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.”

Quickening Brazil inflation tops forecasts for 8 straight months

Brazil inflation jumped above expectations in February, despite a steep cut in electricity rates. It was not the first time, though; inflation has been running higher than consensus forecasts since July, considering the market view one month before the data release:

 

 

The total gap between market consensus and the actual inflation figures amounts to 1.19 percentage point – about one quarter of the inflation rate reported. Reuters polls conducted a few days before the official numbers come out have also proved wrong since July, with a total error of 0.37 point.

Why is that? Part of the difference was due to an unexpected jump in food inflation. But another part has to do with the mix of strong demand and weak supply that has dragged down the Brazilian economy over the past two years.

From one Fed dove to another: I see your logic

Narayana Kocherlakota, the head of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, has made a habit of turning economists’ heads. In September, the policymaker formerly known as a “hawk” surprised people the world over when he suddenly called on the U.S. central bank to keep interest rates ultra low for years to come. This week, Kocherlakota arguably went a step further into “dovish” territory, saying the Fed needs to ease policy even more. He wants the Fed to pledge to keep rates at rock bottom until the U.S. unemployment rate falls to at least 5.5 percent, from 7.8 percent currently – despite the fact that, just last month, the central bank decided to target 6.5 percent unemployment as its new rates threshold.

Kocherlakota’s bold policy stance is probably even more dovish – ie.  more willing to unleash whatever policies are needed to get Americans back to work – than even those of Chicago Fed President Charles Evans and Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren, until now considered the stanchest doves of the central bank”s 19 policymakers.

So in an interview on Tuesday, Reuters asked Rosengren what he thought of Kocherlakota’s plan. Here’s what he had to say:

Would you recognize Fed ‘easing’ if you saw it?

By almost all accounts, the Federal Reserve is expected to “stay the course” on its massive bond-buying program after next week’s policy-setting meeting. That would mean a continuation of the $85 billion/month in total purchases of longer-term securities, probably consisting of $40 billion in mortgage bonds and another $45 billion in Treasuries. Laurence Meyer of Macroeconomic Advisers is one of countless forecasters predicting this, calling it the “status quo.”

Problem is, the U.S. central bank’s current policy is not simply to buy $85 billion in bonds — and if it does announce such a program on Wednesday, it should probably be interpreted as policy easing, not a continuation of current policy.

The $45 billion in longer-term Treasuries is part of a program called Operation Twist that offsets those purchases with $45 billion in sales of shorter term Treasuries. In June, Fed policymakers extended Twist to the end of the year, meaning the market — which rallies each time the Fed eases policy — should have priced in an end to the $45 billion shuffle in the Fed’s portfolio of assets. It also means that there is really only $40 billion in outright bond-buying happening today, as part of the Fed’s third round of quantitative easing (QE3). Not $85 billion.

Guarded Bernanke still manages to toss a bone to Wall Street and Washington

Ben Bernanke has done it again. In his much-anticipated speech Friday, the Federal Reserve chairman managed to tell both investors and politicians what they wanted to hear – that “the stagnation of the labor market in particular is a grave concern” – all while saying next to nothing new about where U.S. monetary policy is actually headed. That the Fed, as Bernanke also noted, stands ready to ease policy more if needed was well known to anyone paying attention the last few months. We also know that the high jobless rate, at 8.3 percent in July, has long been Bernanke’s main headache in this tepid economic recovery.

Still, in Jackson Hole, Wyoming on Friday, it was like Bernanke tossed a bone to the hounds on Wall Street and in the Beltway without even getting up off his lawn chair.

For markets, hungry as they are for a third round of quantitative easing (QE3), the “grave concern” comment says the high unemployment rate and mostly disappointing job growth since March gives the Fed little if any choice but to act. U.S. stocks climbed and the dollar dropped after the speech, with traders and analysts citing the remark. “‘Grave’ concern with labor market is striking,” said David Ader, head of government bond strategy at CRT Capital Group.

Repo market big, but maybe not *that* big

Maybe the massive U.S. repo market isn’t as massive as we thought. That’s the conclusion of a study by researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York that suggests transactions in the repurchase agreement (repo) market total about $5.48 trillion. The figure, though impressive, is a far cry from a previous and oft-cited $10 trillion estimate made in 2010 by two Yale professors, Gary Gorton and Andrew Metrick. The Fed researchers, acknowledging the “spotty data” that complicates such tasks, argue the previous $10-trillion estimate is based on repo activity in 2008 when the market was far larger, and is inflated by double-counting.

Repos are a key source of collateralized funding for dealers and others in financial markets, and represent a main pillar of the “shadow” banking system. The market was central to the downfalls of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns in the 2008 crisis, and now regulators from Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke on down are looking for a fix. Earlier this year, the New York Fed itself said it might restrict the types of collateral in so-called tri-party repos, after being dissatisfied with progress by an industry committee.

The study published by the New York Fed on Monday slices the complex market into five segments, mapping the flow of cash and securities among dealers, funds and other players. Because dealers represent about 90 percent of the tri-party market, the Fed study extrapolates that onto the broader repo market, to arrive at its estimates. Bottom lines: U.S. repo transactions total $3.04 trillion; U.S. reverse repo transactions total $2.45 trillion.

Surprise plunge in bond yield forecasts may spell more trouble ahead

By Rahul Karunakar

The spread between 2- and 10-year U.S. Treasury yields will shrink to 180 basis points in a year according to the latest Reuters bonds poll – the narrowest margin since August 2008, the month before Lehman Brothers collapsed.

Historically, that spread has been a key indication of what investors and traders are thinking about the economy’s prospects: the narrower it gets, certainly with short-term rates already at rock bottom, the darker the outlook.

It wasn’t looking particularly good in August 2008, and of course we all know what happened the following month: the start of an epic financial and economic crisis the world is still struggling to shake off.

Battening down the hatches

There’s a high degree of battening down the hatches going on before the Greek election by policymakers and market in case a hurricane results.

G20 sources told us last night that the major central banks would be prepared to take coordinated action to stabilize markets if necessary –- which I guess is always the case –  the Bank of England said it would  flood Britain’s banks with more than 100 billion pounds to try and get them to lend into the real economy and we broke news that the euro zone finance ministers will hold a conference call on Sunday evening to discuss the election results – all this as the world’s leaders gather in Mexico for a G20 summit starting on Monday.
Bank of England Governor Mervyn King said the euro zone malaise was creating a broader crisis of confidence.

The central banks acted in concert after the collapse of Lehmans in 2008, pumping vast amounts of liquidity into the world economy and slashing interest rates. There is much less scope on the latter now. The biggest onus may fall on the European Central Bank which may have to act to prop up Greek banks and maybe banks in other “periphery” countries too although the structures to do so through the Greek central bank are in place and functioning daily. In extremis, we can expect Japan and Switzerland to act to keep a cap on their currencies too. As a euro zone official said last night, a bank run might not even be that visible and start on Sunday night over the internet rather than with queues of people outside their local bank on Monday morning.

What have a trillion euros done for the economic outlook? Not much yet

The trillion euro sugar rush that made Q1 the best start to the year for global stocks in more than a decade has already worn off, but what is most striking is not how quickly it ended. It’s how little the economic outlook has changed.

Cheap central bank money mainly seems to have boosted stocks and the optimism of stock market forecasters, who generally are the most bullish of the lot with or without wads of cheap money.

An analysis of Reuters Polls over the past three months, starting just before the European Central Bank made the first of two gargantuan injections of cheap three-year money into the banking system, reveals what many have fretted might happen.

Who’d be a central banker?

The focus is already on the euro zone finance ministers meeting in Copenhagen, starting on Friday, which is likely to agree to some form of extra funds for the currency bloc’s future bailout fund. What they come up with will go a long way to determining whether markets scent any faltering commitment on the part of Europe’s leaders.

In the meantime, top billing goes to Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann speaking in London later. He is heading an increasingly vocal group within the European Central bank who are fretting about the future inflationary and other consequences of the creation of  more than a trillion euros of three-year money. There is no chance of the ECB hitting the policy reverse button yet but the debate looks set to intensify.
A combination of German inflation and euro zone money supply numbers today (which include a breakdown on bank lending) will give some guide to the pressures on the ECB.

Central bankers face a very mixed picture with U.S. recovery and high oil vying with the unresolved euro zone debt crisis and signs of slowdown in China.