MacroScope

ECB – stick or twist?

 

The European Central Bank meets today with emerging market disorder high on its agenda.

It’s probably  too early to force a policy move – particularly since the next set of ECB economic and inflation forecasts are due in March – but it’s an unwelcome development at a time when inflation is already uncomfortably low, dropping further to just 0.7 percent in January, way below the ECB’s target of close to but below two percent.

If the market turbulence persists and a by-product is to drive the euro higher, which is quite possible, the downward pressure on prices could threaten a deflationary spiral which ECB policymakers have so far insisted will not come to pass.

But what to do? A small interest rate cut from 0.25 percent to somewhere just above zero is hardly going to be a game changer and the ECB has already said it won’t prime banks with long-term cheap money again unless they commit to lend into the real economy.

With stress tests looming and those same banks being told to deleverage and build up capital that is anything but straightforward though given the downward pressure the bank tests are likely to exert on lending there is certainly a case for an LTRO if banks do commit to pass the money on to businesses.

A week before emerging-market turmoil, a prescient exchange on just how much the Fed cares

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The last seven days has been a glaring example of fallout from the cross-border carry trade. That’s the sort of trade, well known in currency markets, where investors borrow funds in low-rate countries and invest them in higher-rate ones. Some $4 trillion is estimated to have flooded into emerging markets since the 2008 financial crisis to profit off the ultra accommodate policies of the U.S. Federal Reserve, Bank of Japan, European Central Bank and the Bank of England. Now that central banks in developed economies are looking to reverse course and eventually raise rates, that carry trade is unraveling fast, resulting in the brutal sell-off in emerging markets such as Turkey and Argentina over the last week.

The Fed’s decision on Wednesday to keep cutting its stimulus effectively ignores the turmoil in such developing countries. And while the Fed may well be right not to overreact, it makes one wonder just how much attention major central banks pay to the carry trade and its global effects — and it brings to mind a prescient exchange between some of the brightest lights of western economics, just a week before emerging markets were to run off the rails.

On January 16, minutes before Ben Bernanke took the stage for his last public comments as Fed chairman, the Brookings Institution in Washington held a panel discussion featuring former BoE Deputy Governor Paul Tucker, Harvard University professor Martin Feldstein and San Francisco Fed President John Williams. They were asked about the global effects of U.S. monetary policy:

Forward guidance is not fully living up to its name

Britain’s economy may have seen one of the fastest rebounds among industrialized nations last year, but half of 56 economists polled by Reuters think the Bank of England has lost some credibility over its handling of the forward guidance policy.

The policy – an advance notice that monetary conditions will not be tightened too fast or too soon – was a way of managing market bets, at a time when the scope for stimulating economies through conventional interest rate cuts was limited.  Many say it was a necessary transition from the ultra-loose rate policy of recent years to a more normal post-crisis one. Indeed, the use of verbal intervention to guide monetary policy has been on the rise in recent years, as shown by this graphic on the Federal Reserve. 

But the BoE’s forward guidance has come under a lot of criticism and its results have been mixed, as highlighted by this Reuters story  and FT blog.

Shock now clearly trumps transparency in central bank policymaking

The days of guided monetary policy, telegraphed by central banks and priced in by markets in advance, are probably coming to an end if recent decisions around the world are any guide.

From Turkey, which hiked its overnight lending rate by an astonishing 425 basis points in an emergency meeting on Tuesday, to India which delivered a surprise repo rate hike a day earlier, central banks are increasingly looking to “shock and awe” markets into submission with their policy decisions.

A wide sample of economists polled by Reuters on Monday already expected a massive rise of 225 basis points by Turkey’s central bank to stop a sell-off in the lira. Instead it doubled the consensus and opted for the highest forecast.

Ker-pow! Turkey leaps to lira’s defence

 

Turkey’s central bank bit the bullet last night, despite Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan calling for it to hold firm just hours beforehand, and what a bite it was.

