MacroScope

Not again, please! Brazil and India more vulnerable now to another crisis

After bad economic news from Germany, China and the United States over the past few weeks, here are two more. Brazil and India, two of the world’s largest emerging economies, are increasingly vulnerable to another crisis or to the eventual end of the ultra-loose monetary policies in developed economies after five years of a severe global slowdown.

Weak demand for Brazil’s exports and the voracious appetite of local consumers for imported goods widened the country’s current account deficit to 2.93 percent of GDP in the 12 months through March, the widest gap in nearly eleven years. In dollar terms, that amounts to $67 billion.

To help fund this gap, Brazil could at first loosen the currency controls adopted in the past few years and let more dollars in. But if the dollar flows change too swiftly, Brazil would find itself with three other options: curb spending by growing less, allow a decline in the foreign exchange rate at the risk of fueling inflation, or burn part of its international reserves – which are large, at $377 billion, but not infinite.

Such an outlook could get even more challenging if commodities prices drop – and last week’s tumble in many products sent a reminder of how volatile these markets can be, hurting not only Brazil but many other Latin American exporters.

    ”Whereas the region entered the 2008-09 global financial crisis from a position of relative strength, it is now much more vulnerable to another external shock,” said David Rees, emerging markets economist at Capital Economics, in London.

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.

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.