MacroScope

Inflation, not jobs, may hold key to Fed exit

It’s that time of the month again: Wall Street is anxiously awaiting the monthly employment figures – less because of its interest in job creation and more because of what the numbers will mean for the Federal Reserve’s unconventional stimulus policies.

As one money manager put it all too candidly: “Bad news is good news in this market lately because it keeps the Fed buying bonds and interest rates low.”

Given that the Fed is the closest thing the world has to a global central bank, what happens at the Federal Open Market Committee doesn’t often stay in the Federal Open Market Committee. Indeed, emerging markets have become increasingly volatile since Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said policymakers might curtail the pace of asset buys in coming months.

Everyone is focused on whether there has been substantial improvement in the labor market, the Fed’s stated pre-condition for abandoning QE3. However, something else has been happening to the other side of the central bank’s mandate: inflation has been falling steadily. Over the past 12 months, the Fed’s preferred inflation measure has slowed to just 0.7 percent, the smallest gain since October 2009 and well below the Fed’s 2 percent target.

Pablo Goldberg, global head of emerging markets research at HSBC securities, says this is really the primary factor economists should be watching:

Brazil’s capital controls and the law of unintended consequences

Brazilian economic policy is fast becoming a shining example of the law of unintended consequences. As activity fades and inflation picks up, the government has tried several different measures to fix the economy – and almost every time, it ended up creating surprise side-effects that made matters worse. Controls on gasoline prices tamed inflation, but opened a hole in the trade balance. Efforts to reduce electricity fares ended up curbing, not boosting, investment plans.

Perhaps that’s the case with yesterday’s surprise decision to scrap a key tax on foreign inflows into fixed-income investments. The so-called IOF tax was one of Brazil’s main defenses in its currency war, making local bonds less appealing to speculators and helping prevent an excessive appreciation of the real.

As the Federal Reserve started to discuss tapering off its massive bond-buying stimulus, investors began to flock back to the United States. So with less need to impose capital controls, Brazil thought it would be a good idea to open its doors again to hot money. Analysts overall also welcomed the move, announced by Finance Minister Guido Mantega in a quick press conference on Tuesday, in which he said that excessive volatility is “not good” for markets and that Brazil was headed to a period of “lesser” intervention in currency markets.

MacroScope presents: ask the economist

MacroScope is pleased to announce the launch of ‘Ask the Economist,’ which will give our readers an opportunity to directly ask questions of top experts in the field. We are honored that Michael Bryan, senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, has agreed to be our first guest. In his role, Bryan is responsible for organizing the Atlanta Fed’s monetary policy process. He was previously a vice president of research at the Cleveland Fed.

The process is simple. We give you a heads up on our upcoming featured economist. You tweet us your question using the hashtag #asktheeconomist, or via direct message if you prefer. We select a handful of the most interesting queries this week, ship them over to our economist du jour. She or he will then answer each one in writing and we will post their response as a blogpost. And of course, you’ll be cited for asking the pithy question.

We look forward to your questions and thank you in advance for participating.

Let the games begin.

The numbers don’t lie

Euro zone unemployment figures will emphasize just how far the currency bloc is from recovery while inflation data due at the same time could push the European Central Bank closer to new action. If price pressures drop further below the target of close to but below two percent we’re moving into territory where the ECB has a clear mandate to act, although the consensus forecast is for the rate to push up to 1.4 percent, from 1.2 in April.

Market attention is focused on the ECB cutting its deposit rate – the rate banks get for parking funds at the ECB – into negative territory to try and get them to lend. But will that do much? Despite being in a world awash with central bank money and stock markets in the ascendant, the fact that safe haven bond markets such as Bunds and U.S. Treasuries haven’t sold off much – and are now starting to climb after Ben Bernanke’s hint that the Federal Reserve could soon start slowing its money-printing programme — denotes ongoing nervousness among banks and investors. Data this week showed bank loans to the euro zone’s private sector contracted for the 12th month in a row in April.

Despite the (now waning?) European market euphoria – started by the ECB’s pledge to do whatever it takes to save the euro and given a further shot in the arm by Japan’s dash for growth – the economic numbers look grim. Euro zone unemployment is forecast to edge up to 12.2 percent of the workforce. Last night, official data showed French unemployment hit a new record. Germany is in better shape but even it will barely eke out any growth this year. Retail sales, just out, posted a 0.4 percent fall in April.

German ghost of inflations past haunting European stability: Posen

“Reality is sticky.” That was the core of Adam Posen’s message to German policymakers on their home turf, at a recent conference in Berlin.

