MacroScope

Will the Fed adopt thresholds for bond buys?

Tim Ahmann contributed to this post

Suddenly top Wall Street firms are talking about the possibility that the Fed might adopt numerical thresholds for asset purchases, in the same way it has done with interest rates more broadly.

Writes Mike Feroli, chief economist at JP Morgan and a former NY Fed staffer:

Perhaps the most interesting element of Fed policy at the current juncture is how they communicate the conditions that will lead to a slowing or a halt in asset purchases. The speed with which the Committee produced the numerical threshold rate guidance is a reminder that the Bernanke Fed can get their homework done early, but even so we do not look for any news on this front next week.

First, the discussion of this topic is still in its infancy; even the numerical threshold guidance took a few months of debate to finalize. Second, since the introduction of the Chairman’s press conference the FOMC has shown a strong preference to make big decisions – and ones potentially subject to public misunderstanding – at meetings associated with a press conference. There is no press conference scheduled for next week’s meeting. Third, given the complicated task of quantifying the costs of balance sheet expansion, it’s not even certain the Fed will ever communicate the economic conditions that would slow or stop their asset purchases.

What does Bernanke have to say about it? Here’s what he told us (or didn’t tell us) during his last press conference in December:

The goals of the FOMC’s asset purchases and of its federal funds rate guidance are somewhat different.  The goal of the asset purchase program is to increase the near-term momentum of the economy by fostering more-accommodative financial conditions, while the purpose of the rate guidance is to provide information about the future circumstances under which the Committee would contemplate reducing accommodation. [...]

from The Great Debate:

Stubborn national politics drag down the global economy

Four years ago world leaders, meeting in the G20 crisis session, agreed they would all work to move from recession to growth and prosperity.  They agreed to a global growth compact to be delivered by combining national growth targets with coordinated global interventions. It didn’t happen. After the $1 trillion stimulus of 2009, fiscal consolidation became the established order of the day, and so year after year millions have continued to endure unemployment and lower living standards.

Only now are there signs that the long-overdue shift in national macro-economic policies may be taking place. The new Japanese government is backing up a "minimum inflation target" with a multi-billion-dollar stimulus designed to create 600,000 jobs. In what some call the “reverse Volcker moment,” Ben Bernanke has become the first head of a central bank for decades to announce he will target a 6 percent level of unemployment alongside his inflation objective. And the new governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has told us that "when policy rates are stuck at the zero lower bound, there could not be a more favorable case for Nominal GDP targeting.” Side by side with this shift in policy, in every area but the Euro, there is also policy progress in China. It may look from the outside as if November’s Communist Party Congress simply re-announced their all-too-familiar but undelivered wish to re-balance the economy from exports to domestic consumption, but this time the promise has been accompanied by a time-specific commitment: to double average domestic income per head by 2020.

The intellectual case for change is obvious. A chronic shortage of demand has developed for two reasons. First, as the IMF announced at the end of 2012, the adverse impact of fiscal consolidation on employment and demand has been greater than many people expected. Secondly, the effectiveness of quantitative easing has almost certainly started to wane. As former BBC chief Gavyn Davies has put it, “the supply potential of the economy is in danger of becoming dependent on, or ‘endogenous to,’ the weakness of domestic demand. ...With demand constrained in this way for such a lengthy period of time, supply potential is beginning to downsize to fit the low level of demand.” It is a new equilibrium that can be reversed only by boosting demand.

Time already to switch off the sterling printing presses?

A clutch of top UK economic forecasters on Thursday swept under the rug predictions for another 50 billion pounds of gilt purchases they thought would take place starting just in a few weeks.

News that the UK economy bolted ahead at a 1.0 percent quarterly pace in the three months to September – nearly double the consensus prediction in the Reuters Poll and easily more than twice the last measured growth rate in the United States – was probably a good enough reason on the surface.

But most agree the main reason was an extra work day compared with the prior quarter – when the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations left vast swathes of the country idle – along with a spending boost from accounting for tickets for the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Why QE3 isn’t just for the 1 percent

During a Q&A at the Brookings Institution last week, former Fed Vice Chairman Donald Kohn asked new board member Jeremy Stein, formerly a Harvard professor, about the impression that the Fed’s quantitative easing was only helping wealthy people who benefit most from rising stocks.

“How do you deal with this sense that the effects of policy aren’t being equitably felt in all parts of society,” asked Kohn, who worked at the Fed for four decades before stepping down in 2010, and is now a Brookings Fellow.

