, as has happened in each of the past four years?

With luck, these questions will not need answering because fiscal austerity has acted as a powerful headwind to economic recovery in the U.S., Europe and Britain and these budget consolidation efforts are now being relaxed. The new records on Wall Street and other stock markets suggest growing confidence among investors that monetary stimulus will finally deliver decent levels of growth next year — and this does indeed seem likely. But what if the optimism turns out to be wrong? What if the U.S. and Britain fail to grow by at least 3 percent next year, and what if Europe stays stuck with sub-1 percent growth and mass unemployment? In that case, the monetary and fiscal policy experiments since the Lehman crisis would have to be judged as failures — and that judgment would open the way to much more radical ideas than zero interest rates and QE. Such radical ideas would be of two opposing types.

The markets and Bernanke’s “taper tantrums”

Anatole Kaletsky
Sep 19, 2013 16:22 UTC

So it was, after all, a storm in a teacup. Financial markets around the world have been going through a series of “taper tantrums” since May 21, when Ben Bernanke first mentioned the idea of gradually reducing or “tapering” the Federal Reserve Board’s monetary expansion. Throughout these four months, I have argued in this column that financial markets had grossly exaggerated or completely misunderstood the significance of Bernanke’s comments. This has turned out to be the case, as evidenced by the huge moves in share prices, currencies and bonds on Wednesday after the Fed announced that it would do exactly what Bernanke had suggested all along — namely, nothing.

The Fed’s decision not to cut back on its $85 billion of monthly bond purchases, even by some small symbolic amount such as $5 billion, stunned the markets — but only because analysts had refused to believe what Bernanke, along with most other central bankers around the world, was saying throughout the period since May 21. The Fed chairman repeatedly stated that tapering would begin only if and when there was consistent evidence that U.S. employment conditions were improving. Bernanke also stated that, even after tapering started, the Fed would not allow U.S. monetary conditions to tighten and would keep short-term interest rates near zero for a very long period — at least until 2015, and quite possibly beyond.

Why, then, were investors so surprised when the Fed officially implemented exactly what Bernanke had promised? And now that the Fed has put its money where Bernanke’s mouth was, how will the global economy and financial markets react?

Dalian Man

Anatole Kaletsky
Sep 11, 2013 21:02 UTC

The Davos economic forum, held every winter in the Swiss Alps, allows its participants to look down at the world from above: topographically because of the high-altitude location, but also symbolically, because of the high incomes, high status or high-minded rhetoric that characterize the jet-setting global elite dubbed “Davos Man” by the American political scientist, Samuel Huntington. This week, however, I discovered a sub-species of Davos Man with a very different perspective. At the “summer Davos” that the World Economic Forum now organizes every year in China, participants look at the world sideways, from the East instead of down. The shift in viewpoint is striking, even for people who travel frequently to Asia, as I do, but rarely experience such total immersion in the eastern elite’s hopes and fears.

The biggest surprise at this week’s Dalian forum was the East-West divergence of opinion on the economic outlook, both in the months ahead and in the very long term. Western economists mostly believe that developing countries in general, and China in particular, are threatened by serious financial crises as U.S. monetary policy begins to be tightened, probably as soon as the Federal Reserve Board’s meeting next week. The consensus view is that emerging economies have invested and borrowed too much, taking advantage of the Fed’s easy money and will now face painful deleveraging similar to what Europe and the U.S. experienced five years ago. This deleveraging means, in turn, that the glory days for developing economies are probably over — and most of these countries, perhaps including China, may never escape the “middle-income trap” that has prevented further progress in many developing economies. The trap starts to hobble growth when per capita incomes rise to around $10,000 and many of the obvious opportunities for catching up with Western productivity are exhausted. China’s is $9,160 according to the IMF.

When I travelled to China this week, I expected obsessive discussion of the recent shift of economic sentiment against developing countries and the resulting collapse of bonds, shares and currencies in most emerging markets this year. And indeed warnings of ruinously compounding debt burdens and dangerously unsustainable investment bubbles did dominate Western presentations, both in Dalian and at an earlier academic seminar in Shenzhen, organised by Tsinghua University and the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

Were Bernanke’s comments a fire drill or a false alarm?

Anatole Kaletsky
Jul 11, 2013 14:14 UTC

Whenever Alan Greenspan was praised for delivering a clear message on U.S. monetary policy, he liked to reply something along the lines of: “If you think that, you have misunderstood what I said.” Ben Bernanke prefers the opposite approach. On May 22, he triggered one of biggest financial panics since 2008 by raising the possibility of reducing the Fed’s record-breaking monetary stimulus, while admitting that he had no idea when to start this process. He spent the subsequent six weeks trying to clear up the mess that he had created by explaining in painstaking detail the precise timing and conditions under which “tapering” might or might not take place. In the process he created even greater confusion and financial volatility. It now appears that he would have done much better for the world economy — and for his own reputation — by saving his breath and imitating Greenspan’s obfuscation.

The Fed minutes published on Wednesday revealed so many divergent opinions on the conditions, timing and even direction of any change in monetary policy, that all the recent speeches and press conferences on tapering could reasonably be described as white noise. Which raises the question of why investors reacted so strongly to all this confusion. Recent market behavior around the world suggests an explanation: while Fed tapering was not in itself a very important issue, Bernanke’s comments acted as a financial alarm bell, drawing attention to risks in the world economy that were forgotten or ignored. When we hear a fire alarm we naturally ask ourselves three questions: Is it a false alarm? Is it a fire drill? Or is it a real fire — and if so, where?

Similar questions may shed some light on the tapering scare. For the U.S. stock market, Bernanke’s May comments were clearly a false alarm, since the Fed was nowhere near a decision to tighten monetary policy, as we now know officially from the minutes. It is not surprising, therefore, that U.S. equity prices have rebounded to their pre-Bernanke record highs. But looking beyond the U.S. stock market, tapering speculation seems more like a fire drill than a false alarm.

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