After months trying to avoid a rate rise it put 4.25 full percentage points on the overnight lending rate, taking it to 12 percent. No one can accuse Governor Basci of being under the government’s thumb now. The move vaulted expectations.

The big questions for Turkey are what such a magnitude of tightening, which the central bank said would persist, does to a faltering economy and how Erdogan, who is on a two-day trip to Iran, reacts.

Crunch day for Turkey, and Ukraine

Hard to look beyond Turkey today. The central bank will issue its quarterly inflation report and has called an emergency policy meeting thereafter and will deliver a verdict at midnight local time. All very cloak and dagger.

The central bank, under heavy political pressure, has so far not raised interest rates but is instead burning through its reserves to defend the tumbling lira with only limited success.

It has floated the idea of “additional tightening days” when it will fund the interbank market at a higher rate, which is essentially monetary tightening by the back door. But in the throes of a full-on emerging market selloff it’s hard to see that doing the trick.

Davos Day Two — Rouhani, Lew and Lagarde

Day one in Davos showed the masters of the universe fretting about Sino-Japanese military tensions, the treacherous investment territory in some emerging markets and the risk of a lurch to the right in Europe at May’s parliamentary elections which could make reform of the bloc even harder.

Today, the focus will be on Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (and his main detractor, Israel’s Netanyahu). Presumably he’s there to woo the world of commerce now sanctions are to be relaxed in return for Tehran suspending enrichment of uranium beyond a certain level. Anything he says about Syria’s peace talks, which have so far been more hostile than conciliatory, will instantly be headline news.

Other big name speakers are U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, IMF chief Christine Lagarde, who is going around warning about the threat of European deflation, Australian premier Tony Abbott, who is running the G20 this year, and a session featuring the BRICS finance ministers.

Why should the Bank of England hike rates when it can baby-step?

When the Bank of England decides to start hiking interest rates, it may find that its standard 25 and 50 basis point interest rate moves of old are too blunt a tool for Britain’s delicately-poised economic recovery.

Instead, UBS economist Amit Kara suggests the Bank should “test the waters” with rate hikes of 5 to 10 basis points:

After many years of an aggressive ‘shock and awe’ approach, one can reasonably say gradualism is back. To be clear, gradualism in monetary policy setting is not new. Ben Bernanke offered a strong justification for gradualism in a speech in 2004, essentially advocating an incremental approach to rate setting in the face of uncertainty. Another good example, also from the US, is the Fed decision last month to dial back its QE programme. The market was looking for an explicit tapering path, but the FOMC instead delivered a small step and a promise to take further action after one month depending on the data. Our prescription of a 5 basis point rate hike in the UK is analogous to the gradualism delivered by the FOMC.

Relief from UK services inflation seen fleeting

British inflation dipped to 2 percent  in December – its lowest since November 2009 and within the Bank of England’s target. Part of the move was driven by a fall in prices in Britain’s services sector – which constitutes more than three quarters of the country’s output.

Services inflation, which makes up around 47 percent of the consumer price index, eased to  2.4 percent in December – also its lowest since November 2009. Goods inflation – which is more sensitive to global markets than domestically generated services inflation – edged up to 1.7 percent last month. But it has also come down in recent months as a strengthening sterling pushed down import prices.

The fall has helped the case for the Bank of England to keep interest rates at a record low of 0.5 percent, also giving the government a boost ahead of elections next year. Analysts say weak wage growth may be a reason for more subdued services inflation, but given the strength of the labor market, this trend could be fleeting.

Spain ascendant?

Spain appears to be on the road to recovery, if you can call it that with around a quarter of the workforce without a job.

The government says growth hit 0.3 percent in the final quarter of the year, the second quarterly expansion in a row, and may upgrade its forecast for 0.7 percent growth in 2014.

Its borrowing costs have tumbled to four-year lows in a new year bond rally and today Madrid will try to cash in by selling up to 5.5 billion euros of bonds following an above-target sale last week.