MacroScope

Who said what, when? An unofficial guide to Fed speak on QE3

U.S. Federal Reserve policymakers, fresh from a December decision to ramp up asset purchases to help push down borrowing costs, will this year train a sharp eye on jobs.

A “substantial improvement” in the labor market outlook is a prerequisite for ending the bond-buying program, known as QE3 because it is the Fed’s third quantitative easing program since the Great Recession.

Below is a look at top Fed officials’ views on the asset-purchase program, currently at a monthly $85 billion, as well their take on the Fed’s new vow to keep rates low until unemployment falls to at least 6.5 percent, as long as inflation does not threaten to breach 2.5 percent.

- Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke (permanent voter) has suggested he does not see a near-term end to QE3. “I want to be clear that while we’ve made progress, there’s still quite a ways to go before we’ll be satisfied,” he said on Jan. 14.

- Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren (2013 voter) supports buying assets until the unemployment rate falls to about 7.25 percent, a personal threshold he does not expect to breach this year.

Trade entrails

An exercise in divination using the entrails of last week’s U.S. international trade report shows signs of a move with larger implications than just the gaping deficit that caught analysts wrong-footed: the possibility of a persistent burden on the American economy caused by Japanese and German imports, like in the 80s.

The U.S. trade deficit widened 16 percent in November to $48.7 billion, the Commerce Department said on Friday, above the $41.3 billion expected. The negative surprise prompted economists to cut hastily their U.S. gross domestic product estimates for the last quarter to a negligible rate. The stock market took a hit.

The disappointment was limited, however, as analysts attributed the bulky import bill behind the deficit increase to a resumption of merchandise flows into the U.S. after Hurricane Sandy paralyzed port activity in the East Coast the previous month. Some economists still on yuletide mode are, apparently, missing the big picture.

On fiscal ledge, corporate gain may be household’s pain

It doesn’t sound sustainable but, at least in coming months, businesses look set to keep booming even as consumers come under pressure – in line with the recent trend. That’s because the economic hit from the partial deal on the fiscal cliff will hurt salaried workers disproportionately, says Steven Ricchiuto, chief economist at Mizuho.

He writes:

Although the worst of the fiscal cliff has been avoided, the compromise is not macroeconomic neutral. Our calculations, in fact, suggest that the drag created by the reversal of the payroll tax cut and the various tax hikes on upper income households will cut real GDP by upwards of 0.5% to 1% from our preliminary 1.5% to 2% forecast.

Real GDP in the range of 0.5% to 1.5% this year implies that corporate profit growth will come at the expense of the wage earner. Moreover, the earnings focus assures a larger share of national income will accrue to the corporate sector. This implies another year of limited employment gains.

Japan finally takes Bernanke-san’s advice – 10 years later

This post was based on reporting by Leika Kihara in Tokyo

Japan has crossed the monetary rubicon: the government is actively intervening in the affairs of the central bank, pressuring it to more aggressively tackle a prolonged bout of deflation and economic stagnation. The Bank of Japan is expected to discuss raising its inflation target from the current 1 percent level during its next rate decision on January 21-22.

Overnight, a Japanese newspaper reported the finance ministry and the central bank were considering signing a policy accord that would set as a common goal not just achieving 2 percent inflation but also steady job growth.

Key Japanese policymakers played down the prospect of making the BOJ responsible for stable employment like the U.S. Federal Reserve, but said a 2 percent inflation target will be at the heart of a new policy accord with the central bank.

Will bank lending finally start to rise?

Big news over the weekend was the world’s banks being given an extra four years to build up their cash piles, and given more flexibility about what assets they can throw into the pot. This is a serious loosening of the previously planned regime and could have a significant effect on banks’ willingness to lend and therefore the wider economy.

For over two years, banks have complained that they can’t oil the wheels of business investment and consumer spending while being forced to build up much larger capital reserves to ward off future financial crises. That contradiction has now been broken (a big win for the bank lobbyists) and the impact on economic recovery could be profound.

However, there are no guarantees. Banks, in Europe at least, have also insisted that lending has remained low because there isn’t the demand for credit from business and households. If that’s true, increased willingness to lend might not be snapped up.

