MacroScope

Auto-pilot QE and the Federal Reserve’s taper dilemma

 It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

When the U.S. Federal Reserve launched its third round of quantitative easing, or QE3, it was hailed as an “open-ended” policy that would last as long as needed. Most important for investors, the pace of the bond buying – which started at a somewhat arbitrary $85 billion per month – would be “data dependent.” Especially throughout the spring, officials stressed they were serious about adjusting the dial on QE3 depending on changes in the labor market and broader economy. But as the unemployment rate dropped to 7.3 percent last month from 8.1 percent when the program was launched in September, 2012, the bond-buying has effectively been on auto-pilot for 14 straight months.

Now, some are wondering whether the decision not to at least tinker with the program has made the first so-called taper a bigger deal than it needed to be. “When you don’t react to small changes in the data with small changes in the policy then the markets tend to read more into it when you do change policy,” St. Louis Fed President James Bullard said last week after a speech in Arkansas. “It makes policy a little more rigid than it maybe should be.”

Bullard, who in June cited falling inflation when he dissented against a Fed policy decision to stand pat, continued:

“I’ve actually talked with my staff about this because we haven’t actually changed the policy. If it had been me I would have been more willing to change it meeting-to-meeting and be more responsive to incoming data. But there is a certain reluctance on the part of the committee to go there.”

U.S. economic data to be sure has been mixed this year: job growth has bounced around, inflation drifted lower, housing mostly continued to rebound, and fiscal policies grew tighter with higher taxes and lower government spending. But through all the fluctuation the $85-billion in purchases has held firm; it has almost become a new normal for investors so that any talk of adjusting it is met with sharp market sell-offs. Chairman Ben Bernanke learned that the hard way in May and June when he talked about the Fed’s general plan to trim QE3 later in the year as long as the economy continued to improve. In response, borrowing costs rose around the world and in the United States, causing tighter financial conditions that played a big roll in the Fed leaving the QE3 dial alone throughout the summer and autumn.

ECB rate cut takes markets by surprise – time to crack Draghi’s code


After today’s surprise ECB move it is safe to forget the code words former ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet never grew tired of using – monitoring closely, monitoring very closely, strong vigilance, rate hike. (No real code language ever emerged for rate cuts, probably because there were only a few and that was towards the end of Trichet’s term.)

His successor, Mario Draghi, has a different style, one he showcased already at his very first policy meeting, but no one believed to be the norm: He is pro-active and cuts without warning. Or at least that’s what it seems.

Today’s quarter-percentage point cut took markets and economists by surprise.

Can they kick it? Yes they can

Click here for suggested soundtrack to this blog 

During the recent round of financial crises, policymakers have done a whole lot of “kicking the can down the road”.

The latest is taking place in the United States where a fiscal stalemate between Republicans and Democrats has forced the first partial government shutdown in 17 years.  It has also raised concerns about a U.S. debt default, should the government not meet a deadline this week of raising the debt ceiling. That has kept short-term U.S. interest rates and the cost of insuring U.S. debt against default relatively elevated.

While markets remain convinced there will be a last-minute deal – because the consequences are far to dire for there not to be – their performance has ebbed and flowed with the mixed messages from Washington.

Why is the Reserve Bank of India so quiet on the rupee?

 

When nobody’s listening, sometimes it pays to shout from the rooftops.

Based on the rupee’s daily pasting, the Reserve Bank of India might do well to look to the European Central Bank’s strong verbal defense of the euro just over a year ago.

In July last year ECB President Mario Draghi declared he would do “whatever it takes” to safeguard the euro’s existence.

That unexpectedly candid comment, uttered at a moment of rising market tension, wasn’t followed by concrete policy action. But markets took heed.

Europe may still be ‘on path for a meltdown’: former Obama adviser Goolsbee

Reporting by Chris Kaufmann and Walden Siew

For all the enthusiasm about the euro zone’s exit from recession, many experts believe the currency union’s crisis is more dormant than over. That was certainly the message from Austan Goolsbee, former economic adviser to President Barack Obama and professor at the University of Chicago. He spoke to the Reuters Global Markets Forum this week.  

Here is a lightly edited excerpt of the discussion:

What is your biggest worry about the U.S. economy right now?

A nagging worry is that if we grow 2 percent, it’s going to be a hell of a long time before the unemployment rate comes down to something reasonable. The nightmare worry is that Europe is still basically on path for a meltdown and that it ignites another financial crisis.

In my view the root of the problem is that most of southern Europe is locked in at the wrong exchange rate and will not be able to grow. Normal economics says that with a currency union you can 1) have massive labor mobility, 2) subsidies, 3) differential inflation, 4) grind down wages in the low productivity countries. But those are the only four things.

Full blown damage control?

Call it the great wagon circling.

Central bankers are talking tough in the face of the wild gyrations in financial markets. But it’s becoming increasingly clear they are sweating – and drawing up contingency plans to assuage the panic that’s taken hold since Chairman Ben Bernanke last week sketched out the Fed’s plan for winding down its QE3 bond-buying program. U.S. policymakers in particular must have predicted investors would react strongly. But now that longer-term borrowing costs have spiked to near a two-year high, they look to be entering full-blown damage control.

Here’s Richard Fisher, head of the Dallas Fed, speaking to reporters in London on Monday:

I’m not surprised by market volatility – markets are manic depressive mechanisms… Collectively we will be tested. We need to expect a market reaction… Even if we reach a situation this year where we dial back (stimulus), we will still be running an accommodative policy.

SEC has power to ban high-frequency trading, congressman says

Not everyone agrees that using high-speed machines to trade stocks in less time than it takes the average person to blink is a bad thing, but the people who do might be heartened by the letter a congressman sent the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission on Friday.

Rep. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who has waged a decades-long struggle against computerized trading sent the SEC a hint: The power to curb high-frequency trading has been within its grasp all along.

In his letter, Markey described a law he co-sponsored in 1989 to increase the agency’s power to regulate computerized trading, a precursor to HFT that employed computer programs to make trading decisions without the participation of conscious humans. The law lets the SEC “limit practices which result in extraordinary levels of volatility,” according to Markey’s citation.

Election fever hits the markets

We’re not talking about the U.S. presidential vote, though that does cast another layer of uncertainty over the outlook. Rather, investors are focused on even shorter-horizon events, as evidenced by this jam-packed electoral worry list from Marc Chandler, currency strategist at Brown Brothers Harriman:

This weekend’s first round of the French presidential election kicks of the quarter that will include:

*   Greek national elections, where polls warn that the current coalition government may not be returned, increasing the uncertainty.

The going gets tougher for Italy and Spain

One trillion euros is a lot of money. And as we have previously noted on this blog it did a lot for stock markets early this year but not much for the real economy.

But recent bond auctions in the euro zone suggest the impact of two rounds of cheap 3-year ECB funding on the region’s struggling bond market may also be fading.

Italian three-year borrowing costs surged more than a full percentage point at an auction to 3.89 percent – its highest since mid-January.

When the euro shorts take off

Currency speculators boosted bets against the euro to a record high in the latest week of data (to end December 27) and built up the biggest long dollar position since mid-2010, according to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. Here — courtesy of Reuters’ graphics whiz Scott Barber, is what happens to the euro when shorts build up: