MacroScope

Baby it’s cold outside: monetary policy as outer wear

Discussions about central banking are often belabored by analogies to moving vehicles, which make some sense given that interest rate policy can act both as accelerator and brake on economic activity. Perhaps tired of being in the driver’s seat, Minnesota Fed President Narayana Kocherlakota decide to switch gears and talk about clothing instead.

In an attempt to illustrate that interest rates are low because of economic conditions, not the whim of policymakers, Kocherlakota compares monetary policy to a protective jacket that needs to be worn when the weather gets rough but can slowly be removed as the summer approaches.

Why have real interest rates fallen so much? At one level, the answer is obvious: monetary policy. The FOMC has announced its intention to keep the fed funds rate near zero at least until the unemployment rate falls below 6.5 percent. At the same time, the FOMC has bought over $3 trillion of longer-term assets issued or backed by the government. With inflationary expectations well anchored, these actions are designed to push downward on real interest rates and have been successful in doing so.

But I think that the obvious monetary policy answer is actually deeply misleading. Consider the following, very Minnesota, analogy. Some days during the year when I go outside, I wear a parka. Other days, I wear a light jacket. And-this will seem hard to believe-on some other days, I don’t need a coat at all.

Every morning, I have complete control over what kind of coat I wear-even more control than the FOMC has over real interest rates. But, of course, in making my choice of outerwear, I’m merely responding to the Minnesota weather, which is a force that is-sadly-well beyond my control. The FOMC is in exactly the same position of having to respond to strong forces well beyond its control when making its decisions about the real interest rate. Thus, when I decide what coat to wear, my goal is to keep myself at a temperature that I view as appropriate, given prevailing conditions that I cannot influence. Similarly, when the FOMC decides on a level of the real interest rate, its goal is to keep the macroeconomy at an appropriate ‘temperature,’ given prevailing conditions that it cannot influence.

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.”

France’s downturn is more significant than you think

The huge downturn in French businesses was by far the most disappointing aspect of this week’s euro zone PMIs, which again painted a dismal picture of the euro zone economy.

Maybe it’s because grim euro zone PMIs come around with depressingly familiarity these days, but economists on the whole had surprisingly little say about this.

Still, the March survey delivered some major landmarks relating to France.

Most obviously, its services companies endured their worst month since February 2009, practically at the nadir of the Great Recession of 2008-09.

Goal line on jobs still a long way off: former Fed economist Stockton

The Great Recession set the U.S. labor market so far back that there is still a long way to go before policymakers can claim victory and point to a true return to healthy conditions, a top former Fed economist said. The U.S. economy remains around 3 million jobs short of its pre-recession levels, and that’s without accounting for population growth.

“The goal line is still a long ways off,” David Stockton, former head of economic research at theU.S.central bank’s powerful Washington-based board, told an event sponsored by the Peterson Institute for International Economics. He sees the American economy improving this year, but believes the recovery will continue to have its ups and downs.

A lot of people have been quite excited about some of the recent strength in the labor market. It’s encouraging but I don’t think we’ve yet seen any clear break out and I don’t think we’re going to for a while.  […]

Investors call for interest rate hike in Brazil

Two analyses published this week highlight how alarmed investors are about inflation in Brazil.

In the first, published on Wednesday following a poll on global stock markets, equity investors say an interest rate hike wouldn’t be a bad idea – a paradox, since stocks usually drop when borrowing costs rise. Are they keen to move to bonds? Not really; their argument is that an interest rate hike could assuage inflation fears after eight consecutive months of above-forecast price rises. A rate hike could also reduce concerns of economic mismanagement after several government attempts to intervene in key sectors such as banking and power generation.

The central bank signalled it could act later this year, but would rather wait because the recent inflation surge could be just temporary. Bond investors disagree, according to a separate analysis published today. In their view, inflation will remain above the 4.5 percent target mid-point through at least 2018, raising uncertainty about long-term investments needed to bridge the gap between Brazil’s booming demand and its clogged roads and ports.

Is Slovenia the next shoe to drop?

The Cypriot saga has thrown the spotlight on Slovenia, which is also a small euro zone country struggling with an over-burdened banking sector.

Slovenia’s mostly state-owned banks are nursing some 7 billion euros of bad loans, equal to about 20 percent of GDP, underpinning persistent speculation that the country might have to follow other vulnerable euro zone countries in seeking a bailout.

According to Standard Bank’s head of emerging market research Tim Ash:

The latest crisis in the euro zone, this time in Cyprus, continues to raise questions as to possible contagion effects throughout the region, and in particular which economies could be next.

Rip-off Britain on the line

For all the talk about imported inflation in the UK as policymakers talk down the pound and financial markets merrily give it a good beating, here’s a stark reminder that a lot of British inflation remains home-grown.

British inflation has been so sticky over the past decade that regular Bank of England pronouncements that it will come back down from wherever it is to the 2 percent target at the 2-year horizon has become something of a policy piñata in financial markets. And there is rampant speculation the government will soon modify that inflation target.

But it’s no joke to British consumers, whose wages have stagnated for years and with a plunging currency in their pocket that is down more than 8 percent so far this year. They’ve been much more frugal with their spending, and as a result the economy is on its back.

Another U.S. debt ceiling showdown could roil markets: NY Fed paper

After two days of testimony from Federal Reserve Chairman last week in which he decisively criticized Congress’ decision to slash spending arbitrarily in the middle of a fragile economic recovery, a report on money market funds from the New York Fed nails home the point.

The paper’s key finding is that, as most observers already knew, investors were a lot more worried about a break-up of the euro zone in the summer of 2011 than they were about U.S. congressional bickering over the debt ceiling.

But as Americans face a series of regularly schedule mini-eruptions in the fiscal policy arena, the authors conclude with a thinly-veiled warning to lawmakers:

Bernanke: The quickest way to raise rates is to keep them low

That’s not a typo in the headline. In a recent speech that took some mental gymnastics to absorb, Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke countered critics of his low rates policy by arguing that a loose monetary policy is the best way to ensure rates can rise to more normal levels.

Why? Because interest rates will naturally move higher once stronger economic growth leads to higher rates of return on investment, Bernanke said. Here’s his argument:

One might argue that the right response to these risks is to tighten monetary policy, raising long-term interest rates with the aim of forestalling any undesirable buildup of risk. I hope my discussion this evening has convinced you that, at least in economic circumstances of the sort that prevail today, such an approach could be quite costly and might well be counterproductive from the standpoint of promoting financial stability. Long-term interest rates in the major industrial countries are low for good reason: Inflation is low and stable and, given expectations of weak growth, expected real short rates are low. Premature rate increases would carry a high risk of short-circuiting the recovery, possibly leading–ironically enough–to an even longer period of low long-term rates. Only a strong economy can deliver persistently high real returns to savers and investors, and the economies of the major industrial countries are still in the recovery phase.

Hey brother, can you spare a coupon?

Remember those green shoots? Ever since Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke uttered those words in response to the first signs of recovery from the Great Recession in 2009, many forecasters – including Fed officials – have consistently overestimated the economy’s strength.

Some economists believe 2013 could finally be a break-out year. With the fiscal cliff now in the rear-view mirror and the euro zone crisis apparently stabilized, some see the prospect that growth could actually exceed expectations for the first time in a long while.

Dennis Lockhart, president of the Atlanta Fed, said this week he sees a chance the economy might actually surpass his 2013 growth forecast range of 2-2.5 percent.