What Bernanke didn’t tell us

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke spoke to reporters for well over an hour at his quarterly press conference this week, but he was vague on the most important question of monetary policy today: what exactly would it take for the central bank to either ramp up or curtail the pace of monthly asset purchases? Since bond buys have effectively replaced interest rates as the dominant tool of Fed policy in recent years, the central bank’s new thresholds, which reference only rates, are not particularly useful.

After all, in the original threshold plan as crafted by its inventor, Chicago Fed President Charles Evans, the Fed would offer a jobless rate trigger for quantitative easing itself.

Asked about this during his briefing, Bernanke said:

We are prepared to vary that as new information comes in. If the economy’s outlook gets noticeably stronger we would presumably begin to ramp-down the level of purchases. But, again, the problem with giving a specific number is that there are multiple criteria on which we make this decision. We will be looking at the outlook for the labor market, which is very important. We will also be looking at other factors that could be affecting the outlook for the economy, for example – I hope it won’t happen – if the fiscal cliff occurs, as I have said many times, I don’t think the Federal Reserve has the tools to offset that event, and in that case, we obviously have to temper our expectations about what we can accomplish.

Fed’s numerical thresholds are a bad idea: Goldman’s Hatzius

Updates with Fed decision

The Federal Reserve on Wednesday took the unprecedented step of tying its low rate policy directly to unemployment, saying it will keep rates near rock bottom until the jobless rate falls to 6.5 percent. That’s as long as inflation, the other key parameter of policy, does not exceed 2.5 percent.

Jan Hatzius, chief economist at Goldman Sachs, however, said in a research note published ahead of the decision that the shift may not be very effective.

Would such a move be a good idea? We’re not so sure. Calendar guidance may be theoretically flawed, but it is working reasonably well in practice. Fed officials have managed to keep expectations for the funds rate in the next few years pinned near zero, and the market now understands that this is more of a commitment to the promotion of future economic recovery than an expectation of future economic weakness.

Fiscal tightening + monetary stimulus = ‘borderline insanity’?

It’s a curious pattern being repeated around the industrialized world. Governments are trying frantically to tighten their belts even as the monetary authorities loosen their purse strings. This week in the United States is a perfect example: the Fed looks set to extend its bond purchase program even as Washington fails to reach an agreement to avoid the dreaded “fiscal cliff.”

It’s the sort of dissonant policy that is unlikely to yield very constructive results at a time when the U.S. economy is struggling to achieve a meager 2 percent growth rate.

Thomas Lam, group chief economist at OSK-DMG inSingapore:

The current one-sided policy mix of fiscal tightening and monetary easing is problematic (for example, the UK experimented with this approach –  fiscal consolidation and monetary accommodation – and it clearly failed to generate a sustained recovery).  In some cases, it’s borderline insanity –  it’s like you’re trying the same or broadly similar approach but hoping for a different outcome every single time.

Italian political curveball

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Italy’s borrowing costs over ten years drew closer to five percent after a decision by Prime Minister Mario Monti to step down early left the country’s political future unclear, hurting riskier euro zone debt.

Monti said on Saturday he would resign once the 2013 budget was approved, raising questions over who will take the reins of the euro zone’s third largest economy at a time when it remains a focus of the region’s three-year debt crisis.

His announcement, potentially bringing forward an election due early next year, came after former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s party withdrew its support for the government — and Berlusconi himself said he would run to become premier for a fifth time.

America is not Greece: Low funding costs give U.S. government room to borrow

Is the U.S.on the road to Greece, as some politicians have proclaimed?

Most economists say the comparison is nonsense. At a towering $15 trillion, the U.S. economy is not only the world’s largest, it is also more than 50 times the size of Greece’s. This gap makes any type of comparison difficult – it would be like analyzing trends in Maryland in relation to the entire euro zone.

Another key difference: Unlike Greece, the U.S. actually controls its own currency. That means a debt default is effectively impossible. This reality, coupled with strong monetary stimulus from the Federal Reserve, helps explain why U.S. bond yields remain near historic lows despite larger deficits.

Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the progressive Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, says a country’s interest burden is far more important than its total debt levels in determining the government’s ability to service it. He argued in a recent editorial: