MacroScope

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.

Model simulations conducted at the Federal Reserve generally find that the securities purchase programs have provided significant help for the economy. For example, a study using the Board’s FRB/US model of the economy found that, as of 2012, the first two rounds of LSAPs may have raised the level of output by almost 3 percent and increased private payroll employment by more than 2 million jobs, relative to what otherwise would have occurred.

Contrast that with the far meeker findings of a recent San Francisco Fed analysis of the impact of the second round of asset buys:

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.

Post-Jackson Hole, Fed Septaper still appears on track

With all the QE-bashing that went on at the Federal Reserve’s Jackson Hole conference this year, it was difficult not to get the sense that, barring a major economic disappointment before its September meeting, the central bank is on track to begin reducing the monthly size of its bond purchase program, or quantitative easing.

If anything, the fact that this expectation has become more or less embedded in financial markets means that the Fed might as well go ahead and test the waters with a small downward adjustment of say, $10 billion, from the current $85 billion monthly pace, while waiting to see how employment conditions develop in the remainder of the year.

Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart, who is not a voter this year but tends to be a bellwether centrist on the Federal Open Market Committee, told Reuters on the sidelines of the meeting that he would be ‘comfortable’ with a September tapering “providing we don’t get any really worrisome signals out of the economy between now and the 18th of September.” (Does this count? Probably not.)

Back from the beach

Back from a two-week break, so what have I missed?

All the big and ghastly news has come from the Middle East but there have been interesting developments in the European economic sphere.
It seems safe to say that Britain’s economic recovery is on track, and maybe more broadly rooted than in just consumer spending and a housing market recovery (bubble?).

Slightly more surprisingly, the euro zone is back on the growth track too with some unexpectedly strong performances from Portugal and France in particular in the second quarter. Latest consumer morale data have been strong and as a result European Central Bank policymakers have begun downplaying thoughts of a further interest rate cut. However, it’s unlikely that all these countries will grow as strongly in the third quarter. Tuesday’s reading of German sentiment via the Ifo index will be key this week.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was Germany’s Wolfgang Schaeuble admitting what was widely known but hitherto unacknowledged – that Greece will need more financial help. The real shock was not the news but the source; the assumption had been that no one would whisper a word until the German elections are out of the way in four weeks’ time. Angela Merkel has been notably more circumspect about Greece than her finance minister.

Why is the Reserve Bank of India so quiet on the rupee?

 

When nobody’s listening, sometimes it pays to shout from the rooftops.

Based on the rupee’s daily pasting, the Reserve Bank of India might do well to look to the European Central Bank’s strong verbal defense of the euro just over a year ago.

In July last year ECB President Mario Draghi declared he would do “whatever it takes” to safeguard the euro’s existence.

That unexpectedly candid comment, uttered at a moment of rising market tension, wasn’t followed by concrete policy action. But markets took heed.

The other big question at Jackson Hole

It will be a tough one to avoid. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s absence from Jackson Hole is just one in a series of strong hints he will step down at the end of his second term in January. So, it is only natural that a lot of the talk on the sidelines of this year’s conference will inevitably revolve around the issue of his replacement.  

But there is another, potentially more important question that needs to be answered in the shadow of Wyoming’s majestic Grand Teton peaks: Why have top U.S. Fed officials, even dovish ones, become increasingly queasy about asset purchases despite falling inflation?

Thus far, policymakers have discussed the prospect of a reduction in the pace of their bond-buying stimulus in terms of an improvement in the economy and the prospect of an even brighter outlook toward year-end and in 2014. Yet the U.S. economy, while outpacing its even more anemic rich-nation counterparts, is hardly besieged by runaway growth of the sort that would normally lead central banks to tighten monetary policy. And by even talking about reducing bond buys, the Fed has helped push interest rates up more than a full percentage point, to a two year high, in just a few months.