MacroScope

Is Congress the ‘enabler’ of a loose Fed?

We heard it more than once at today’s hearing of the Joint Economic Committee featuring Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke: the central bank’s low interest rate policies are allowing Congress to delay tough decisions on long-term spending.

As U.S. senator Dan Coats asked pointedly: “Is the Fed being an enabler for an addiction Congress can’t overcome?”

Yet, if you read the subtext of Bernanke’s testimony closely, it may actually be Congress that is enabling a loose Federal Reserve.

That’s because it is the very fiscal tightening mandated by Congressional inaction that is forcing the Fed to continue stimulating growth. Chicago Fed President Charles Evans said on Tuesday the economy could be expanding as quickly as 3.5 percent were it not for the fiscal drag from Washington.

Bernanke echoed that sentiment in his testimony on Wednesday:

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the deficit reduction policies in current law will slow the pace of real GDP growth by about 1-1/2 percentage points during 2013, relative to what it would have been otherwise. In present circumstances, with short-term interest rates already close to zero, monetary policy does not have the capacity to fully offset an economic headwind of this magnitude.

What to expect from Bernanke testimony and Fed minutes this week

Financial markets this will be keenly focused on congressional testimony from Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and minutes from the central bank’s April 30-May 1 meeting, particularly given a thin data calendar. The latter may be the more interesting one, since it will offer hints into how far Fed officials are leaning in a direction of curbing the pace of its bond-buying stimulus, potentially late this summer.

The economic backdrop has been just mixed enough to leave policymakers cautious about taking their foot off the gas. Still, if we get a few more months of strength in the labor market, Fed officials may just be able to say “substantial progress” has been made in the outlook for the labor market – their stated precondition for an end to asset buys.

Still, Harm Bandholz at Unicredit says markets should not confuse a debate about tapering bond buys with some immediate reversal of the Fed’s policy of ultra low rates.

Kocherlakota on Fed stimulus: Don’t stop ‘til you get enough

Ann Saphir contributed to this post

Minneapolis Federal Reserve President Narayana Kocherlakota has gone from being one of the U.S. central bank’s more hawkish characters to arguably its most dovish. In line with this transformation, Kocherlakota told a conference sponsored by the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business that the Fed, despite its extensive bond-buying over the last few years, has not done enough to spur growth.

The FOMC has responded to this challenge by providing a historically unprecedented amount of monetary accommodation. But the outlook for prices and employment is that they will remain too low over the next two to three years relative to the FOMC’s objectives. Despite its actions, the FOMC has still not lowered the real interest rate sufficiently in light of the changes in asset demand and asset supply that I’ve described.

To get a sense of what he means, see the graphs below: U.S. inflation continues to undershoot the Fed’s 2 percent target, and is actually drifting lower, while unemployment, though down from crisis peaks, remains stubbornly high.

SF Fed’s Williams in the driver’s seat

In the barrage of Federal Reserve speakers making the rounds on Thursday, it is notable that San Francisco Fed President John Williams was the one that managed to move markets, allowing the dollar to recover losses. Why did his voice rise above the din? For one thing, he’s seen as a dovish-leaning centrist whose views closely resemble the Bernanke-Yellen core of the central bank.

Plus, he took the oft-abused economy-car analogy in a, er, new direction:

If we were in a car, you might say we’re motoring along, but well under the speed limit. The fact that we’re cruising at a moderate speed instead of still stuck in the ditch is due in part to the Federal Reserve’s unprecedented efforts to keep interest rates low. We may not be getting there as fast as we’d like, but we’re definitely moving in the right direction.

Pigeonholing Fed hawks

Richard Fisher, the Dallas Fed’s outspoken president, is happy to be labeled a monetary policy hawk. After all, he sometimes quips, “doves are part of the pigeon family.” That may be so. But thus far, the doves have had the upper hand in the policy debate – and the economic data appear to bear them out.

Fed hawks like Fisher have warned that the U.S. central bank’s prolonged policy of low interest rates and asset purchases risks a future spike in inflation. Yet despite the Fed’s aggressive efforts, inflation is actually drifting lower, not higher, suggesting there is something to the dovish notion that there is still ample slack in the U.S. economy following a lackluster recovery from the historic slump of 2007-2009.