What did the former UK Monetary Policy Committee member mean? Quite simply, that the types of structural economic changes that Germany has been pushing on the euro zone are not only destructive but also bound to fail, at least if history is any guide.

Posen, who now heads the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, argued Germany’s imposition of austerity on Europe’s battered periphery is the product of an instinctive but misguided fear of an inflation “ghost” that has haunted the country since the hyperinflationary spurt of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s and 1930s. However, Posen offers a convincing account of modern economic history that shows inflation episodes are rather rare events associated with major political and institutional meltdown — and not always around the corner.

Goal line on jobs still a long way off: former Fed economist Stockton

The Great Recession set the U.S. labor market so far back that there is still a long way to go before policymakers can claim victory and point to a true return to healthy conditions, a top former Fed economist said. The U.S. economy remains around 3 million jobs short of its pre-recession levels, and that’s without accounting for population growth.

“The goal line is still a long ways off,” David Stockton, former head of economic research at theU.S.central bank’s powerful Washington-based board, told an event sponsored by the Peterson Institute for International Economics. He sees the American economy improving this year, but believes the recovery will continue to have its ups and downs.

A lot of people have been quite excited about some of the recent strength in the labor market. It’s encouraging but I don’t think we’ve yet seen any clear break out and I don’t think we’re going to for a while.  […]

Don’t call it a target: The thing about nominal GDP

Ask top Federal Reserve officials about adopting a target for non-inflation adjusted growth, or nominal GDP, and they will generally wince. Proponents of the awkwardly-named NGDP-targeting approach say it would be a more powerful weapon than the central bank’s current approach in getting the U.S.economy out of a prolonged rut.

This is what Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke had to say when asked about it at a press conference in November 2011:

So the Fed’s mandate is, of course, a dual mandate. We have a mandate for both employment and for price stability, and we have a framework in place that allows us to communicate and to think about the two sides of that mandate. We talked today – or yesterday, actually – about nominal GDP as an indicator, as an information variable, as something to add to the list of variables that we think about, and it was a very interesting discussion. However, we think that within the existing framework that we have, which looks at both sides of the mandate, not just some combination of the two, we can communicate whatever we need to communicate about future monetary policy. So we are not contemplating at this date, at this time, any radical change in framework. We are going to stay within the dual mandate approach that we’ve been using until this point.

Investors call for interest rate hike in Brazil

Two analyses published this week highlight how alarmed investors are about inflation in Brazil.

In the first, published on Wednesday following a poll on global stock markets, equity investors say an interest rate hike wouldn’t be a bad idea – a paradox, since stocks usually drop when borrowing costs rise. Are they keen to move to bonds? Not really; their argument is that an interest rate hike could assuage inflation fears after eight consecutive months of above-forecast price rises. A rate hike could also reduce concerns of economic mismanagement after several government attempts to intervene in key sectors such as banking and power generation.

The central bank signalled it could act later this year, but would rather wait because the recent inflation surge could be just temporary. Bond investors disagree, according to a separate analysis published today. In their view, inflation will remain above the 4.5 percent target mid-point through at least 2018, raising uncertainty about long-term investments needed to bridge the gap between Brazil’s booming demand and its clogged roads and ports.

Rip-off Britain on the line

For all the talk about imported inflation in the UK as policymakers talk down the pound and financial markets merrily give it a good beating, here’s a stark reminder that a lot of British inflation remains home-grown.

British inflation has been so sticky over the past decade that regular Bank of England pronouncements that it will come back down from wherever it is to the 2 percent target at the 2-year horizon has become something of a policy piñata in financial markets. And there is rampant speculation the government will soon modify that inflation target.

But it’s no joke to British consumers, whose wages have stagnated for years and with a plunging currency in their pocket that is down more than 8 percent so far this year. They’ve been much more frugal with their spending, and as a result the economy is on its back.

Quickening Brazil inflation tops forecasts for 8 straight months

Brazil inflation jumped above expectations in February, despite a steep cut in electricity rates. It was not the first time, though; inflation has been running higher than consensus forecasts since July, considering the market view one month before the data release:

 

 

The total gap between market consensus and the actual inflation figures amounts to 1.19 percentage point – about one quarter of the inflation rate reported. Reuters polls conducted a few days before the official numbers come out have also proved wrong since July, with a total error of 0.37 point.

Why is that? Part of the difference was due to an unexpected jump in food inflation. But another part has to do with the mix of strong demand and weak supply that has dragged down the Brazilian economy over the past two years.