MacroScope

Recalculating: Central bank roadmaps leave markets lost

Central banks in Europe have followed in the Federal Reserve’s footsteps by adopting “forward guidance” in a break with traditionBut, as in the Fed’s case, the increased transparency seems to have only made investors more confused.

The latest instance came as something of an embarrassment for Mark Carney, the Bank of England’s new superstar chief from Canada and a former Goldman Sachs banker. The BoE shifted away from past practice saying it planned to keep interest rates at a record low until unemployment falls to 7 percent or below, which it said could take three years.

Yet the forward guidance announcement went down with a whimper. Indeed, investors brought forward expectations for when rates would rise – the opposite of what the central bank was hoping for – although the move faded later in the day.

According to a money market trader:

The focus on… unemployment level in the UK at 7 percent, something which we have never really looked at before, has given us the possibility of just more volatility going forward. So rather than having a calming effect, the forward guidance from the UK and (BoE governor Mark) Carney has actually had the reverse effect, it’s created some uncertainty and volatility…

It’s just that the target set on the unemployment rate is quite close to where we currently are… had he set a slightly lower target then the market probably would have been a bit more comfortable with some forward guidance in that respect.

Forward!

The Bank of England will give the government its blueprint for “forward guidance” when it publishes its quarterly inflation report, a big moment in British policymaking.

Canadian Mark Carney, in his second month at the helm, was heralded in advance as the man to kick start a languishing economy but with green shoots sprouting all over the place that may not be needed. Nonetheless, if companies and households can be convinced interest rates will stay at record lows for a prolonged period, that could boost investment and spending and help solidify a recovery that now looks to be in train.

After the U.S. Federal Reserve indicated that it may soon start to phase out its bond purchases – two of its policymakers again pointed to September yesterday – the Bank of England made a first stab at forward guidance last month, saying a rise in UK market rates was misguided. Now it will be more precise.

Curse of the front-runner a bad omen for Fed contender Yellen?

The buzz on who will replace Ben Bernanke as Federal Reserve chairman has grown this year and amplified recently with talk of Lawrence Summers as a real possibility. There is also lingering speculation over Timothy Geithner, another previous U.S. Treasury Secretary, and former Fed Vice Chair Roger Ferguson among others as possible successors. Bernanke has provided no hint he wants to stay for a third term.

But above the din the central bank’s current vice chair, Janet Yellen, has remained the front-runner. Her deep experience and implicit policy continuity has crowned her the heir apparent until proven otherwise. A Reuters poll of economists showed Yellen was seen as far and away the most likely candidate.

Yet this is a familiar plot that has played out in other Western countries over the past year – with a shock climactic twist. New Zealand, Britain and Canada have all pulled the rug out from under the presumed front-runner and named a surprise new head of their respective central banks. And perhaps most worryingly for Yellen, in each case the overlooked candidate was the bank’s No. 2 official.

One small step…

EU finance ministers succeeded last night where they failed last Friday and reached agreement on how to share the costs of future bank failures, with shareholders, bondholders and depositors holding more than 100,000 euros all in the firing line in a bid to keep taxpayers off the hook.

Germany and France had been at odds over how much leeway national governments would have to impose losses on those differing constituencies and, as with many EU deals, a compromise was reached whereby some flexibility is allowed.

This is not to be sniffed at. For the first time it sets a common set of rules (albeit with wiggle room built in) to deal with bank collapses but, as we’ve explained ad nauseam in recent weeks, it is only one building block en route to a comprehensive banking union which was promised last year and would amount to the last vital plank in the defences being built around the currency bloc to banish future existential threats.

Back to banking union

The G8 produced little heat or light on the state of the world economy but if there was one clarion call it was for the euro zone to get on with forming a banking union – the last major initiative needed to draw a line under the euro zone debt crisis.

With the European Central Bank effectively underwriting the bloc’s governments with its bond-buying pledge, a cross-border mechanism to recapitalise or wind up failing banks would do the same for the financial sector.

The trouble is, not unreasonably, Berlin does not want to fall liable for the failure of a bank in a weaker country. Instead, it is pressing for a “resolution board” involving national authorities to take decisions on winding up failed banks, which sounds like the onus would remain on governments to sort out their own banks rather than pooling risk which would convince investors that a proper backstop was in place.

