Opinion

The Great Debate

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.

Ben Bernanke did not play fair last week, and mid-press conference shifted the tapering goal posts. He said that the unemployment rate was not a true reflection of the state of the economy (the markets said that at the time the Bank started linking asset purchases to an economic threshold), and instead said that the Fed would focus on broader measures of economic growth. This was backed up by the chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, who suggested that GDP would also play a part in informing the bank on the timing of tapering; suggesting that forward momentum in GDP is the new pre-requisite before tapering can begin, leaving the unemployment rate on the back burner.

The Fed is not the only central bank to have done this. The Bank of England have flip-flopped just like their peers the other side of the Atlantic. The BOE also has pledged to keep interest rates low until the unemployment rate declines to 7%, a mere 0.7% from where the rate is now. However, in a recent speech, BOE Governor Mark Carney said that if the unemployment did fall to 7% it would not automatically trigger a rate rise… Confused? So is the market.

Why conservatives spin fairytales about the gold standard

ILLUSTRATION: Matt Mahurin

The Federal Reserve is celebrating its 100th birthday trapped in a political bunker.

At few points since the Fed’s founding in 1913 has it taken such sustained fire. It’s taking fire from the left, because its policies favor Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and the other financial corporations that are most responsible for the 2008 financial meltdown and the Great Recession. But it is also taking fire from the right.

Conservative or Tea Party Republicans have a different kind of criticism. They reject the notion that the Fed should even have the power to regulate the money supply and “debase” the dollar. They believe in hard money and a return to the gold standard.

from Blogs Dashboard:

A devalued pound can’t save the British economy

There it goes again. Sterling has been dropping sharply this year against the U.S. dollar and especially the euro, as Britain turns to a tried and trusted remedy for its economic problems: devaluation. Even with its slight uptick on Wednesday, sterling is down more than 6 percent against the euro since the beginning of 2013 and has slid 10 percent over the past six months.

This is not something the British government is boasting about, especially at a time when there’s concern over -- and sometimes a high-level condemnation of -- countries such as Japan that allegedly seek to manipulate their currencies. But it’s also not something the British government or the Bank of England is trying to hide – or stop.

The big question is: Does devaluation still work? It’s an old tool aimed at restoring competitiveness that has been used countless times by Britain in the past. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Labour government devalued sterling sharply against the dollar (and gold). And over the past 60 years the pound has lost more than 80 percent of its value against the German currency – first the mark and now the euro. In that time, the two countries’ economic fortunes have fluctuated, with Germany showing very robust growth in the postwar years and Britain performing relatively better from the early 1990s, when it crashed out of Europe’s system (at the time) of semi-fixed exchange rates, just as Germany was struggling to digest the economic impact of reunification.

The real winner: Inflation

I buy none of the post-election, prime-time hokum that what decided the presidential race was the Latino vote, women’s issues, the next Supreme Court justices, the view from the fiscal cliff or how drones are winning the War on Terror. This presidential election was, as always, a contest between gold standardists and inflationists.

The victors were the forces of cheap money. William Jennings Bryan would be proud ‑ as would bimetalists and Weimar Republicans.

Inflation won because it is the panacea for all that ails the body politic: a short-term cure-all that promises economic growth, the possibility of paying off runaway national and international debts, new-found prosperity for the middle classes and liquidity for the impoverished, who otherwise would be voting in the streets with rocks and burning tires.

from MacroScope:

India’s central bank battles alone in inflation struggle

INDIA-ECONOMY/RATES What more does India's central bank have to do? Last week data showed March inflation rising to almost 9 percent on an annual basis. More importantly, core inflation is above 7 percent for the first time in 3 years meaning demand-side pressures are rising fast. And that's despite the Reserve Bank of India raising interest rates eight times since last March.

The inflation data comes just after a quarterly HSBC report based on purchasing managers indexes showed that inflation in India seemed impervious to monetary policy tightening.

The truth, is the inflation-fighting central bank has little backup from the government which remains stubbornly in spending mode. Its foot-dragging on reform and foreign investment contributes towards keeping food price inflation high. This year's fiscal deficit target is 4.8 percent of GDP and even this
is seen as optimistic.

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.

There is no such thing as inflation

In 1987, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher whipped up a firestorm of criticism from her opponents on the left when she told a magazine reporter that “there is no such thing as society”, only individual men and women, and families.

The interpretation of those comments remains fiercely controversial. From the context it is not certain the prime minister was clear what she was trying to say.

But according to one interpretation the prime minister was encouraging her listeners to look beyond the impersonal aggregate of “society” to the individuals behind it.

The wrong sort of inflation

Chairman Ben Bernanke’s Fed is beset by demons of its own design.

Terrified by memories of the 1930s and Japan’s more recent experience in 1990s and 2000s, the academics who now dominate the Federal Open Market Committee display a hyperactive compulsion to tinker with monetary policy in a bid to solve all the problems besetting the U.S. economy.

But if inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon, as Milton Friedman argued, Fed policy has a smaller role in solving real-economy problems such as a gaping trade deficit, moribund housing market, sluggish growth and joblessness.

Expectations of another substantial round of quantitative easing (QE2) have gone too far for the Fed to pull back now. The Fed must press ahead or risk a massive, disorderly correction across all asset classes (bonds, equities, commodities and currencies).

Markets trapped between euphoria and despair

“Don’t panic!” was good advice provided by Lance-Corporal Jones to his commanding officer in the 1970s BBC comedy series “Dad’s Army”. Perhaps it should now be directed to central banks and increasingly jittery investors.

The last six months have witnessed a rollercoaster as markets and policymakers have alternated between euphoric optimism and crashing pessimism with bewildering speed.

Many seem convinced the world’s major economies are poised on either the brink of liquidity-induced inflation; a renewed descent into recession and deflation; or perhaps both at different times, with near-term disinflation is followed by an upsurge in inflation later.

Inflation or Deflation, why settle for just one?

If you are trying to decide whether to fret about inflation or deflation, don’t bother: you may just get both.

Yes, in the spirit of these austere times, it is a two for one offer; deflation comes first, followed by an almighty inflation after central banks press the “go nuclear” button on the quantitative easing machine.

It seems clear that, at least in the near term, the stars are aligned for deflation. Rather than lancing a massive debt bubble, policy-makers have added to it and the intense pressure to clean balance sheets has spread from corporations and households to nations.

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