MacroScope

Scrambling to flesh out skeleton Fed board

“It’s about time” was the general reaction when on Thursday the Senate Banking Committee scheduled a vote on Barack Obama’s nominees for the Federal Reserve board. Not that Stanley Fischer, Lael Brainard and Jerome Powell (a sitting governor who needs re-confirmation) have been waiting all that long; it was January that the U.S. president nominated them as central bank governors, and only a month ago that the trio testified to the committee. The urgency and even anxiety had more to do with the fact that only four members currently sit on the Fed’s seven-member board and one of those, Jeremy Stein, is retiring in a month. The 100-year old Fed has never had only three governors, and the thought of the policy and administrative headaches that would bring was starting to stress people out. After all, the Fed under freshly-minted chair Janet Yellen is in the midst of its most difficult policy reversal ever.

“Boy it would be more comfortable if there were at least five governors and hopefully more” to help Yellen “think through these very difficult communications challenges,” said Donald Kohn, a former Fed vice chair. Former governor Elizabeth Duke, who stepped down in August, said one of the Fed board’s strengths is its diversity of members’ backgrounds. “With fewer people you don’t have as many different points of view on policy,” she said in an interview.

The Senate committee votes on the three nominees April 29. But they can’t start the job until the full Democratic-controlled Senate also schedules a vote and gives them the green light.

To be sure, there is no requirement for the Fed to have a full slate of seven governors. But it was something of a wake-up call when five presidents of the Fed’s regional branches voted alongside only four board governors at last month’s policy-setting meeting, when the central bank decided to revamp a delicate promise to keep interest rates low for a while to come. The privately-elected presidents, who often represent the extremely hawkish or dovish views on what to do about rates and asset purchases, will have an effective majority until more governors are confirmed. While the chair will seek to build the broadest support possible among fellow policymakers, “when the board is under-staffed the leadership needs to be that little bit more solicitous of the views of the presidents, who can dissent more freely,” said Krishna Guha, a former New York Fed official who now a vice chairman at ISI, a broker-dealer.

As it happened, there was only one dissenting vote on March 19, paving the way for Yellen to continue winding down the Fed’s massive bond-buying program, which is meant to stimulate investment and hiring. Next year, the Fed is expected to start raising rates after years of aggressive post-recession stimulus.

Weather to make February jobs report a crap-shoot too

Blaming bad economic news on winter is getting as tiresome as tales of snarled traffic, flight cancellations and trips out with the snow shovel in freezing winds.

The February jobs report will be no exception to this U.S. season of climactic howling.

Most of the 97 forecasters who contribute to the Reuters Poll on non-farm payrolls have stuck to their forecasts, resisting the temptation to make last-minute changes based on even more disappointing data this week.

High unemployment putting the ECB in isolation

 

Unemployment in the euro zone is stuck at 12 percent, an already high rate that masks eye-popping rates in many of its struggling member economies.

But in a press conference lasting one hour, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi mentioned the problem of high unemployment only a few times – satisfied with the central bank’s usual stance of imploring euro zone governments to implement structural reforms to their labour markets, on a case by case basis.

Draghi said:

 … although unemployment in the euro area is stabilising, it remains high, and the necessary balance sheet adjustments in the public and the private sector will continue to weigh on the pace of the economic recovery.   

Another false start for the U.S. economy?

Since the global financial crisis ripped the floor out from underneath developed world economies, the world’s biggest one has had several false starts nailing the floorboards back in.

Stock markets have moved in almost one direction since their trough in March 2009 – up – but economic growth and job creation have bounced around.

There are some disturbing signs another false start is afoot, but it has become almost taboo to even raise the issue that the U.S. economy, for all of its progress in repairing bank and household balance sheets, may still be at risk.

