The Great Debate

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.

A new round of securities purchases provides investors with an exit strategy from what might otherwise be a dangerous bubble in the bond market. Every bubble needs a “greater fool” prepared to pay a higher price for the asset to keep the bubble inflating. In this case, the guaranteed sucker is the Fed itself.

Meanwhile quantitative easing (QE) has pushed up the value of all the risk assets institutions and investors hold, giving the market a highly desirable insurance policy.

Uncertainty, distributions and fat-tails

In a thoughtful article published this week in the Financial Times, PIMCO Chief Executive Mohamed El-Erian and Columbia Economics Professor Richard Clarida explore the implications of a shift in the shape of investors’ and policymakers’ expectations about the future.

“It seems that, wherever we look, the snapshot for ‘consensus expectations’ has shifted: from traditional bell-shaped curves — with a high likelihood mean and thin tails (indicating most economists have similar expectations) — to a much flatter distribution of outcomes with fatter tails (where opinion is divided and expectations vary considerably).”

They do not go quite as far as Bank of England policymaker Adam Posen, who suggested in a recent speech that the distribution of outcomes has inverted and become U-shaped. But their focus on a bell-curve with fatter tails agrees with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s characterisation of the economic outlook as “unusually uncertain” at present.

Getting ready for the dollar’s fall

Agnes Crane It just won’t go away, this needling worry about the U.S. dollar losing its coveted top-dog status.

No matter that there are plenty of reasonable arguments to support the dollar as the world reserve currency — namely there’s just no alternative — for perhaps decades to come.

Yet, in a world where once-rock-solid assumptions quickly turn to dust, investors should keep an eye on the dollar since changing perceptions are chipping away at its cherished status as currency to the world.