To err once is unfortunate. To err twice looks like carelessness.
One of the great mysteries of 2013 will surely be how economists, investors and market participants of all stripes so spectacularly misread two of the biggest central bank policy set-pieces of the year.
The first was the Federal Reserve’s decision in September not to begin withdrawing its $85 billion-a-month bond-buying stimulus, the second was the European Central Bank’s decision in November to cut interest rates to a fresh low of just 0.25 percent.
The Fed’s decision on Sept. 18 not to “taper” stunned markets. The 10-year Treasury yield recorded its biggest one-day fall in almost two years, and the prospect of continued stimulus has since propelled Wall Street to fresh record highs. (See graphic, click to enlarge)
A Reuters poll on Sept. 9 showed that 49 of 69 economists expected the Fed to taper the following week, a consensus reached after Ben Bernanke said on May 22 that withdrawal of stimulus could start at one of “the next few meetings”.
But tapering was – and still is – always dependent on the data. And throughout this year, the Bernanke-Yellen-Dudley triumvirate has consistently noted that the labour market is extremely weak and the recovery uncertain.
Going into the Sept. 18 policy meeting unemployment was above 7 percent and the Fed’s preferred measure of inflation was well below target, barely more than 1 percent.
Plus, a simple read of the Fed’s statutory mandate of achieving “maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates” should have dispelled the notion a reduction in stimulus was imminent.
“People just didn’t want to listen. They just didn’t believe that they have to follow the data. They’ve not been listening, and it’s really hard to understand why,” said David Blanchflower, professor of economics at Dartmouth College in the United States and former policymaker at the Bank of England.
It was a similar story with the ECB’s interest rate cut on Nov. 7 which only three leading banks – UBS, RBS and Bank of America-Merrill Lynch – correctly predicted.
These three institutions quickly adjusted their forecasts after shock figures on October 31 showed euro zone inflation plunging to a four-year low of 0.7 percent, triggering the euro’s biggest one-day fall in over six months.
By anyone’s measure, 0.7 percent falls some way short of the “below, but close to, 2% over the medium term” inflation rate stipulated in the ECB’s mandate.
So why did the highly paid experts get it so wrong again?
Herd mentality might have something to do with it.
“It’s great if you’re all right together, and equally great if you’re all wrong together,” Blanchflower said.
It’s like a fund manager who loses 20 percent in a year where the market is down 21 percent. He might have screwed up, but so did everyone else. And technically, he outperformed the market so can claim to have “earned” his large fees.
To be fair, some of the central banks’ communication this year hasn’t been quite as clear as intended. See Bernanke’s comments on May 22 and recent confusion over the Bank of England’s “forward guidance”.
If one of the aims of forward guidance is to avoid volatility and variance of opinion about the trajectory of policy, then this kind of spectacular misread is an indictment of forward guidance.
In addition, since Draghi’s famous “whatever it takes” speech in July last year, the ECB has always had the potential to catch the market off-guard.
But maybe we shouldn’t be so charitable, and the market’s wailing at being misled by the central banks should be taken on board but ultimately ignored. The tail should not wag the dog.
“The Fed can’t be or shouldn’t be a prisoner of the markets,” we were reminded on Thursday, by none other than Fed Chair-elect Janet Yellen.