MacroScope

SF Fed’s Williams in the driver’s seat

In the barrage of Federal Reserve speakers making the rounds on Thursday, it is notable that San Francisco Fed President John Williams was the one that managed to move markets, allowing the dollar to recover losses. Why did his voice rise above the din? For one thing, he’s seen as a dovish-leaning centrist whose views closely resemble the Bernanke-Yellen core of the central bank.

Plus, he took the oft-abused economy-car analogy in a, er, new direction:

If we were in a car, you might say we’re motoring along, but well under the speed limit. The fact that we’re cruising at a moderate speed instead of still stuck in the ditch is due in part to the Federal Reserve’s unprecedented efforts to keep interest rates low. We may not be getting there as fast as we’d like, but we’re definitely moving in the right direction.

Pigeonholing Fed hawks

Richard Fisher, the Dallas Fed’s outspoken president, is happy to be labeled a monetary policy hawk. After all, he sometimes quips, “doves are part of the pigeon family.” That may be so. But thus far, the doves have had the upper hand in the policy debate – and the economic data appear to bear them out.

Fed hawks like Fisher have warned that the U.S. central bank’s prolonged policy of low interest rates and asset purchases risks a future spike in inflation. Yet despite the Fed’s aggressive efforts, inflation is actually drifting lower, not higher, suggesting there is something to the dovish notion that there is still ample slack in the U.S. economy following a lackluster recovery from the historic slump of 2007-2009.

Regional Fed hawks tend to argue that the Fed should not overreach in its efforts to bring down unemployment because the only thing it can really control in the long-run is inflation. Says Jeffrey Lacker, president of the Richmond Fed:

Reform hue and cry

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy meets labour union and business leaders to discuss reforms to pensions and public institutions. After some fairly brutal cutting, Rajoy has grown more cautious. He is negotiating a new formula for calculating pension payoffs but is wary of going further for fear of sparking greater protest. And all the time, recession put the country’s debt targets further out of reach.

There’s still some pretty serious stuff on the table. Rajoy’s cabinet has proposed a “stability factor” for the pension system, which would periodically adjust pay-outs and retirement age based on economic performance, demographics and other factors. The government is also studying a major reform to public administrations that could mean numerous job cuts in the public sector at a time when unemployment is at 27 percent.

The EU has granted France, Spain and others more time to meet their deficit targets in an attempt to foster some growth. But it is also insistent the pace of structural reforms must be stepped up. The French parliament voted through labour reforms on Tuesday which will make hiring and firing somewhat easier. President Francois Hollande will hold a rare news conference having travelled to Brussels yesterday to declare he would use the leeway to boost competitiveness and growth. Details? There were none. The European Commission will spell out its recommendations at the end of the month.

Best days over for emerging market local currency bonds?

Local currency bonds in emerging markets, like most financial assets, have enjoyed a solid rally on the back of ample global central bank liquidity. But the good times may be coming to an end, according to a report from Capital Economics. That’s because there’s only so much boost the securities can get out of the monetary easing efforts of the Federal Reserve and other major central banks, the firm says.

Emerging market (EM) local currency government bond yields have fallen sharply in the past few years. Our GDP-weighted overall 10-year yield of a sample of 18 EM sovereign borrowers has dropped by 125 basis points since the start of 2011, to around 4.4% at the end of April.

Our calculations suggest that almost the entire decline in the yield has been due to a drop in the risk-free rate rather than in the credit spread. And since the risk-free rate reflects long-term expectations for monetary policy, this suggests that the fate of EM local currency bonds will depend to a large extent on how short-term rates evolve.

Greek bond rebound masks stark economic reality

Ten-year Greek government bond yields tumbled to their lowest in nearly three years one day after Fitch upgraded the country’s sovereign credit ratings.

Borrowing costs fell to 8.21 percent – the lowest since June 2010, just after Greece received a bailout from the International Monetary Fund and European Union. The difference between 10- and 30-year yields was also at its least negative since that time.

The move comes after Fitch Ratings raised Greece to B-minus from CCC citing a rebalancing of the economy and progress in eliminating its fiscal and current account deficits that have reduced the risk of a euro zone exit.

There is no sovereign debt crisis in Europe

Evidence that Europe’s austerity policies are not working was in ample supply this morning. The euro zone as a whole is now in its longest recession since the start of monetary union. France has succumbed to the region’s retrenchment. Italy’s GDP slump is now the lengthiest on record. And Greece, still in depression, shrank another 5.3 percent in the first quarter.

