MacroScope

Just when you thought it was safe to get back in the water…

A worrying weekend for the euro zone.

Greece’s coalition government – the guarantor of the country’s bailout deal with its EU and IMF lenders – is down to a wafer-thin, three-seat majority in parliament after the Democratic Left walked out in protest at the shutdown of state broadcaster ERT.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras insists his New Democracy can govern more effectively with just one partner – socialist PASOK – but the numbers look dicey, although it’s possible some independent lawmakers and even the Democratic Left could lend support on an ad hoc basis.

Samaras has ruled out early elections and says the bailout – without which default looms – will stay on track. If the government fell and elections were forced, the likely beneficiaries would include the anti-bailout leftist Syriza party which, if it got into government or formed part of one, really would upset the applecart.

Just as alarming was the failure of EU finance ministers – after talks that went through the night well into Saturday – to agree how the bill for future bank failures should be paid. There were problems with those countries outside the euro zone as to how they should fit into the mechanism. But the disagreement was chiefly between France and Germany, principally on how much leeway countries should have to impose losses on bondholders and/or large depositors.

As one would expect, Berlin wants minimal wiggle room is order to spare the currency bloc’s taxpayers in future, Paris significantly more. A fresh attempt will be made by the ministers on Wednesday in an attempt to clear it up before their leaders meet on Thursday.

In his own words: Fed’s Bullard explains dovish dissent

The following is a statement from the St. Louis Fed following the decision by its president, James Bullard, to dissent from the U.S. central bank’s decision to signal a looming reduction in its bond-buying stimulus program:

Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis President James Bullard dissented with the Federal Open Market Committee decision announced on June 19, 2013.  In his view, the Committee should have more strongly signaled its willingness to defend its inflation target of 2 percent in light of recent low inflation readings.  Inflation in the U.S. has surprised on the downside during 2013.  Measured as the percent change from one year earlier, the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) headline inflation rate is running below 1 percent, and the PCE core inflation rate is close to 1 percent.  President Bullard believes that to maintain credibility, the Committee must defend its inflation target when inflation is below target as well as when it is above target.

President Bullard also felt that the Committee’s decision to authorize the Chairman to lay out a more elaborate plan for reducing the pace of asset purchases was inappropriately timed.  The Committee was, through the Summary of Economic Projections process, marking down its assessment of both real GDP growth and inflation for 2013, and yet simultaneously announcing that less accommodative policy may be in store.  President Bullard felt that a more prudent approach would be to wait for more tangible signs that the economy was strengthening and that inflation was on a path to return toward target before making such an announcement.

Bernanke’s seven-percent solution

 

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has a problem: how to wean markets from dependence on central bank stimulus. On Wednesday Bernanke did what some of his most dovish colleagues have urged for months. He laid out a clear path for how and when the Fed will bring its third round of bond-buying to a close.

It doesn’t take a master detective to figure out his solution – 7 percent.

“If the incoming data are broadly consistent with this forecast, the committee currently anticipates that it will be appropriate to moderate the monthly pace of purchases later this year, and if the subsequent data remain broadly aligned with our current expectations for the economy, we will continue to reduce the pace of purchases in measured steps through the first half of next year, ending purchases around mid-year,” Bernanke said in a press conference following the Fed’s two-day policy-setting meeting.

“In this scenario, when asset purchases ultimately come to an end, the unemployment rate would likely be in the vicinity of 7 percent, with solid economic growth supporting further job gains.”

The new reality

The Federal Reserve has spoken and the message seems pretty clear – unless the U.S. economy takes a turn for the worse the pace of money creation will be slowed before the year is out and it will be stopped by mid-2014.

That’s a fairly tight time frame, although interest rates won’t rise for some time after that, and it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see a further bout of market volatility is likely, centred again on emerging markets which could suffer big portfolio investment outflows as U.S. bond yields climb.

The markets certainly don’t seem confused, just alarmed. The German Bund future has plummeted by nearly a point and a half to its lowest point since February, mirroring the spike in U.S. Treasury yields. European stocks shed 1.5 percent at the start.

Why low inflation may not prevent the Fed from reducing QE

Everybody knows U.S. unemployment, currently at 7.6%, is still too high – especially the millions of Americans struggling to find work. Less widely acknowledged is a recent dip in inflation that puts it well below the Federal Reserve’s 2 percent target. Indeed, at 0.7 percent in April, the Fed’s preferred inflation measure was less than half of the central bank’s explicitly stated goal. So why are Fed officials, gathered in Washington for their latest policy decision today, discussing a pullback in stimulus rather than an increase in it?

According to some economists, it’s because policymakers believe the recent decline in inflation will be transitory and that the rate will gradually move back up toward target as growth picks up during the rest of this year and in 2014. Yesterday’s report on consumer prices corroborated that prospect for some analysts.

Paul Ashworth, chief US economist at Capital Economics, wrote:

The low level of headline inflation largely reflects the drop back in commodity prices over the past 12 months, with even the low core rate partly explained by the indirect impact of those lower commodity prices. Under those circumstances, we wouldn’t expect the Fed to put too much weight on inflation being below its target. Once commodity prices level out, the downward pressure on consumer goods prices will begin to ease. In other words, this won’t prevent the Fed from beginning to reduce its monthly asset purchases, probably beginning in September.

Back to banking union

The G8 produced little heat or light on the state of the world economy but if there was one clarion call it was for the euro zone to get on with forming a banking union – the last major initiative needed to draw a line under the euro zone debt crisis.

With the European Central Bank effectively underwriting the bloc’s governments with its bond-buying pledge, a cross-border mechanism to recapitalise or wind up failing banks would do the same for the financial sector.

The trouble is, not unreasonably, Berlin does not want to fall liable for the failure of a bank in a weaker country. Instead, it is pressing for a “resolution board” involving national authorities to take decisions on winding up failed banks, which sounds like the onus would remain on governments to sort out their own banks rather than pooling risk which would convince investors that a proper backstop was in place.

The chairman’s challenge: Bernanke says ‘taper,’ markets hear ‘tighten’

For a central bank that likes to tout the importance of clear communication, the Federal Reserve sure knows how to be obtuse when it wants to. Take Bernanke’s testimony before the Joint Economic Committee of Congress last month. His prepared remarks were reliably dovish, emphasizing weakness in the labor market and offering no hint of an imminent end to the current stimulus program, which involves the monthly purchase of $85 billion in assets.

It was during the question and answer session that the real fireworks came. Asked about the prospect for curtailing such bond buys, Bernanke said:

If we see continued improvement and we have confidence that that’s going to be sustained then we could in the next few meetings … take a step down in our pace of purchases. If we do that it would not mean that we are automatically aiming towards a complete wind down. Rather we would be looking beyond that to see how the economy evolves and we could either raise or lower our pace of purchases going forward.

What’s a Fed to do? Taper talk persists despite missed jobs, inflation targets

As the Federal Reserve meets this week, unemployment is still too high and inflation remains, well, too low. That makes some investors wonder why policymakers are talking about curtailing their asset-buying stimulus plan. True, job growth has averaged a solid 172,000 net new positions per month over the last year, going at least some way to meeting the Fed’s criteria of substantial improvement for halting bond purchases.

So, either policymakers see brighter skies ahead or they want to get out of QE3 for other reasons they may rather not air too publicly: worries about efficacy or possible financial market bubbles.

“I don’t think the data dependent emphasis is the only ball the Fed is focusing on when mulling over the pace and extent of asset purchases,” says Thomas Lam, chief economist at OSK-DSG.

“This was really eye-opening for me”: Fed’s Raskin shocked at low quality of work at local job fair

The first portion of Federal Reserve Governor Sarah Bloom Raskin’s remarks to the Roosevelt Institute earlier this month were pretty standard central bank fodder. Raskin, on the dovish side of Fed monetary leanings, said U.S. unemployment was still too high, and far more progress was needed in bringing a somnolent job market back to life.

But the second half of her comments offered an unusually personal look at one Fed official’s dismay with the country’s economic situation. Stumbling into a job fair near her house, Raskin was stunned by the generally low quality of positions available. In her own words:

I became interested in this question of quality somewhat by accident. I did something atypical one day. I decided on my way into work I would stop at a jobs fair. There was a jobs fair at a local community college close to my home and I thought, I’m going to, you know, instead of pounding through all this heavy data that we typically look at at the board of governors, let me just go into this job fair. It turned out to be a really interesting morning, I have to say.

G8 — plenty to worry about

The week kicks off with a G8 leaders’ summit in Northern Ireland. Syria will dominate the gathering and the British agenda on tax avoidance is likely to be long on rhetoric, short on binding specifics.

But for the economics file, this meeting could still yield big news. For a start, Japanese prime minister Abe is there – the man who has launched one of the most aggressive stimulus drives in history yet has already seen the yen climb back to the level it held before he started.

The financial backdrop could hardly be more volatile with emerging markets selling off dramatically since the Federal Reserve warned the pace of its dollar creation could be slowed.