Opinion

The Great Debate

from Anatole Kaletsky:

Can central bankers succeed in getting global economy back on track?

Stanley Fischer, the former chief of the Bank of Israel, testifies before the Senate Banking Committee confirmation hearing on his nomination in Washington

Why is the world economy still so weak and can anything more be done to accelerate growth? Six years after the near-collapse of the global financial system and more than five years into one of the strongest bull markets in history, the answer still baffles policymakers, investors and business leaders.

This week brought another slew of disappointing figures from Europe and Japan, the weakest links in the world economy since the collapse of Lehman Brothers, despite the fact that the financial crisis originated in the United States. But even in the United States, Britain and China, where growth appeared to be accelerating before the summer, the latest statistics -- disappointing retail sales in the United States, the weakest wage figures on record in Britain and the biggest decline in credit in China since 2009 -- suggested that the recovery may be running out of steam.

As Stanley Fischer, the new vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, lamented on August 11 in his first major policy speech: “Year after year, we have had to explain from mid-year onwards why the global growth rate has been lower than predicted as little as two quarters back. ... This pattern of disappointment and downward revision sets up the first, and the basic, challenge on the list of issues policymakers face in moving ahead: restoring growth, if that is possible.”

The central message of Fischer’s speech -- that central bankers and governments should try even harder than they have in the past five years to support economic growth -- was closely echoed by Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, at his quarterly press conference two days later.

Bank of England Governor Mark Carney attends the bank's quarterly inflation report news conference at the Bank of England in LondonThis consistency should not be surprising: Carney was Fischer’s student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1970s -- as, even more significant, was Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank. Because of Fischer’s influence on other central bankers, as well as his unparalleled combination of academic and official experience, he is probably now the world’s most influential economist.

from The Great Debate UK:

How central bankers have got it wrong

If you asked someone to list the chief qualities needed to be a good central banker I assume that the list may include: good communicator, wise, attention to detail, clear thinking, credibility, and good with numbers.  However, in recent months these qualities have been sadly lacking, most notably last week when the Federal Reserve wrong-footed the markets and failed to start tapering its enormous QE programme.

The market had expected asset purchases to be tapered because: 1, Ben Bernanke had dropped fairly big hints at his June press conference that tapering was likely to take place sooner rather than later and 2, because the unemployment rate has consistently declined all year and if it continues moving in this direction then it could hit the Fed’s 6.5% target rate in the coming months.

In the aftermath of the September Fed decision the markets, analysts and Fed commentators were lambasted for being too hasty and for trying to second guess the Fed. While I agree that the markets can get too hung up on the movements of the US central bank, I think that the criticism is unfair this time.

Foreclosures, capital and sickening cures

-James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own-

A dilemma at the heart of the response to the financial crisis is that the antidote to so many ills actually causes the symptoms to worsen.

Take for examples bank capital levels and the chaos surrounding home mortgage foreclosures.

Both issues are the fruit of the same tree: the desire to do things quickly, cheaply and with minimal safeguards.
And both, if you want to fix them, are probably going to slow the economy and lower asset prices in the short term.

Markets make prisoner of the Fed

“Market participants should not direct policy,” Kansas City Fed President Thomas Hoenig warned listeners at a town hall meeting in Lincoln, Nebraska, back in August. Unfortunately that is precisely what is now happening.

Hoenig noted that Wall Street’s clamour for cheap money was not disinterested: “Of course the market wants zero rates to continue indefinitely … they are earning a guaranteed return on free money from the Fed by lending it back to the government through securities purchases.”

Now the same pressure groups want the Fed to launch a second round of asset purchases so they can sell U.S. Treasury bonds to the central bank (in effect back to the federal government) at inflated prices.

Cross-dressing in fiscal, monetary policy

“For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Matthew 16:26)

Bank of England Governor Mervyn King and his colleagues on the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) might be tempted to ask the same question.

For the governor has seized control of fiscal policy, only to lose control of monetary policy.

from The Great Debate UK:

Greenspan and the curse of counterfactual

Laurence_Copeland-150x150- Laurence Copeland is a professor of finance at Cardiff University Business School and a co-author of “Verdict on the Crash” published by the Institute of Economic Affairs. The opinions expressed are his own. -

Suppose that, instead of appeasing Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler at Munich in 1938, Neville Chamberlain had taken Britain to war, what would today’s history books say about the episode?