Stein, who joined the Fed’s influential Washington-based board in May as a governor, suggested this was not an entirely fair accusation given the wide-ranging effects of the policy. Here’s how he explained it:

Don’t call it a target: Fed buys wiggle room with qualitative goals

U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke listens to a question as he addresses U.S. monetary policy with reporters at the Federal Reserve in Washington September 13, 2012. REUTERS-Jonathan Ernst

In a historic shift in the way the Federal Reserve conducts monetary policy, the U.S. central bank last week announced an open-ended quantitative easing program where it has committed to continue buying assets until the country’s employment outlook improves substantially. Bank of America-Merrill Lynch credit analysts captured Wall Street’s reaction:

With an open-ended QE program to buy agency mortgages, and an extremely dovish statement, the Fed managed to provide a positive surprise for a market that was expecting a lot.

The new plan is really not that different from adopting a defacto growth target. Still, given the lack of complete consensus on the matter within the Fed, its Chairman Ben Bernanke was forced to stick with words rather than numbers to convey his message of central bank commitment. From the Federal Open Market Committee Statement:

More Fed QE: done deal or Pavlovian response?

“Will he or won’t he?” That’s what investors, traders and policy-watchers in the financial markets are pondering, frozen at their terminals waiting to find out if Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke will persuade his colleagues to print more money this week.

Among economists who work for primary bond dealers, the firms who sell government bonds directly to the Fed, there’s a striking conviction rate that he will, 68 percent, according to the latest Reuters Poll of probabilities.

The wider forecasting community isn’t far behind, at 65 percent.

While that kind of probability is more than enough to make people paid handsomely to take huge bets with other people’s money to confidently say something is a done deal, the real policy decision is probably a lot closer.

Four reasons the Fed could buy mortgages

The U.S. Federal Reserve will probably focus on buying mortgage bonds if it decides to launch a third round of quantitative easing or QE3 at its September meeting, says Columbia Management’s senior interest rate strategist Zach Pandl, until recently an economist at Goldman Sachs.
1. Since the second phase of Operation Twist just got underway, “it would be strange to announce outright purchases of Treasury securities.” 2. Fed officials have publicly noted that continued purchases of long-term Treasury securities “might compromise the functioning of the Treasury market — and undermine the intended effects of the policy.” 3. San Francisco Fed President John Williams “directly advocated” mortgage purchases and Fed Vice Chair Janet Yellen has said that “beyond the Twist extension, ‘it’s more likely that [the FOMC] would do things that would take a different form.’” 4. “Purchases of mortgage-backed securities may be considered less controversial than Treasury bond purchases amidst the charged political environment, just prior to the presidential election.”

Surprise plunge in bond yield forecasts may spell more trouble ahead

By Rahul Karunakar

The spread between 2- and 10-year U.S. Treasury yields will shrink to 180 basis points in a year according to the latest Reuters bonds poll – the narrowest margin since August 2008, the month before Lehman Brothers collapsed.

Historically, that spread has been a key indication of what investors and traders are thinking about the economy’s prospects: the narrower it gets, certainly with short-term rates already at rock bottom, the darker the outlook.

It wasn’t looking particularly good in August 2008, and of course we all know what happened the following month: the start of an epic financial and economic crisis the world is still struggling to shake off.

BoEasing

The Bank of England is finally catching a break. With Britain’s economy officially in recession, the BoE had been constrained from further monetary easing by a stubbornly high inflation rate. But as the global economy stumbles and Europe’s crisis rages unabated, UK price pressures may be giving way.

Barclays economist Chris Crowe argues:

We expect the MPC to announce an additional £50bn in QE at the July policy meeting.

CPI inflation fell to 2.8% y/y in May (Barclays 3.1%, consensus 3.0%) from 3.0% in April. Meanwhile, RPI inflation declined to 3.1% y/y (Barclays and consensus 3.3%), from 3.5%. With near-term inflationary pressures easing, the case for additional QE in response to faltering confidence is stronger.

Forecasting gymnastics on the BoE’s printing presses

The fluctuating fortunes of the British economy in the last year have left forecasters in a fix, unable to make up their minds how much longer the Bank of England’s money printing presses need to roll on.

Forecasting gymnastics on the subject could make many economists Olympic contenders for the gold medal.

Deutsche Bank, Morgan Stanley and Lloyds Bank are the latest to predict the BoE will announce that it will buy an additional 50 billion sterling worth of government bonds, taking the total amount spent in the programme to 375 billion sterling.