MacroScope

Relief from UK services inflation seen fleeting

British inflation dipped to 2 percent  in December – its lowest since November 2009 and within the Bank of England’s target. Part of the move was driven by a fall in prices in Britain’s services sector – which constitutes more than three quarters of the country’s output.

Services inflation, which makes up around 47 percent of the consumer price index, eased to  2.4 percent in December – also its lowest since November 2009. Goods inflation – which is more sensitive to global markets than domestically generated services inflation – edged up to 1.7 percent last month. But it has also come down in recent months as a strengthening sterling pushed down import prices.

The fall has helped the case for the Bank of England to keep interest rates at a record low of 0.5 percent, also giving the government a boost ahead of elections next year. Analysts say weak wage growth may be a reason for more subdued services inflation, but given the strength of the labor market, this trend could be fleeting.

According to Brian Hilliard, chief UK economist at Societe Generale:

“In the UK, we are a price taker … off the world market so our goods prices depend on world goods prices and exchange rates whereas, for services, it’s more determined by the state of the labour market and I think the labour market will actually firm up with this growth pulse that we are experiencing. So my forecast is that services inflation is close to bottoming out.”

He expected unit labour costs to accelerate as growth continues to be strong but productivity sluggish.

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:

Auto-pilot QE and the Federal Reserve’s taper dilemma

 It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

When the U.S. Federal Reserve launched its third round of quantitative easing, or QE3, it was hailed as an “open-ended” policy that would last as long as needed. Most important for investors, the pace of the bond buying – which started at a somewhat arbitrary $85 billion per month – would be “data dependent.” Especially throughout the spring, officials stressed they were serious about adjusting the dial on QE3 depending on changes in the labor market and broader economy. But as the unemployment rate dropped to 7.3 percent last month from 8.1 percent when the program was launched in September, 2012, the bond-buying has effectively been on auto-pilot for 14 straight months.

Now, some are wondering whether the decision not to at least tinker with the program has made the first so-called taper a bigger deal than it needed to be. “When you don’t react to small changes in the data with small changes in the policy then the markets tend to read more into it when you do change policy,” St. Louis Fed President James Bullard said last week after a speech in Arkansas. “It makes policy a little more rigid than it maybe should be.”

Bullard, who in June cited falling inflation when he dissented against a Fed policy decision to stand pat, continued:

What is France to do?

It’s euro zone third quarter GDP day and Germany and France are already out of the traps with the latter’s economy contracting by 0.1 percent, snuffing out a 0.5 percent rebound in the second quarter. Growth of 0.1 percent was forecast, not just by bank economists but by the Bank of France too.

Germany failed to match its strong 0.7 percent growth in the second quarter, but expanding by 0.3 percent – in line with forecasts – it is clearly in much better shape.

The Bank of France has estimated stronger growth of 0.4 percent in the final three months of the year but the euro zone’s second largest economy is a growing cause for concern. An OECD report on French competitiveness, released overnight, said it is falling behind southern European countries that have bitten the reform bullet.

ECB rate cut takes markets by surprise – time to crack Draghi’s code


After today’s surprise ECB move it is safe to forget the code words former ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet never grew tired of using – monitoring closely, monitoring very closely, strong vigilance, rate hike. (No real code language ever emerged for rate cuts, probably because there were only a few and that was towards the end of Trichet’s term.)

His successor, Mario Draghi, has a different style, one he showcased already at his very first policy meeting, but no one believed to be the norm: He is pro-active and cuts without warning. Or at least that’s what it seems.

Today’s quarter-percentage point cut took markets and economists by surprise.

The limits of Federal Reserve forward guidance on interest rates

The ‘taper tantrum’ of May and June, as the mid-year spike in interest rates became known, appears to have humbled Federal Reserve officials into having a second look at their convictions about the power of forward guidance on interest rate policy.

Take James Bullard, president of the St. Louis Fed. He acknowledged on Friday that the Fed’s view of the separation between rates guidance and asset purchases had not been fully accepted by financial markets. “This presents challenges for the Committee,” he noted.

A decision to modestly reduce the pace of asset purchases can still leave a very accommodative policy in place to the extent forward guidance remains intact.

Congress “smashed the instrument panel” of U.S. economic data: Fed’s Fisher

Richard Fisher, president of the Dallas Federal Reserve and one of the U.S. central bank’s arch inflation hawks, took us by surprise this week – he told Reuters that, given all the uncertainty generated by the government shutdown, it would not be prudent for the Fed to reduce its bond-buying stimulus this month.

“It is just too tender a moment,” he said. That was on Tuesday, before a last-minute deal averted a debt default but set up additional uncertainty by pushing the statutory spending cap into February.

Fisher said he wishes the Fed had begun the so-called ‘tapering’ process in September as markets has expected. But while he did not rule out a pullback from the current $85 billion monthly pace of asset purchases in December, he did acknowledge the next couple months of data could be “noisy” as economists try to weed out temporary shutdown effects from the broader trend.

Can they kick it? Yes they can

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During the recent round of financial crises, policymakers have done a whole lot of “kicking the can down the road”.

The latest is taking place in the United States where a fiscal stalemate between Republicans and Democrats has forced the first partial government shutdown in 17 years.  It has also raised concerns about a U.S. debt default, should the government not meet a deadline this week of raising the debt ceiling. That has kept short-term U.S. interest rates and the cost of insuring U.S. debt against default relatively elevated.

While markets remain convinced there will be a last-minute deal – because the consequences are far to dire for there not to be – their performance has ebbed and flowed with the mixed messages from Washington.

Fed doves strike back


Now that Washington’s circus-like government shutdown has put a damper on hopes for stronger U.S. economic growth going into next year, dovish Federal Reserve officials again appear to have the upper hand in the way of policy commentary.

Take Eric Rosengren, the Boston Fed President who had been unusually quiet as the tapering debate gathered steam. In a speech in Vermont on Thursday, he returned to a familiar theme – the central bank still has plenty of firepower and should not be afraid to use it.

Unfortunately, most of the risks to the outlook remain on the downside. Concerns over untimely fiscal austerity here and abroad, and the possibility of problems once again emerging in parts of Europe, could cause the Federal Reserve to miss on both elements of its dual mandate – employment and inflation – through 2016.

Economic damage from the shutdown? Small to start, say forecasters

The U.S. government shutdown probably won’t hit the economy too hard, say economists. Some point to the fact the shutdown has come right at the start of the fourth quarter, meaning there’s time before the year’s out for the economy to recoup some of  lost output resulting from the downtime. But, the longer it goes on, the worse it will be.

And there is always that debt-ceiling tail risk – the worst-case scenario being that the U.S. Treasury will default on one or more of its obligations. A Reuters poll on Monday put that risk at less than 10 percent.

Here’s a selection of comments from economists on the impact of the shutdown: