‘The President’s Man’: Why a Summers Fed might be a more politicized Fed

Much, far too much, has been said and written about the circus that is the unofficial ‘race’ for the Federal Reserve’s chairmanship. Without rehashing the curious battle between former Obama adviser Larry Summers and Fed Vice Chair Janet Yellen, Oppenheimer Funds chief economist Jerry Webman makes a good point about why a Summers appointment could create the appearance of partisanship in the conduct of monetary policy:

Historically, U.S. presidents have had mixed results from putting ‘their man’ at the head of the Fed table. President Truman thought he had an accommodative chairman in William McChesney Martin and got the man who famously took away the punch bowl. President Nixon also looked for a more accommodative chairman and unfortunately got one. I’m more impressed with Presidents Reagan, Clinton and Obama, who reappointed their predecessor’s man and got independent and (mostly) sound monetary policy. Sure Bernanke moved to the Fed chair from the chair of President Bush’s council of economic advisors, but even to his critics he’s never appeared to be a partisan figure – certainly not a GOP operative.

Ironically, many expect Summers, who has expressed doubts about the effectiveness on quantitative easing, to be more hawkish than Yellen, long seen as among the most dovish of Fed officials on interest rate policy. But that doesn’t really matter in terms of the message that it would send to the public and financial markets, argues Webman.

I have no doubt that Larry Summers, if he is chosen, has the knowledge and experience needed to lead the Fed effectively, and he certainly has proven willing to take unpopular stands. But the favorite candidate of the White House staff – honorable folks though they may be – will struggle to overcome critics who see him as the ‘President’s Man’ rather than the neutral arbiter of monetary policy and, with increasing importance, financial regulation.

Dr. Summers declined to comment through a spokesperson.

China at a crossroads on yuan internationalization project

As China marks the third anniversary of the first ever bond sale by a foreign company denominated in renminbi, questions are rife on what lies next for the offshore yuan market.

Since hamburger chain McDonalds sold $29 million of bonds on a summer evening just over three years ago, China’s yuan internationalization project has notched up impressive milestones.More than 12 percent of China’s trade is now denominated in yuan from less than 1 percent three years ago, Hong Kong – the vanguard of the offshore yuan movement – has more than one trillion yuan of assets in bank deposits and bonds and central banks from Nigeria to Australia have added a slice of yuan to their foreign exchange reserves.

China’s aim to internationalize the yuan has two major objectives: One, to ensure that its companies do not have to shoulder the foreign exchange risk of swapping yuan into dollars in global trade. The second is that as China gradually makes the transition from a current account surplus nation to a deficit country, it would, like the United States, want its debt to be denominated in its own currency.

Fed taxonomy: Lacker is a hawk, not a bull

Not to mix too many animal metaphors but, generally speaking, monetary policy hawks also tend to bulls on the economy. That is, they are leery of keeping interest rates too low for too long because they believe growth prospects are stronger than economists foresee, and therefore could lead to higher inflation.

That is not the case, however, for Richmond Fed President Jeffrey Lacker, a vocal opponent of the central bank’s unconventional bond-buying stimulus program, particular the part of it that focuses on mortgages. He reiterated his concerns last week, saying the Fed should begin tapering in September by cutting out its mortgage bond buying altogether.

But when I asked him whether upward revisions to second quarter gross domestic product reinforced his case, Lacker was surprisingly skeptical of forecasts for a stronger performance in the second half of the year.

Turning up?

Manufacturing PMI surveys for euro zone countries and Britain will be the latest litmus test of the durability of fledgling economic recoveries.

Even the readings from Spain and Italy have shown improvement over the summer so it may well be that they are the most interesting given we’ve already had flash readings for the euro zone, Germany and France which showed business activity across the currency bloc picked up faster than expected in August.

Having exited recession in the second quarter, further euro zone growth now looks likely in the third.
Britain’s recovery looks more solid still following a 0.7 percent leap in GDP in Q2. Its PMI will be augmented by Bank of England figures on its funding for lending scheme, whereby banks are offered cheap money on the proviso they lend it on to smaller companies.

Curious timing for Fed self-doubt on monetary policy

If there was ever a time to be worried about whether the Federal Reserve’s bond-buying stimulus is having a positive effect on the economy, the last few months were probably not it. Everyone expected government spending cuts and tax increases to push the economic recovery off the proverbial cliff, while the outlook for overseas economies has very quickly gone from rosy to flashing red. But the American expansion has remained the fastest-moving among industrialized laggards, with second quarter gross domestic product revised up sharply to 2.5 percent.

Yet for some reason, at the highest levels of the U.S. central bank and in its most dovish nooks, the notion that asset purchases might not be having as great an impact as previously thought has become pervasive.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s 2012 Jackson Hole speech, made just a month before the Fed launched a third round of monetary easing, made a strong, detailed case for how well the policy was working.

An Italian bullet dodged, but more in the chamber

Italy will sell up to six billion euros of five- and 10-year bonds at a somewhat inauspicious time.

Yields rose modestly at shorter-term debt sales on Tuesday and Wednesday with the government wobbling, and the prospect of the Federal Reserve reducing U.S. stimulus has put pressure on peripheral euro zone bond yields more broadly.

However, Italy’s restive coalition managed last night to reach a deal on a deeply unpopular property tax, showing it can still function despite fractures over Silvio Berlusconi’s future. On the secondary market yesterday, yields dipped in anticipation of a deal which will abolish the tax from the beginning of 2014 to be replaced by a “service tax”.

Brazil’s currency intervention: feeding speculation?


Brazil’s decision to offer up to $40 billion in currency swaps by year-end has been widely praised as a smart way to stabilize its foreign exchange market. The bold move announced last week, which doubles the amount of outstanding currency swaps in Brazil, has put a lid on the real’s sharp depreciation without burning a single dollar of the country’s foreign reserves. It also targeted the source of market stress directly: the need for corporate insurance as companies rushed to futures markets to hedge their dollar-denominated debt.

But what if some of these companies are not hedging anything, but speculating instead? A paper published last year by Fernando Oliveira, a central bank official and professor at local institute Ibmec-RJ, showed that in a sample of 93 Brazilian companies, nearly half of them (40) did so in 2002, when the central bank used a similar strategy.

With the real plunging nearly 60 percent to record lows, many companies saw an opportunity of easy gains in times of uncertainty. The situation was much worse then. Investors feared Brazil would adopt unfriendly measures, possibly even a debt default, if Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva won the elections that year. The country had lived with rampant inflation until eight years before, and memories of currency crises in emerging economies were still fresh on everyone’s minds.

Britain’s Help to Buy – what the forecasters say

Now Britain’s housing market is showing real signs of life, should the government abandon its “Help to Buy” scheme to boost access to the market for homebuyers?

Economists and property analysts polled by Reuters over the last week were split. Two weeks ago, a majority of economists put the chances of another UK housing bubble forming at 50 percent or greater, catalysed by the Help to Buy programme.

Here’s a few comments on either side of the debate. Cancel Help to Buy:

“The housing market was slowly recovering already, it has been good for the sector, but in the long term it is throwing money at something that is not the solution. There is a danger we are creating the next bubble and not learning from what’s happened previously.” Mark Hughes, co-head of research, Panmure Gordon

Italy housing tax showdown


Italy’s fraying coalition cabinet meets to discuss what to do with a property tax imposed by previous premier Mario Monti.

Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right group wants to scrap it – though that would create a 4 billion euro annual financial gap to be filled elsewhere – while the centre-left PD of Prime Minister Enrico Letta wants to keep it for the rich, which would cost only 2 billion euros. The argument has already stalled decisions on more wide-ranging economic reforms. A percentage point rise in the main rate of value-added tax has already been pushed back to October from July and will need to be discussed again too.

The big question is whether the government is effectively paralysed until a vote next month on whether to bar Berlusconi from parliament following the upholding of his tax fraud conviction. Members of his centre-right PDL are threatening to bring down the government and trigger early elections if he is expelled. If he is not barred, swathes of Letta’s centre-left PD would react with horror.

Euro zone rate cut prospects evaporate

The euro zone is growing again and while its weaker constituents face plenty of tough times yet, it seems less and less likely that the European Central Bank will cut interest rates from their record low 0.5 percent. That illustrates the problems of the new fad of forward guidance.

The ECB deliberately stayed vaguer than most – a product of ripping up its custom of “never precommitting” – saying that rates would stay at record lows or even go lower over an extended period.
Its monthly policy meeting falls next week and in a parallel transparent world Mario Draghi could consign the “or lower” part of the guidance to history after just two months. Don’t bet on that happening but it shows how quickly things can move.

If anyone in Europe, Britain or elsewhere is hoping for a cast iron guarantee that rates won’t rise for two, three or more years, forget it.
Exhibit A today will be Germany’s Ifo sentiment index which has been coming in strong in recent months and is not expected to buck that trend.
It must be only a matter of time before the government and Bundesbank upwardly adjust their forecasts for a significant slowdown in the second half of the year, following 0.7 percent growth in the second quarter.