MacroScope

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.

From that perspective, the market is expecting a pretty substantial boost in policy accommodation next week, but not calling it easing.

James Bullard, president of the St. Louis Fed bank, tried to make this point in Little Rock, Arkansas this week: “If the goal is to keep policy on its present course, the replacement rate should be less than one-for-one,” said Bullard, who will have a vote on monetary policy next year. He floated $25 billion in Treasury purchases, instead of $45 billion, as a level that would still give the economy enough of a boost while lowering the risk of inflation. Philadelphia Fed President Charles Plosser has said flat out that it would be wrong to think of the end of Twist as policy tightening.

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.

from Global Investing:

January in the rearview mirror

As January 2012 drifts into the rearview mirror as a bumper month for world markets, one way to capture the year so far is in pictures - thanks to Scott Barber and our graphics team.

The driving force behind the market surge was clearly the latest liquidity/monetary stimuli from the world's central banks.

The ECB's near half trillion euros of 3-year loans  has stabilised Europe's ailing banks by flooding them with cheap cash for much lower quality collateral. In the process, it's also opened up critical funding windows for the banks and allowed some reinvestment of the ECB loans into cash-strapped euro zone goverments. That in turn has seen most euro government borrowing rates fall. It's also allowed other corporates to come to the capital markets and JP Morgan estimates that euro zone corporate bond sales in January totalled 46 billion euros, the same last year and split equally between financials and non-financials..

from Mike Dolan:

Sparring with central banks

Just one look at the whoosh higher in global markets in January and you'd be forgiven smug faith in the hoary old market adage of "Don't fight the Fed" -- or to update the phrase less pithily for the modern, globalised marketplace: "Don't fight the world's central banks". (or "Don't Battle the Banks", maybe?)

In tandem with this month's Federal Reserve forecast of near-zero U.S. official interest rates for the next two years, the European Central Bank provided its banking sector nearly half a trillion euros of cheap 3-year loans in late December (and may do almost as much again on Feb 29). Add to that ongoing bouts of money printing by the Bank of England, Swiss National Bank, Bank of Japan and more than 40 expected acts of monetary easing by central banks around the world in the first half of this year and that's a lot of additional central bank support behind the market rebound.  So is betting against this firepower a mug's game? Well, some investors caution against the chance that the Banks are firing duds.

According to giant bond fund manager Pimco, the post-credit crisis process of household, corporate and sovereign deleveraging is so intense and loaded with risk that central banks may just be keeping up with events and even then are doing so at very different speeds. What's more the solution to the problem is not a monetary one anyway and all they can do is ease the pain.

from Amplifications:

A centralized Europe is a globalized Europe

By Jean-Claude Trichet

The views expressed are his own.

PARIS – Whenever people seek a justification for European integration, they are always tempted to look backwards. They stress that European integration banished the specter of war from the old continent. And European integration has, indeed, delivered the longest period of peace and prosperity that Europe has known for many centuries.

But this perspective, while entirely correct, is also incomplete. There are as many reasons to strive towards “ever closer union” in Europe today as there were back in 1945, and they are entirely forward-looking.

Sixty-five years ago, the distribution of global GDP was such that Europe had only one role model for its single market: the United States. Today, however, Europe is faced with a new global economy, reconfigured by globalization and by the emerging economies of Asia and Latin America.