MacroScope

The other big question at Jackson Hole

It will be a tough one to avoid. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s absence from Jackson Hole is just one in a series of strong hints he will step down at the end of his second term in January. So, it is only natural that a lot of the talk on the sidelines of this year’s conference will inevitably revolve around the issue of his replacement.  

But there is another, potentially more important question that needs to be answered in the shadow of Wyoming’s majestic Grand Teton peaks: Why have top U.S. Fed officials, even dovish ones, become increasingly queasy about asset purchases despite falling inflation?

Thus far, policymakers have discussed the prospect of a reduction in the pace of their bond-buying stimulus in terms of an improvement in the economy and the prospect of an even brighter outlook toward year-end and in 2014. Yet the U.S. economy, while outpacing its even more anemic rich-nation counterparts, is hardly besieged by runaway growth of the sort that would normally lead central banks to tighten monetary policy. And by even talking about reducing bond buys, the Fed has helped push interest rates up more than a full percentage point, to a two year high, in just a few months.

There are a number of possible explanations, and the reality likely combines some element of each. One, sadly, is politics. As much as the central bank likes to tout its independence, policymakers were clearly caught off guard by the blowback, both in Congress and among the public, to unconventional monetary policy. The perception that the Fed was acting recklessly, even if erroneous, was relatively widespread, even among some respected voices in the economics community.

A second, likely more salient issue for Fed officials is the prospect that their asset purchases could adversely affect financial markets in some way. This could happen if the prolonged period of low rates stokes asset bubbles. This concern has prompted Kansas City Fed President Esther George to dissent against the Fed’s decisions so far this year to maintain stimulus levels steady. Jeremy Stein, an influential board governor who may have some intellectual sway with Bernanke and others, highlighted risk  to financial stability from ongoing asset buys in a speech earlier this year.

Time to taper the taper talk?

It’s been three months since the Federal Reserve first hinted that it’s going to have to ease off on its extraordinary monetary stimulus, but financial markets are still not settled on the matter.

But while volatility is on the rise – surely partly a result of thinned trading volumes during the peak summer vacation season – the consensus around when the Fed will start cutting back hasn’t budged.

That makes endless daily reports from traders linking that to the latest falls in asset prices, particularly U.S. Treasuries and non-U.S. share prices, not terribly convincing.

Does less QE from the Fed necessarily mean a stronger dollar?

Based on the latest U.S. Treasury flows data, it may be time to ditch the textbook theory that says less monetary stimulus means a stronger currency – at least for now.

The problem may just be that the theory doesn’t fully account for the situation when your largest creditors – and they are very large – are trying to beat you to the market.

The Federal Reserve first hinted in May it would start reducing its bond purchase programme because the U.S. economy is recovering and so is the job market.

Brazil’s foreign reserves are not all that big

Traumatized by several currency crises in the past, Brazil has made a dedicated effort in recent years to amass $374 billion in foreign reserves as China bought mountains of its iron ore and soybeans. When the next crisis came, policymakers figured, the reserves would act as Brazil’s first line of defense.

It turns out that those reserves, which jumped from just $50 billion in 2006, may still not be large enough, Bank of America-Merrill Lynch analysts found in a report on the increased volatility in foreign exchange markets as the U.S. Federal Reserve prepares to scale back part of its monetary stimulus.

Using central bank monthly data on the stock of foreign investments in Brazil, David Beker and Claudio Irigoyen estimated that foreigners hold about $1.2 trillion in Brazil. While most ($785 billion) of that amount consists in longer-term direct investments, portfolio investments such as equities and debt still far exceed the central bank’s reserve cushion at $415 billion.

Recalculating: Central bank roadmaps leave markets lost

Central banks in Europe have followed in the Federal Reserve’s footsteps by adopting “forward guidance” in a break with traditionBut, as in the Fed’s case, the increased transparency seems to have only made investors more confused.

The latest instance came as something of an embarrassment for Mark Carney, the Bank of England’s new superstar chief from Canada and a former Goldman Sachs banker. The BoE shifted away from past practice saying it planned to keep interest rates at a record low until unemployment falls to 7 percent or below, which it said could take three years.