It is of course impossible to know. Perhaps something along the lines: “the British prime minister’s stubborn refusal to compromise resulted in a war which dragged on for 6 months at a cost of over 300,000 lives.....” Make up your own scenario.

from The Great Debate UK:

Can inflation be controlled by raising interest rates?

MarkBolsom-150x150.jpg- Mark Bolsom is the Head of the UK Trading Desk at Travelex, the world’s largest non-bank FX payments specialist. The opinions expressed are his own.-

One of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee members, Andrew Sentance, was quoted this morning suggesting that the Bank of England will need to consider raising interest rates this year if a “recovering economy poses a threat to inflation.”

Sentance’s view that inflation will rise is consistent with our forecast and is also backed up by the recent upwards trend in the UK’s CPI Manufacturing data. A rise in inflation is unsurprising, given the Bank of England's asset purchasing scheme, which aims to boost liquidity through printing more money. Inflation has also been bolstered by a weak pound, rising oil and commodity prices, as well as the return of VAT to 17.5 percent.

In praise of smaller banks, less volatility

– James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. –

If we want a world with safer banks, we need to be prepared for the consequences; lower growth over a painful medium term but the promise of making it up over the long run as we suffer less devastating financial blowups.

A banking system forced to operate with more capital and a higher proportion of safe, liquid assets is one that will shrink and charge more for credit, potentially retarding growth as we transition to a different mix of financing.

BoE extends QE, fears 1930s re-run

John Kemp

– John Kemp is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are his own –

The Bank of England’s decision to continue with its asset purchase programme, or quantitative easing (QE), at the rate of 50 billion pounds per quarter in Oct-Dec, unchanged from Jul-Sep, shows bank officials are more worried about ending support for the recovery too soon than about risking inflation by leaving it too late.

The problem with QE is that you have to keep buying the same amount of assets each month to maintain the same monetary stance. With interest rates, the Bank can cut them and they stay cut. If asset prices drop with QE, it represents a tightening of monetary policy.

from The Great Debate UK:

Bank of England faces dilemma on QE extension

johnkemp-- John Kemp is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are his own --

LONDON, April 9 (Reuters) - The Bank of England's terse press statement announcing it will maintain overnight rates at 0.5 percent and continue the existing 75 billion pound quantitative easing (QE) programme gives no clue about whether the Bank intends to extend the programme when the first tranche of asset purchases are completed in June.
But officials will have to make a decision soon: unless they signal a commitment to extend QE, gilt yields will rise even further in anticipation that the major buyer in the market will withdraw.
The QE programme is dogged by ambiguity about its objectives (which a cynical observer might conclude is deliberate).
Officially, the aim is to prevent inflation falling below target by accelerating money supply growth, not manipulate the yield curve for government and corporate debt.
In this, the Bank's avowed strategy is more conventional than the Fed's ambitious efforts to determine the cost of credit for borrowers throughout the economy. It is a straightforward quantitative easing patterned on the Bank of Japan, rather than a credit easing patterned on the Fed.
If true, the measure of success is how much the money supply has been boosted at the end of the three month period; the Bank should be indifferent about whether ending QE causes yields and borrowing costs to rise.
So long as money supply has risen consistent with the inflation target, and the Bank can discern some green shoots of stabilisation if not recovery, officials can declare victory, end the programme, and keep the other 75 billion pounds of asset purchases authorised by the chancellor in reserve. Yields can be left to find their natural level.
But many suspect the Bank's real objective is yield control -- in which case it will have to announce another round of buy backs of gilts and corporate bonds in good time, well before the current programme is completed, to shape market expectations.
The results of the existing round have been unimpressive.
After falling initially, gilt yields are almost back up to the level they were at before the Bank's foray into unconventional monetary policy.
The snag is that if the Bank stops buying, other investors will struggle to absorb all the new government paper on offer without a major increase in yield -- pushing up borrowing costs for everyone, precisely what the Bank has sought to avoid.
The Bank's dilemma is whether to push on (heightening fears about inflation) or call a halt (risking a spike in yields all the same).
Either way, the Bank needs to give the market, as well as the Treasury and the Debt Management Office, plenty of warning about its intentions.
(Editing by Richard Hubbard)

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