A week to reckon with

The week kicks off with a G8 leaders’ summit in Northern Ireland. Syria will dominate the gathering and the British agenda on tax avoidance is likely to be long on rhetoric, short on specifics. But for the markets, this meeting could still yield some big news. For a start, Japanese prime minister Abe is there – the man who has launched one of the most aggressive stimulus drives in history yet has already seen the yen climb back to the level it held before he started. Abe will also speak in London and Warsaw during the week.

The financial backdrop could hardly be more volatile with emerging markets selling off dramatically since the Federal Reserve warned the pace of its dollar creation could be slowed. Berlin has said the G8 leaders are likely to discuss the role of central banks and monetary policy, and Angela Merkel will hold bilateral talks with Abe during the summit. President Barack Obama travels to Berlin after the summit for talks with Merkel.

The central banks of Turkey, Switzerland and Norway all have monetary policy decisions to make in the coming week and may have some interesting things to say about the revival of market turmoil after months of calm. The Norwegians have said interest rates are likely to stay at 1.5 percent for months to come and the Swiss National Bank is unlikely to loosen its cap on the Swiss franc which has served it so well, particularly given markets are now back in flux and traders are starting to talk about flight-to-safety moves again. The elephant in the room is the Federal Reserve’s latest policy decision on Wednesday, followed by a Ben Bernanke press conference.

Something must be done, but what?

With little sign of economic recovery in Europe and governments incrementally loosening their austerity drives (Britain being the exception) the focus turns to the big central banks on our patch and what more they might be able to do to foster some recovery.

With the European Central Bank meeting on Thursday, President Mario Draghi is in Shanghai saying the euro zone is on track for only a “very gradual recovery”. It’s hard to tell at a glance whether that is a rhetorical downgrade of the existing forecast for a pick-up in the second half of the year with downside risks attached. Either way, the pressure on the ECB to act again is growing.

However, don’t expect anything at its monthly meeting on Thursday, although a further interest rate cut could come this year and there is still talk of cutting the deposit rate – the return banks get for parking funds at the ECB – into negative territory to try and get them to lend. The big question is would that achieve much? Despite being in a world awash with central bank money, there is clearly a reluctance among banks to push money into the real economy. The latest data showed bank loans to euro zone businesses and households contracted for the 12th month in a row in April.

Britain’s Help to Buy unites analysts about its dangers

Even if they can’t agree how much Britain’s Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme will boost the housing market, analysts in the latest Reuters poll are united by an understanding of its dangers.

The government’s Help to Buy programme, unveiled in its March budget, is designed to boost mortgage lending and help buyers with small deposits get on the property ladder.

The poll predicts Britain’s house prices will rise at their fastest pace in four years in 2013, and data from Hometrack show London property was snapped up in April more quickly than at any time since October 2007 – adding to concerns Help to Buy might start a new house price bubble.

It never rains…

The British government faces another potentially thorny day with the International Monetary Fund delivering its annual review of the UK economy. If David Cameron has a consistent policy, it’s that the only way to get Britain back on its feet is to cut spending and debt. Trouble is, we know the IMF doesn’t agree and advocates a more growth-fostering approach. Finance minister George Osborne has changed rhetorical tack in response but is walking a tightrope as a result.

This comes at a time when there are distinct signs that Cameron’s Conservative party is unraveling and not just over Europe. Unless he gets a grip soon, who knows what further concessions may be made on an EU referendum which could push Britain further towards the exit door. It remains unlikely that the coalition government will fall apart before 2015 elections, not least because the junior, pro-EU Liberal Democrat partners face electoral evisceration according to the polls. It’s even less likely that Cameron will be toppled by fractious members of his party. But it’s no longer impossible.

Britain’s LibDem deputy prime minister will take the unusual step of holding a news conference to say the coalition will hold together until 2015. Another big flashpoint looms this summer with the government’s spending review where hardline Conservatives will push for big welfare cuts and the LibDems will resist. Former foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe, the man who did more than anyone else to end Margaret Thatcher’s reign, says Cameron is losing control of his party. From the other side of the political divide, Peter Mandelson says he has to lead not follow. Hard to argue with either of them.

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.