MacroScope

Curious timing for Fed self-doubt on monetary policy

If there was ever a time to be worried about whether the Federal Reserve’s bond-buying stimulus is having a positive effect on the economy, the last few months were probably not it. Everyone expected government spending cuts and tax increases to push the economic recovery off the proverbial cliff, while the outlook for overseas economies has very quickly gone from rosy to flashing red. But the American expansion has remained the fastest-moving among industrialized laggards, with second quarter gross domestic product revised up sharply to 2.5 percent.

Yet for some reason, at the highest levels of the U.S. central bank and in its most dovish nooks, the notion that asset purchases might not be having as great an impact as previously thought has become pervasive.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s 2012 Jackson Hole speech, made just a month before the Fed launched a third round of monetary easing, made a strong, detailed case for how well the policy was working.

Model simulations conducted at the Federal Reserve generally find that the securities purchase programs have provided significant help for the economy. For example, a study using the Board’s FRB/US model of the economy found that, as of 2012, the first two rounds of LSAPs may have raised the level of output by almost 3 percent and increased private payroll employment by more than 2 million jobs, relative to what otherwise would have occurred.

Contrast that with the far meeker findings of a recent San Francisco Fed analysis of the impact of the second round of asset buys:

A Marshall Plan for Greece

The spectacular failure of “expansionary austerity” policies has set Greece on a path worse than the Great Depression, according to a study from the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College.

Using their newly-constructed macroeconomic model for Greece, the Levy scholars recommend a recovery strategy similar to the Marshall Plan to increase public consumption and investment.

“A Marshall-type recovery plan directed at public consumption and investment is realistic and has worked in the past,” the authors of the report said.

Loose lips sink ships? Fed’s latest transparency sows confusion, says Mizuho’s Ricchiuto

The complexity of non-traditional monetary policy is hard enough to explain to other economists and policymakers. Market participants prefer sound bites, opines Steven Ricchiuto, chief economist at Mizuho Securities USA in a note. As such, the more the Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke tries to explain the Federal Open Market Committee’s position on tapering and policy accommodation the more he confuses the message, Ricchiuto says.

The problem is fundamental to the nature of monetary policy. According to the Chairman, monetary policy accommodation is adjusted through the Fed Funds rate. Quantitative Easing (QE) is a separate policy. Yet he has also said that tapering is simply reducing accommodation, not tightening. These pronouncements work at cross purposes and ignore how the markets read policy. For the markets, QE is an extension of policy into non-traditional tools. Therefore, tapering is tightening. There is no such thing as reducing accommodation for market participants.

For the FOMC, it is the stock of bonds that have been purchased that defines policy, Ricchiuto says. Essentially, if the Fed stops buying Treasury and mortgage-backed securities but the Fed’s System Open Market Account (SOMA) doesn’t sell any, then policy is unchanged. This implies that long-term rates should remain unchanged.

Greek bond rebound masks stark economic reality

Ten-year Greek government bond yields tumbled to their lowest in nearly three years one day after Fitch upgraded the country’s sovereign credit ratings.

Borrowing costs fell to 8.21 percent – the lowest since June 2010, just after Greece received a bailout from the International Monetary Fund and European Union. The difference between 10- and 30-year yields was also at its least negative since that time.

The move comes after Fitch Ratings raised Greece to B-minus from CCC citing a rebalancing of the economy and progress in eliminating its fiscal and current account deficits that have reduced the risk of a euro zone exit.

Spanish downgrade threat averted, but for how long?

Moody’s refrained from cutting Spain’s sovereign rating to junk territory last week, easing immediate fears that Spanish bonds could become vulnerable to forced selling if they fell out of benchmark indices, tracked by bond funds, as a result of the grade reduction.

But that risk still looms large.

Moody’s kept Spain’s rating at Baa3 but assigned it a negative outlook, saying ”the risks to its baseline scenario are high and skewed to the downside.” It said it believed the combination of euro area and European Central Bank support, along with the Spanish government’s own efforts, should allow the government to maintain access to capital markets at reasonable rates.

But should certain factors lead the rating agency “to conclude that the Spanish government had either lost, or was very likely to lose, access to private markets, then Moody’s would most likely implement a downgrade, potentially of multiple notches.”

