MacroScope

CME Group, home to bets on Fed policy, scrambles to keep watch

These days, it seems, everyone is trying to keep up with shifting market expectations for the Federal Reserve’s monetary policies. CME Group’s Fed Watch, which delivers a snapshot of those expectations based on futures tied to the Fed’s target for short-term rates, is no exception.

Rate futures traded at CME have dived since Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said last week that the U.S. central bank may decide to cut back on its purchases of Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities in the next few Fed policy meetings if data shows the economy is gaining traction. CME’s website dutifully translated the drop in rate futures into rising market expectations that the Fed’s first rate hike since 2008 could come in early 2015.

But the site was silent on the likelihood of the Fed raising rates any earlier – it simply didn’t include that data, because as recently as a week ago, the probabilities of a rate hike in 2014 were close to zero. Bernanke’s comments, and some strong data, changed all that. By Wednesday, CME had caught up, adding data on meetings in the second half of 2014. Just in the nick of time: by the day’s end, traders were pricing in a rate hike at the Fed’s December 2014 meeting.

The rationale for a December Fed taper

Vincent Reinhart, a former top Federal Reserve researcher who is now chief U.S. economist at Morgan Stanley, believes the U.S. central bank will begin pulling back on the pace of asset purchases in December. Here’s how he arrives at that timeline:

We believe the Fed is going to need to see four employment reports averaging net gains in nonfarm payrolls of at least 200,000 to justify reducing the pace of its asset purchases. The arithmetic of the calendar would then put the earliest date of tapering/tightening in September, which conveniently for the Fed is a meeting followed by a press conference.

Our economic forecast, however, suggests that there will be more slip-sliding through the soft patch, implying that December is the more likely start.

Central bankers everywhere after Bernanke warning

It’s raining central bankers today which is well-timed after Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke dropped the bombshell that the Fed could take the decision to begin throttling back its money-printing programme at one of its next few policy meetings. If that’s the case, and it’s not yet a done deal, then it will be the Fed that will move first in that direction, presumably putting further upward pressure on the dollar and send financial markets into something of a spin.

European stock futures look set to open sharply lower – 1.5 percent or more down – buffeted by suggestions that the Fed could soon change tack. Safe haven German Bund futures have opened higher for the same reason, though in a much more measured fashion. One of Bernanke’s colleagues, James Bullard, speaks in London today. Another, Charles Evans, is in Paris.

The European Central Bank has never got into the realms of QE but it did produce the single most important intervention over the past three years. Ten months after his pledge to save the euro fundamentally changed the dynamics of the currency bloc’s debt crisis, ECB chief Mario Draghi returns to the scene of his game-changing promise – London – to deliver a keynote speech. Draghi does not speak until the evening but his colleagues – Weidmann, Noyer, Coeure, Liikanen and Nowotny – all break cover earlier in the day. Draghi has said the ECB is prepared to act further if the economy worsens, having already cut interest rates to a fresh record low this month and ECB chief economist Peter Praet said last night that its toolkit could be expanded if necessary. But what?

Is Congress the ‘enabler’ of a loose Fed?

We heard it more than once at today’s hearing of the Joint Economic Committee featuring Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke: the central bank’s low interest rate policies are allowing Congress to delay tough decisions on long-term spending.

As U.S. senator Dan Coats asked pointedly: “Is the Fed being an enabler for an addiction Congress can’t overcome?”

Yet, if you read the subtext of Bernanke’s testimony closely, it may actually be Congress that is enabling a loose Federal Reserve.

What to expect from Bernanke testimony and Fed minutes this week

Financial markets this will be keenly focused on congressional testimony from Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and minutes from the central bank’s April 30-May 1 meeting, particularly given a thin data calendar. The latter may be the more interesting one, since it will offer hints into how far Fed officials are leaning in a direction of curbing the pace of its bond-buying stimulus, potentially late this summer.

The economic backdrop has been just mixed enough to leave policymakers cautious about taking their foot off the gas. Still, if we get a few more months of strength in the labor market, Fed officials may just be able to say “substantial progress” has been made in the outlook for the labor market – their stated precondition for an end to asset buys.

Still, Harm Bandholz at Unicredit says markets should not confuse a debate about tapering bond buys with some immediate reversal of the Fed’s policy of ultra low rates.

Kocherlakota on Fed stimulus: Don’t stop ‘til you get enough

Ann Saphir contributed to this post

Minneapolis Federal Reserve President Narayana Kocherlakota has gone from being one of the U.S. central bank’s more hawkish characters to arguably its most dovish. In line with this transformation, Kocherlakota told a conference sponsored by the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business that the Fed, despite its extensive bond-buying over the last few years, has not done enough to spur growth.

The FOMC has responded to this challenge by providing a historically unprecedented amount of monetary accommodation. But the outlook for prices and employment is that they will remain too low over the next two to three years relative to the FOMC’s objectives. Despite its actions, the FOMC has still not lowered the real interest rate sufficiently in light of the changes in asset demand and asset supply that I’ve described.

To get a sense of what he means, see the graphs below: U.S. inflation continues to undershoot the Fed’s 2 percent target, and is actually drifting lower, while unemployment, though down from crisis peaks, remains stubbornly high.

SF Fed’s Williams in the driver’s seat

In the barrage of Federal Reserve speakers making the rounds on Thursday, it is notable that San Francisco Fed President John Williams was the one that managed to move markets, allowing the dollar to recover losses. Why did his voice rise above the din? For one thing, he’s seen as a dovish-leaning centrist whose views closely resemble the Bernanke-Yellen core of the central bank.

Plus, he took the oft-abused economy-car analogy in a, er, new direction:

If we were in a car, you might say we’re motoring along, but well under the speed limit. The fact that we’re cruising at a moderate speed instead of still stuck in the ditch is due in part to the Federal Reserve’s unprecedented efforts to keep interest rates low. We may not be getting there as fast as we’d like, but we’re definitely moving in the right direction.

Pigeonholing Fed hawks

Richard Fisher, the Dallas Fed’s outspoken president, is happy to be labeled a monetary policy hawk. After all, he sometimes quips, “doves are part of the pigeon family.” That may be so. But thus far, the doves have had the upper hand in the policy debate – and the economic data appear to bear them out.

Fed hawks like Fisher have warned that the U.S. central bank’s prolonged policy of low interest rates and asset purchases risks a future spike in inflation. Yet despite the Fed’s aggressive efforts, inflation is actually drifting lower, not higher, suggesting there is something to the dovish notion that there is still ample slack in the U.S. economy following a lackluster recovery from the historic slump of 2007-2009.

Regional Fed hawks tend to argue that the Fed should not overreach in its efforts to bring down unemployment because the only thing it can really control in the long-run is inflation. Says Jeffrey Lacker, president of the Richmond Fed:

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.”

Yellen-san supportive of BOJ’s aggressive easing

For all the talk about clear communications at the Federal Reserve, central bank Vice Chair Janet Yellen’s speech to the Society of American Business and Economics Writers ran a rather long-winded 16 pages.

However, while Fed board members generally do not take questions from reporters, there was a scheduled audience Q&A which, at this particular event, meant it was effectively a press briefing.

So I asked Yellen, seen as a potential successor to Fed Chair Ben Bernanke when his second term ends early next year, what she thought of Japan’s decision to launch a bold $1.4 trillion stimulus to fight a long-standing problem of deflation and economic stagnation.