Regional Fed hawks tend to argue that the Fed should not overreach in its efforts to bring down unemployment because the only thing it can really control in the long-run is inflation. Says Jeffrey Lacker, president of the Richmond Fed:

Not again, please! Brazil and India more vulnerable now to another crisis

After bad economic news from Germany, China and the United States over the past few weeks, here are two more. Brazil and India, two of the world’s largest emerging economies, are increasingly vulnerable to another crisis or to the eventual end of the ultra-loose monetary policies in developed economies after five years of a severe global slowdown.

Weak demand for Brazil’s exports and the voracious appetite of local consumers for imported goods widened the country’s current account deficit to 2.93 percent of GDP in the 12 months through March, the widest gap in nearly eleven years. In dollar terms, that amounts to $67 billion.

To help fund this gap, Brazil could at first loosen the currency controls adopted in the past few years and let more dollars in. But if the dollar flows change too swiftly, Brazil would find itself with three other options: curb spending by growing less, allow a decline in the foreign exchange rate at the risk of fueling inflation, or burn part of its international reserves – which are large, at $377 billion, but not infinite.

Want to know what the ECB is going to do? Watch the German PMI

A sudden turn for the worse across German companies should clinch an interest rate cut from the European Central Bank next week, or in June at the latest.

That’s because the latest PMI surveys, which have a decent correlation with economic growth, suggest the German economy  shifted back into reverse this month, against the expectations of economists.

And the one thing the ECB’s Governing Council never allows to pass is any sign that Germany, Europe’s No.1 economy, is floundering.

Currency peace: G20 gives BOJ a pass for deflation fight

All the talk of currency wars is mostly just that – talk. This week’s meeting of the Group of 20 nations at the International Monetary Fund was living proof. Despite speculation that emerging nations would redouble their criticism of extraordinarily low rates in advanced economies, the G20 ended up largely supporting the Bank of Japan’s new and bold stimulus efforts aimed at combating years of deflation.

Mr. currency wars himself, Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega, told reporters Japan’s monetary drive was understandable given its struggle with falling prices and stagnant wages, even if he called for close monitoring of its potential spillover effects.

Outgoing Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney said Japan’s action is consistent with the G20 communiqué that called for countries to refrain from competitive devaluation. Carney, the head of the G20′s Financial Stability Board, takes over the Bank of England in July. His comments echo recent remarks from Fed Vice Chair Janet Yellen.

Baby it’s cold outside: monetary policy as outer wear

Discussions about central banking are often belabored by analogies to moving vehicles, which make some sense given that interest rate policy can act both as accelerator and brake on economic activity. Perhaps tired of being in the driver’s seat, Minnesota Fed President Narayana Kocherlakota decide to switch gears and talk about clothing instead.

In an attempt to illustrate that interest rates are low because of economic conditions, not the whim of policymakers, Kocherlakota compares monetary policy to a protective jacket that needs to be worn when the weather gets rough but can slowly be removed as the summer approaches.

Why have real interest rates fallen so much? At one level, the answer is obvious: monetary policy. The FOMC has announced its intention to keep the fed funds rate near zero at least until the unemployment rate falls below 6.5 percent. At the same time, the FOMC has bought over $3 trillion of longer-term assets issued or backed by the government. With inflationary expectations well anchored, these actions are designed to push downward on real interest rates and have been successful in doing so.

Central bank independence is a bit like marriage: Israel’s Fischer

For Bank of Israel governor Stanley Fischer, this week’s high-powered macroeconomics conference at the International Monetary Fund was a homecoming of sorts. After all, he was the IMF’s first deputy managing director from 1994 to 2001. The familiar nature of his surroundings may have helped inspire Fischer to use a household analogy to describe the vaunted but often ethereal principle of central bank independence.

Fischer, a vice chairman at Citigroup between 2002 and 2005, sought to answer a question posed by conference organizers: If central banks are in charge of monetary policy, financial supervision and macroprudential policy, should we rethink central bank independence?  His take: “The answer is yes.”

In particular, the veteran policymaker, who advised Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke on his PhD thesis at MIT, argued various degrees of independence should be afforded to different functions within a central bank.