Ambling through the archives: Don’t blame the deficit, 1983 edition

The battle over the amount and nature of government spending is the focus of the current U.S.presidential campaign and is unlikely to go away even after the November election is well in the rear view mirror.

In such a setting, a paper presented by economist Albert M. Wojnilower at the October 1983 Bald Peak Conference sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, sounds as timely today as it did then. Wojnilower, then chief economist at First Boston, prepared his “Don’t Blame the Deficit” talk as a commentary on “Implications of the Government Deficit for U.S. Capital Formation,” a paper by Benjamin M. Friedman, a professor of political economy at Harvard.

Here is the jist of Wojnilower’s argument, made almost three decades ago when the Ronald Reagan presidency was almost three years old: If the United States is under-investing, the “villain” is not the Federal budget deficit, he said.

Who would benefit from floating-rate Treasury notes?

The U.S. Treasury Department announced on Wednesday it would begin issuing floating rate notes (FRNs), even if such a new program is at least a year away from implementation. The rationale behind these short-term securities is to give investors protection against the possibility of a sudden spike in interest rates. The Federal Reserve has held overnight rates near zero since late 2008, helping to anchor borrowing costs of all maturities.

But is issuing variable rate securities really a good idea from the taxpayers’ standpoint? Stephen Stanley, chief economist at Pierpoint Securities, thinks not. He believes Treasury officials are getting played by sell- and buy-side investors and their respective vested interests. The Treasury has made the decision in part due to the recommendations of the Treasury Advisory Borrowing Committee (TBAC), made up exclusively of members of the financial industry.

Argues Stanley:

Sell-side participants love it because FRNs represent a new product to trade and one that will be much less liquid and thus may exhibit juicy bid-ask spreads. Buy-side participants love FRNs because they are starving for yield at the short end and FRNs will undoubtedly yield noticeably more than comparable conventional securities.

NYC Mayor Bloomberg: Highly-indebted U.S. could go the way of Europe

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg slammed the federal government for following the same fiscal path that has cost European governments so dearly, perhaps offering Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney hints about what policies he would like to see from them to win his endorsement as a moderate independent. Bloomberg’s seal of approval carries added weight because he is a billionaire businessman with close ties to Wall Street, a source of donations as well as a powerful force in the economy.

I think it is clear that we have a deficit problem that is going to hurt this country dramatically and unless we do something about it is a cloud on the horizon. It doesn’t mean America is going to go to zero… But I think if you take a look at Europe and other places and it shows you when you live above your means –  It’s different than the city, the deficits we project are aspirational deficits, in the end we balance our budgets, the federal government does not.

The city by law must close any deficits. In contrast, the U.S. government can borrow to fund its operations – and at very low rates in recent years.

Resolving Shirakawa’s conundrum

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The governor of the Bank of Japan, Masaaki Shirakawa, says he is confounded by the still very low level of Japanese government bond yields given the country’s elevated debt to GDP ratio of over 200 percent. Speaking on an IMF panel over the weekend, he offered a rather unintuitive explanation for the phenomenon:

It seems difficult to explain the case of Japan in light of conventional wisdom. One frequently offered explanation is that the ample domestic savings in Japan have absorbed the issuance of JGBs and the share of JGBs held by foreign investors is very small. But a more fundamental explanation is that the stability in the current bond yields reflects market participants’ expectations that fiscal soundness will be restored through structural reforms imposed in the economic and fiscal areas.

Most economists think Japanese yields are low because of continued expectations for deflation and weak economic growth. But for Shirakawa, it seems, it is public confidence in future fiscal restraint that is keeping bond yields low. Except he then contradicts this point by saying weak confidence in future fiscal reforms is also simultaneously undermining consumer spending:

Eurobonds key to financial stability: Nobel economist

There’s no other way. In order for Europe to hold together as a monetary union it must be able to issue a currency region-wide bond. That’s according to Christopher Sims, Nobel-prize winning economist and Princeton University professor, speaking on a panel at the IMF over the weekend:

My view is that the only way to preserve the usual manner of operation of monetary policy in Europe, and the usual operation of financial institutions is to deliver on the Eurobond, and not after years but soon. A Eurobond that could be used as the main instrument of monetary policy in Europe would go a long way to stabilizing the financial system.

This explains why Europe is in trouble while other industrialized nations that also face high debt levels are not seeing anywhere near the same market pressures, Sims said: