MacroScope

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:

Williams:

“These countries have been affected, no question, affected in a major and important ways by these flows and have adapted their policies and their approaches to better insulate them from some of those effects… That said, at the end of the day, we live in a modern and global financial system.. Monetary policy in the U.S. obviously has effects outside the U.S. and we need to study those, we need to understand those, and we need to coordinate or communicate more effectively with our colleagues around the world.”

Feldstein:

“The only thing I would add is that the Fed doesn’t take those effects on other countries into account.”

Corporate responsibility: it’s time to start investing those record profits and cash piles

Corporate profits and cash piles have never been higher. But it’s not just an economic imperative that firms get spending and investing, it’s their social and moral responsibility to do so.

Three of the four sectors that make up the economy got battered by the global financial crisis and Great Recession:

    - Households: millions of workers lost their jobs, households retrenched their finances and times got extremely tough - Governments: they rescued and guaranteed the global economy and financial system at a cost of trillions - Banks: often vilified for their role in causing the crisis and apparent lack of punishment or contrition, they’re being forced to undergo huge structural change that will cost them billions

The one sector that flourished – even more than banks (and bankers) – is the corporate sector. By some measures, it has never had it so good – profits, cash reserves and share prices have rarely been higher:

Europe may still be ‘on path for a meltdown’: former Obama adviser Goolsbee

Reporting by Chris Kaufmann and Walden Siew

For all the enthusiasm about the euro zone’s exit from recession, many experts believe the currency union’s crisis is more dormant than over. That was certainly the message from Austan Goolsbee, former economic adviser to President Barack Obama and professor at the University of Chicago. He spoke to the Reuters Global Markets Forum this week.  

Here is a lightly edited excerpt of the discussion:

What is your biggest worry about the U.S. economy right now?

A nagging worry is that if we grow 2 percent, it’s going to be a hell of a long time before the unemployment rate comes down to something reasonable. The nightmare worry is that Europe is still basically on path for a meltdown and that it ignites another financial crisis.

In my view the root of the problem is that most of southern Europe is locked in at the wrong exchange rate and will not be able to grow. Normal economics says that with a currency union you can 1) have massive labor mobility, 2) subsidies, 3) differential inflation, 4) grind down wages in the low productivity countries. But those are the only four things.

Raskin’s warning: ‘Shouldn’t pretend’ Fed capital rules are a panacea

Post corrected to show Brooksley Born is a former head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) not a former Fed board governor.

Underlying the Federal Reserve recent announcement on new capital rules was a general sense of “mission accomplished.” The U.S. central bank, also a key financial regulator, has finally implemented requirements that it says could help prevent a repeat of the 2008 banking meltdown by forcing Wall Street firms to rely less heavily on debt, thereby making them less vulnerable during times of stress.

As Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke put it in his opening remarks:

Today’s meeting marks an important step in the board’s efforts to enhance the resilience of the U.S. banking system and to promote broader financial stability.

Portugal crisis to test ECB´s strategy

Portuguese bond yields surged to more than 8 percent as a government crisis prompted investors to shun the bailed-out country, raising concerns about another flare-up in the euro zone debt saga.

The resignation this week of two key ministers, including Finance Minister Vitor Gaspar who was the architect of its austerity drive, tipped Portugal into a turmoil that could derail its plan to exit its bailout next year.

Portuguese bond yields surged to levels near which it was forced to seek international aid two years ago. The sell-off spread to Italian and Spanish debt markets, but was not as pronounced there.

Broken (record) jobless data: Euro zone unemployment stuck at all-time high

Surprise! Euro zone unemployment was stuck at record high of 12.2 percent in May, with the number of jobless quickly climbing towards 20 million. Still, as accustomed to grim job market headlines from Europe as the world has become, it is worth perusing through the Eurostat release for some of the nuances in the figures.

For one thing, as Matthew Phillips notes, Spain’s unemployment crisis is now officially more dire than Greece’s – and that’s saying something.

Also, the figures remind us just how disparate conditions are across different parts of the currency union. While Spanish and Greek unemployment is hovering just below 27 percent, the jobless rate in Austria, the region’s lowest, is 4.7 percent.

Why a German exit from the euro zone would be disastrous – even for Germany

Let’s face it: “Gerxit” doesn’t roll of the tongue nearly as smoothly as a “Grexit” did. While Europe continues to struggle economically, fears of a euro zone break-up have receded rapidly following bailouts of Greece and Cyprus linked to their troubled banking sectors.

Mounting anti-integration sentiment in some of region’s largest economies, raise concerns about whether the divisive monetary union will hold together in the long run. Indeed, the rise of an anti-Europe party in Germany begs the question of what would happen if one of the continent’s richer nations decided to abandon the 14-year old common currency. Never mind that, viewed broadly, the continent’s banking debacle has actual saved Germans money so far.

Billionaire financier George Soros, has argued that Germany should either accept a closer fiscal union with its peers, including so-called debt mutualization – the issuance of a common Eurobond – or give up on the euro. Hans-Werner Sinn, head of Germany’s influential Ifo Institute, strongly disagrees, blaming the crisis on southern Europe’s “loss of competitiveness.”

Possibility of Spanish downgrade looms over euro zone

Spanish government bonds have had a good run since the European Central Bank said it would protect the euro last year. But some analysts say the threat of a rating downgrade to junk remains an important risk.

Credit default swap prices are discounting such a move, according to Markit. Spain is only one notch above junk according to Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s ratings, and two notches above junk for Fitch. All three have it on negative outlook.  Bank of America-Merrill Lynch says it sees a “high probability” of a sovereign rating downgrade in the second half of the year.

As the table above shows, a cut to sub-investment grade would prompt Spanish sovereign debt to fall out of certain indices tracked by bond funds, resulting in forced selling, which could drive Spanish borrowing costs higher.

Greek bond rebound masks stark economic reality

Ten-year Greek government bond yields tumbled to their lowest in nearly three years one day after Fitch upgraded the country’s sovereign credit ratings.

Borrowing costs fell to 8.21 percent – the lowest since June 2010, just after Greece received a bailout from the International Monetary Fund and European Union. The difference between 10- and 30-year yields was also at its least negative since that time.

The move comes after Fitch Ratings raised Greece to B-minus from CCC citing a rebalancing of the economy and progress in eliminating its fiscal and current account deficits that have reduced the risk of a euro zone exit.

Why euro zone bond yield ‘convergence’ may be something to fear

 

Are European bond investors looking for love in all the wrong places?

The premium bankers demand to hold various types of euro zone debt over that of Germany has recently come down. In normal circumstances, this might suggest markets are no longer discriminating between the risks associated with different member countries’ bonds. But analysts say the recent convergence is based on a precarious belief of ECB action rather than any real improvement in economic fundamentals.

Spain and Italy still offer a comfortable premium over Germany. But a narrowing in yield spreads that is being driven by a fall in the funding costs of Spain and Italy, rather than by a rise in German yields, gives reason for pause.

According to Lyn Graham-Taylor, fixed income strategist at Rabobank:

The fact there is almost no movement from Germany and a huge movement in peripherals is indicative to us of this convergence for the wrong reason.