MacroScope

From one central banking era to another: beware the consequences

Paul Volcker’s inflation-fighting era as chairman of the Federal Reserve is quite the opposite of today’s U.S. central bank, which is battling to kick start growth and even stave off deflation with trillions in bond purchases. And it is polar opposite of where the Bank of Japan finds itself today, doubling down on easing to lift inflation expectations after two decades of Japanese stagnation. After all, Volcker ratcheted up interest rates in 1979 and the early 1980s to tame the inflation that had been choking the United States.

So it may come as no real surprise that, talking to students and faculty at New York University on Monday, he had a few concerns about where the world’s ultra accommodative central banks are headed.

“There are going to be big losses at central banks at someplace along the line,” he said. “You do all this support of buying longer term securities at very low interest rates; long term interest rates aren’t going to stay where they are forever; at some point losses are going to be taken.”

For the Fed, the BoJ, the European Central Bank and the Bank of England, he said, the money-printing will inevitably raise questions about limiting activities of central banks. “These central banks are no longer central banks. The Federal Reserve is the world’s biggest financial intermediary, it is dominating the long term credit market in the United States, and it is dominant in the residential mortgage market…” he said.

Volcker had particular words for the BoJ, which aims to raise inflation expectations to 2 percent within 2 years. It might be an “illusion” that inflation targets can be lowered again once the economy looks better, he said. “Once that feeling gets in there that a level of inflation is a good idea for the economy, it is very hard to get rid of.”

ECB eclipsed by BOJ

The European Central Bank takes centre stage. While others in the euro zone are saying the way Cyprus was bailed out – with bank bondholders and big depositors hit – could be repeated, the ECB insists it was a one-off.

Fearful of any signs of contagion it will continue to talk that talk and there’s no sign of it having to do more so far, with no bank run even in Cyprus let alone further afield. But the last two weeks has reignited debate about what the ECB might have to do in extremis. It’s no nearer deploying its bond-buying programme but it could flood the currency area’s financial system with long-term liquidity again if called upon.

Interest rates are expected to be held at a record low 0.75 percent. Hints of policy easing further out are not out of the question. As ever, Mario Draghi’s hour long press conference will be minutely parsed but there will be nothing to match the Bank of Japan which earlier announced a stunning revamp of its policymaking rules – setting a balance sheet target which will involve printing money faster and pledging to double its government bond holdings over two years.

Rose-tinted forecasting still in vogue for Britain’s independent budget watchdog

Britain’s independent Office for Budget Responsibility slashed its growth forecasts for this year ahead of George Osborne’s Budget on Wednesday. But looking longer-term, it now has the unusual distinction of being more optimistic about Britain’s long-term economic health than the Bank of England, often pilloried for its rose-tinted views.

And rightly so. The Bank’s famed GDP fan charts have been exceptionally over-optimistic. Until recently, it routinely suggested the economy was more likely to grow more than 5 percent annually than contract even slightly, which was plainly absurd.

In its short life, the OBR too has had its fair share of forecasting blunders. Created with the arrival of the coalition government in 2010, that June it predicted 2012 GDP growth of 2.8 percent. In Wednesday’s report, it estimated the economy instead grew 0.2 percent last year.

Rip-off Britain on the line

For all the talk about imported inflation in the UK as policymakers talk down the pound and financial markets merrily give it a good beating, here’s a stark reminder that a lot of British inflation remains home-grown.

British inflation has been so sticky over the past decade that regular Bank of England pronouncements that it will come back down from wherever it is to the 2 percent target at the 2-year horizon has become something of a policy piñata in financial markets. And there is rampant speculation the government will soon modify that inflation target.

But it’s no joke to British consumers, whose wages have stagnated for years and with a plunging currency in their pocket that is down more than 8 percent so far this year. They’ve been much more frugal with their spending, and as a result the economy is on its back.

To print or not to print

It’s ECB day and it could be a big one, not because a shift in policy is expected but because journalists will get an hour to quiz Mario Draghi on the Italy conundrum after the central bank leaves monetary policy on hold.

To explain: The story of the last five months has been the bond-buying safety net cast by the European Central Bank which took the sting out of the currency bloc’s debt crisis. But now it has an Achilles’ heel. The ECB has stated it will only buy the bonds of a country on certain policy conditions encompassing economic reform and austerity. An unwilling or unstable Italian government may be unable to meet those conditions so in theory the ECB should stand back. But what if the euro zone’s third biggest economy comes under serious market attack? Without ECB support the whole bloc would be thrown back into crisis and yet if it does intervene, some ECB policymakers and German lawmakers will throw their hands up in horror, potentially calling the whole programme in to question.

In Italy, outgoing technocrat premier Monti is due to meet centre-left leader Bersani, the man still harbouring hopes of forming some sort of government. Whether he succeeds or not it seems unlikely that any administration can ignore the dramatic anti-austerity vote delivered by the Italian people.

Beware: UK services PMI is no crystal ball for QE

Take with a pinch of salt economists who say Tuesday’s strong UK services PMI  might persuade the Bank of England to hold off from restarting its printing presses this week.

BoE policymakers been perfectly willing over the last few years to vote in favour of more asset purchases after a rise in the services PMI number.

Only the last decision for more quantitative easing — July 2012 — came after a decrease in the services PMI’s main index. While members of the Monetary Policy Committee rely on the PMIs as a monthly gauge of economic activity, it’s clear the surveys can’t be read as any proxy for policy decisions.

Still not thinking the very thinkable on Britain’s future

Mark these words. Not only is Britain going to avoid a triple-dip recession, but the economy won’t shrink again as far as the eye can see.

If that sounds ridiculously optimistic, don’t tell the more than 30 economists polled by Reuters last week, none of whom predict even a single quarter of economic decline from here on.

Even the Bank of England, not exactly famous these days for its accuracy in economic forecasting, has said for a long time that a quarter or two of contraction here and there is to be expected. That was underlined by Wednesday’s unexpected news some policymakers voted for more bond purchases this month.

Super, or not so super, Thursday

For those who thought the euro zone had lost the power to liven things up, today should make you think again.

ITEM 1. The European Central Bank meeting and Mario Draghi’s hour-long press conference to follow. Rarely has a meeting which will deliver no monetary policy change been so pregnant with possibilities.

Draghi, the man tasked with becoming the European bank regulator on top of all his other tasks, will face some searing questioning on his time as Bank of Italy chief and what he knew about the disaster that has befallen the country’s oldest bank, Monte dei Paschi.

Time already to switch off the sterling printing presses?

A clutch of top UK economic forecasters on Thursday swept under the rug predictions for another 50 billion pounds of gilt purchases they thought would take place starting just in a few weeks.

News that the UK economy bolted ahead at a 1.0 percent quarterly pace in the three months to September – nearly double the consensus prediction in the Reuters Poll and easily more than twice the last measured growth rate in the United States – was probably a good enough reason on the surface.

But most agree the main reason was an extra work day compared with the prior quarter – when the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations left vast swathes of the country idle – along with a spending boost from accounting for tickets for the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Could the Fed follow the Bank of England into ‘funding for lending’?

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke “might have something up his sleeve next week” when he delivers his semi-annual monetary policy report to Congress: he could hint at a “funding for lending” program similar to what the Bank of England announced last month, according to one long-time Fed watcher.

If the Fed wants to ease again, the first lever they pull might not be more quantitative easing where the Fed buys government bonds to help keep interest rates low in the hope that low rates will foster lending and economic growth, says  Decision Economics economist Cary Leahey.

Bernanke is scheduled to testify before the Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday and in front of the House Financial Services Committee on Wednesday.