MacroScope

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.

Alan Clarke, UK economist at Scotiabank, drew up this simple chart, which shows UK consumer price inflation in the communications and transport sector along with the equivalent measure across the English channel in France. The blue line is Britain, the red line is France.

You get the idea: these lines should be roughly similar. It’s only a narrow body of water between them. The two countries are so close that Britons living on the seaside in Kent, just 20 miles away from Calais, have been hit by roaming charges while their carrier thought they had skipped off to France.

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.

Bullard weighs in on his colleague’s challenge to the ‘Bernanke doctrine’

Earlier this month, Fed Governor Jeremy Stein made waves that are still rippling with a speech on the risks of credit bubbles. The policymaker said that the U.S. central bank could use interest rates, as opposed to the more conventional tool of regulation, to cool overheating in junk bonds and other markets.

With worries growing that the Fed’s easy-money policies are inflating dangerous bubbles in financial markets, the speech could portend an earlier-than-expected reversal of quantitative easing or raising of ultra low rates. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what St. Louis Fed President James Bullard had to say about Stein’s speech, when he visited New York University last week:

“My main takeaway from the speech … was that he pushed back against the Bernanke doctrine. The Bernanke doctrine has been that we’re going to use monetary policy to deal with normal macroeconomic concerns, and then we’ll use regulatory policies to try to contain financial excess. And Jeremy Stein’s speech said, in effect, I’m not sure we’re always going to be able to take care of financial excess with the regulatory policy. And in a key line he said, raising interest rates is a way to get into all the corners of the financial markets that you might not be able to see, or you might not be able to attack with the regulatory approach. So I thought this was interesting. And I would certainly think that everybody should take heed of this. This is an argument that, maybe you should think about using interest rates to fight financial excess a little more than we have in the last few years.”

Self-inflicted ‘sudden stop’? Brazil blocked by its own currency war trench

In times of currency wars, it’s best not to shoot yourself in the foot. By imposing several capital controls in the past years, Brazil might have tightened monetary policy right when the economy started to falter, Nomura’s strategist Tony Volpon wrote in a research note on Friday.

Brazil’s mediocre economic growth in the past two years has been a mystery, indeed. Some say it has been due to the global slowdown – which contrasts with steady growth elsewhere in Latin America. Many others blame Brazil’s several supply bottlenecks. But then, why don’t businesses see them as an investment opportunity?

The missing link, Volpon argues, has been the imposition of capital controls. Inflows dropped suddenly, reducing the supply of cheap foreign money available for banks and companies. So, even though the central bank cut local interest rates ten straight times to a record low of 7.25 percent, money supply growth has actually slowed since January 2012.

Hopefulness, not confidence, is spreading through the euro zone

Optimism in Germany is roaring and consumers across the euro zone are starting to become less gloomy. But the latest hard economic data are a reminder of the difference between confidence that things are going to get better, and the hope that they will.

For the moment, we only have the latter.

Friday’s German Ifo business climate survey topped even the highest expectations, as did the ZEW economic sentiment indicator on Tuesday. Euro zone consumer confidence improved this month too, and the mood in financial markets has been largely buoyant since the start of the year.

The hope is that will translate into a growing euro zone economy, but that isn’t happening yet.

Fed stimulus benefits still outweigh risks, Lockhart tells Reuters

The Federal Reserve is cognizant of the potential costs of its unconventional policies, but the economic benefits from asset purchases are still far greater than the potential costs, Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart told Reuters in an interview from his offices.

What follows is an edited transcript of the interview.

The December meeting minutes seemed to signal a shift in sentiment at the central bank toward a greater focus on the policy’s costs. How concerned are you about the risks from QE? Has the cost/benefit tradeoff changed for you? What’s your sense of how long you’ll need to keep going?

I would not say at this point that, in any respect, the costs, which are largely longer-term and speculative, outweigh the benefits of maintaining a highly accommodative climate that is being contributed to by both large-scale asset purchases and our interest rate policy. Having said that, I think policymakers have to be aware that in a policy such as quantitative easing or large-scale asset purchases, continuing to build up the challenge of reversal of that policy, or the challenge of normalization, has to be on your mind. I don’t think we’ve gotten to the point where the costs outweigh the benefits. I’m a believer, although of course it’s very hard to isolate cause and effect in the real world, that our policy has benefited the economy and that the improving situation that we are now seeing is at least in part a result of monetary policy.

Still not thinking the very thinkable on Britain’s future

Mark these words. Not only is Britain going to avoid a triple-dip recession, but the economy won’t shrink again as far as the eye can see.

If that sounds ridiculously optimistic, don’t tell the more than 30 economists polled by Reuters last week, none of whom predict even a single quarter of economic decline from here on.

Even the Bank of England, not exactly famous these days for its accuracy in economic forecasting, has said for a long time that a quarter or two of contraction here and there is to be expected. That was underlined by Wednesday’s unexpected news some policymakers voted for more bond purchases this month.

Show and tell: Fed’s balance sheet not as big as you thought

Size matters, and Federal Reserve’s balance sheet is not as big as shrill critics of QE3 would lead you to believe.

True, $3 trillion is serious money. It represents a tripling in the size of the Fed’s balance sheet since 2008, before the U.S. central bank unleashed the first round of its aggressive campaign of so-called quantitative easing. It is now on round three, and has committed to keep buying bonds until it spies a substantial improvement in the outlook for the labor market.

But as a percentage of GDP (gross domestic product), the Fed’s balance sheet is still smaller  than those of the Bank of Japan, European Central Bank, and Bank of England, notching under 20 percent of GDP compared with over 30 percent of GDP for both the BOJ and ECB.