A week before emerging-market turmoil, a prescient exchange on just how much the Fed cares

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The last seven days has been a glaring example of fallout from the cross-border carry trade. That’s the sort of trade, well known in currency markets, where investors borrow funds in low-rate countries and invest them in higher-rate ones. Some $4 trillion is estimated to have flooded into emerging markets since the 2008 financial crisis to profit off the ultra accommodate policies of the U.S. Federal Reserve, Bank of Japan, European Central Bank and the Bank of England. Now that central banks in developed economies are looking to reverse course and eventually raise rates, that carry trade is unraveling fast, resulting in the brutal sell-off in emerging markets such as Turkey and Argentina over the last week.

The Fed’s decision on Wednesday to keep cutting its stimulus effectively ignores the turmoil in such developing countries. And while the Fed may well be right not to overreact, it makes one wonder just how much attention major central banks pay to the carry trade and its global effects — and it brings to mind a prescient exchange between some of the brightest lights of western economics, just a week before emerging markets were to run off the rails.

On January 16, minutes before Ben Bernanke took the stage for his last public comments as Fed chairman, the Brookings Institution in Washington held a panel discussion featuring former BoE Deputy Governor Paul Tucker, Harvard University professor Martin Feldstein and San Francisco Fed President John Williams. They were asked about the global effects of U.S. monetary policy:

Shock now clearly trumps transparency in central bank policymaking

The days of guided monetary policy, telegraphed by central banks and priced in by markets in advance, are probably coming to an end if recent decisions around the world are any guide.

From Turkey, which hiked its overnight lending rate by an astonishing 425 basis points in an emergency meeting on Tuesday, to India which delivered a surprise repo rate hike a day earlier, central banks are increasingly looking to “shock and awe” markets into submission with their policy decisions.

A wide sample of economists polled by Reuters on Monday already expected a massive rise of 225 basis points by Turkey’s central bank to stop a sell-off in the lira. Instead it doubled the consensus and opted for the highest forecast.

The Bank of Canada is probably not ready to seriously consider cutting rates — yet

With all signs showing the Canadian economic miracle is fading, the Bank of Canada is understandably starting to sound more dovish. The Canadian dollar has got a whiff of that, down about 10 percent from where it was this time last year.

But that doesn’t mean Governor Stephen Poloz is ready to signal on Wednesday that his rate shears are about to get hauled out of the shed.

Yes, economic growth is expected to be restrained over the next couple of quarters, the long-awaited pick up in exports and business investment still seems elusive and inflation continues to remain undesirably weak.

ECB rate cut expectations to be left deflated

Euro zone inflation has dropped to just 0.8 percent and the core measure is lower still – at 0.7 percent it has fallen pretty consistently over the last year.

Nonetheless, the European Central Bank is likely to sit tight at its policy meeting today. The Bank of England’s rate setters are also meeting but facing a very different set of problems.

It’s probably too early for any dramatic moves but the ECB may well be pushed into easing policy if inflation refuses to pick up and/or the banks clam up ahead of this year’s health tests. Today, Mario Draghi is likely to reaffirm its readiness to act.

Rates sweetener makes Fed tapering pill easier to swallow

 U.S. and German government bonds came under selling pressure on Thursday, one day after the Federal Reserve announced it will start trimming its monthly asset purchases by $10 billion to $75 billion. The move was much anticipated but was also historically significant – it is the first step towards unwinding the abundant monetary stimulus that helped keep the financial system afloat during years of crises.  

But the bond sell-off was limited, only taking yields to the top-end of ranges held in recent months.  On Friday, U.S. yields were mixed and German borrowing costs little changed.

The reaction not only shows that tapering had already been largely priced in – even though it came earlier than some had expected – but it illustrates that the central bank successfully contained its fallout by tweaking the forward guidance.

Timber!

A deal on European banking union was finally struck overnight. Already the inquests have begun into how robust it is.

As we exclusively reported at the weekend, EU finance ministers agreed that banks will pay into funds for the closure of failed lenders, amassing roughly 55 billion euros which will be merged into a common pool in 2025. Yes, 2025.

Until then, if there is not enough money, a government will be able to impose more levies on banks. If that does not suffice, it would put in public money and if that is unaffordable, it could seek a bailout from the euro zone’s ESM bailout fund with conditions and stigma attached.