Yet the forward guidance announcement went down with a whimper. Indeed, investors brought forward expectations for when rates would rise – the opposite of what the central bank was hoping for – although the move faded later in the day.

Obama’s second chance to reshape the Fed

Lost in the bizarre Yellen vs. Summers tug-of-war into which the debate over the next Federal Reserve Chairman has devolved, is the notion that President Barack Obama is getting a second shot at revamping the U.S. central bank.

The perk of a two-term president, Obama will get to appoint another three, potentially four officials to the Fed’s influential seven-member board of governors in Washington. This may buy the president some political wiggle room when it comes to his pick for Fed chair, since he might be able to placate Republicans with one or two “concession” appointments. Every Fed governor gets a permanent voting seat on the policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee.

Elizabeth Duke, the last George W. Bush appointee, is already on her way out. So is Sarah Bloom Raskin, who after a relatively short stint at the board is moving to the Treasury, to be Jack Lew’s Deputy Secretary. Then there’s the awkward suspicion that, if Obama passes up Fed Vice Chair Janet Yellen, by far the favorite for the top spot, she will also step down after a long career in the Federal Reserve system, including many years as head of the San Francisco Fed.

Forward!

The Bank of England will give the government its blueprint for “forward guidance” when it publishes its quarterly inflation report, a big moment in British policymaking.

Canadian Mark Carney, in his second month at the helm, was heralded in advance as the man to kick start a languishing economy but with green shoots sprouting all over the place that may not be needed. Nonetheless, if companies and households can be convinced interest rates will stay at record lows for a prolonged period, that could boost investment and spending and help solidify a recovery that now looks to be in train.

After the U.S. Federal Reserve indicated that it may soon start to phase out its bond purchases – two of its policymakers again pointed to September yesterday – the Bank of England made a first stab at forward guidance last month, saying a rise in UK market rates was misguided. Now it will be more precise.

St. Louis blues: Fed’s Bullard gets a sentence

Ellen Freilich contributed to this post

Talk about getting a word in edgewise. St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank President James Bullard got almost a full sentence in the central bank’s prized policy statement.

Some background: Bullard dissented at the Fed’s June meeting, arguing that, “to maintain credibility, the Committee must defend its inflation target when inflation is below target as well as when it is above target.” The latest inflation figures show the Fed’s preferred measure at 0.8 percent, less than half the central bank’s target.

Fast-forward to yesterday’s policy statement, which included the following new language:

U.S. GDP revisions, inflation slippage tighten Fed’s policy bind

Richard Leong contributed to this post

John Kenneth Galbraith apparently joked that economic forecasting was invented to make astrology look respectable. You were warned here first that it would be especially so in the case of the first snapshot (advanced reading) of U.S. second quarter gross domestic product from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Benchmark revisions to U.S. gross domestic product made for a bit of a mayhem for forecasters, who were way off the mark in predicting just 1 percent annualized growth when in fact the rate came it at 1.7 percent. Morgan Stanley had predicted a gain of just 0.2 percent.

Hours after the GDP release, Federal Reserve officials sent a more dovish signal than markets had expected, offering no hint that a reduction in the size of its bond-buying stimulus might be imminent. In particular, they flagged the risk to the recovery from higher mortgage rates as well as the potential for low inflation to pose deflationary risks.

Event risk

If you’re hankering after “event risk”, look no further. Europe can offer top central bank meetings, front line economic data, a debt auction and more political risk than you can shake a stick at today.

This could be almost a perfect storm of a day after the Federal Reserve said its bond-buying would continue unabated for now and gave no new firm steer as to when it might begin rowing back, although its choice of adjective to describe the pace of growth – modest rather than the previous moderate – could be a hint that it is in less hurry to taper.

Now, it’s the European Central Bank’s turn. Given its forecast for recovery in the second half of the year has some evidence behind it, an interest rate cut is unlikely. Instead, for the second month running, Mario Draghi may have to focus primarily on the backwash from the Fed.