To understand why this is happening, Brown University professor Mark Blyth says it is necessary to forget everything you think you know about the euro zone crisis. The monetary union’s troubles are not, as often depicted, the result of runaway spending by bloated, profligate states that are finally being forced to pay the piper. Instead, argues Blyth, it is merely a sequel to the U.S. financial meltdown that started, like its American counterpart, with dangerously-indebted risk-taking on the part of a super-sized banking sector.

In a new book entitled “Austerity: The history of a dangerous idea,” Blythe writes that sovereign budgets have come under strain primarily because taxpayers of various nations have been forced to shoulder the burden of failed banking systems.

Mervyn King’s economic ray of light may be too bright

In his valedictory Quarterly Inflation Report, Bank of England Governor Mervyn King shone a ray of light on the British economy, saying it should grow 0.5 percent in the current quarter.

But according to the latest Reuters poll of more than 30 economists, published on Tuesday, that might be too optimistic.

The consensus showed gross domestic product would only expand 0.2 percent, weaker than the 0.3 percent expansion seen in the first quarter when the country missed sinking into an unprecedented triple-dip recession.

Cameron’s dilemma

Britain’s David Cameron began the day on Monday gently slapping down two Cabinet colleagues who said if they had a vote today, they would opt to leave the EU. It was senseless, he said, to throw in the towel before he had had a chance to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with Europe. He ended it by caving into rebels in his Conservative party who are demanding legislation now to commit to an in/out referendum before the next election.

The 25 year history of the Conservatives and Europe – internecine warfare and successive election defeats as they obsessed about something which figures low on most Britons’ priority list – suggests no good can come of this and if Cameron wins the 2015 election it moves Britain incrementally closer to the EU exit door. The more immediate question is whether Cameron has lanced the boil. Again, history suggests that if you give ground to the eurosceptics they merely demand more. And what the PM’s pro-EU Liberal Democrat coalition partners make of this isn’t hard to imagine which means he might not even have the numbers to get the bill through parliament. One of the leading rebels seized on that point, saying the move could well fail.

The anti-EU fringe party UKIP, which could well not win a single seat at the next election but has seriously spooked the Conservatives with strong showings in recent local elections, must be laughing all the way to the bank. If it can remake the Conservative party in its own image, its job will be done. But just as likely is a split party. The irony of Cameron doing all this while in Washington to bang the drum for an EU/U.S. trade deal is hard to ignore. President Obama pointedly said the British premier should fix its relationship with the EU.  If Cameron believes Britain should remain part of its main trading bloc, as he says he does, he is going to have to start explaining why and that is difficult to imagine.

What no crisis?

 

It seems eons since the euro zone finance ministers’ meetings which made such a hash of the Cyprus bailout but they were only two months ago. Monday’s Eurogroup will be altogether less eventful with some of the gathering probably a little jaded having spent part of their weekend at the G7 outside London where the usual differences about growth versus austerity and banking reform were aired.

No one will be sorry for a more routine meeting and there are no icebergs on the horizon but the agenda is still a full one. Featuring will be the economic situation on the basis of the Commission’s latest forecasts, the state of play in Cyprus, the decision already taken to release more bailout money to Greece, the new steps taken by Portugal to fill the gaps in its budget after the country’s top court struck some measures out, a review of European Commission reports on what is ailing Spain and Slovenia and a broad discussion about the merits of the ESM bailout being allowed to recapitalise bank retroactively from next year.

Italy offers a range of bonds at auction worth up to 8 billion euros which should be snapped up given the European Central Bank’s underwriting of the euro zone and Japanese money coursing through the financial system.

What’s it all about?

G7 finance ministers meet London on Friday and Saturday. Since they and many more met in Washington only three weeks ago and not much has changed since, it’s tempting to ask what is the point of this British gathering. There have been mutterings from some of the travelling delegations to that effect.

If there is an angle, it is the unusual focus on financial regulation (usually not part of the Group of Seven’s remit) with some feeling that more than four years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, efforts to put in place structures to prevent similar events spinning out of control in future are flagging. That puts the euro zone’s fluctuating plans for a banking union firmly in focus, which in turn puts German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble right in the spotlight.

On Tuesday, he said elements of a banking union would have to be pursued without lengthy and arduous treaty change, something he’d previously said would be necessary. Was that a softening of his position? Er, probably not. More likely, the subtext is that because treaty change takes too long, Berlin will pursue only those elements of banking union that don’t require it – i.e. bloc-wide regulation yes, but forget about a bank resolution mechanism let alone a joint deposit guarantee.