Shock now clearly trumps transparency in central bank policymaking

The days of guided monetary policy, telegraphed by central banks and priced in by markets in advance, are probably coming to an end if recent decisions around the world are any guide.

From Turkey, which hiked its overnight lending rate by an astonishing 425 basis points in an emergency meeting on Tuesday, to India which delivered a surprise repo rate hike a day earlier, central banks are increasingly looking to “shock and awe” markets into submission with their policy decisions.

A wide sample of economists polled by Reuters on Monday already expected a massive rise of 225 basis points by Turkey’s central bank to stop a sell-off in the lira. Instead it doubled the consensus and opted for the highest forecast.

Gizem Oztok Altinsac, chief economist at Garanti Securities in Istanbul, who correctly called the size of the Turkish rate hike said:

I was expecting this kind of a move because Brazilian interest rates are at 11 percent and they (Turkey) have to give something close to that and maybe somewhat above.

St. Louis blues: Fed’s Bullard gets a sentence

Ellen Freilich contributed to this post

Talk about getting a word in edgewise. St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank President James Bullard got almost a full sentence in the central bank’s prized policy statement.

Some background: Bullard dissented at the Fed’s June meeting, arguing that, “to maintain credibility, the Committee must defend its inflation target when inflation is below target as well as when it is above target.” The latest inflation figures show the Fed’s preferred measure at 0.8 percent, less than half the central bank’s target.

Fast-forward to yesterday’s policy statement, which included the following new language:

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.

Fed’s Tarullo not making any promises

We’re pretty sure that Daniel Tarullo, the Federal Reserve’s point person on regulation, expects the United States will finally understand exactly what financial reforms are coming “some time next year.” But the Fed governor made doubly sure to qualify that statement lest anyone – especially any press “in the back” – take it as gospel.

At a conference in New York Wednesday morning, Tarullo was asked how long it would take for the various regulatory agencies to give final details on the raft of financial crisis-inspired reforms, everything from Basel III capital standards to the Volcker ban on proprietary trading. Here’s what he said:

“I know it’s frustrating for people not to have the proposed rules out. On the other hand, doing them simultaneously does allow us to see whether something in one of the proposed capital rules will affect something in another proposed capital rule, so that we end up, when we publish the final rules, with fewer anomalies, questions and the like, which will undermine the ability of a firm or academic or just anyone in the public to see and understand how these things are going to function. I hesitate to give a time line on exactly when we’ll get there. But I think…it seems to be reasonable to expect that some time next year the basic outlines – and I don’t just mean the ideas, I mean the details associated with the major reform elements – should be reasonably clear to people even though questions will inevitably rise in implementation. (You) don’t want to take that as a promise. But as I think about these various streams, that is my expectation… To have gotten it done this year would have meant the sheer magnitude of the task would have lead to a lot of inconsistencies or open questions, which then would have just produced another round of change. So you’ve got me on the record saying some time next year, but I tried to qualify it as much as possible – that’s for all you people in the back…”

Selective transparency at the Fed

It’s something of a dissonant communications strategy: Fed officials are willing to tell us what they think will happen three years from now, but not what they discussed three years ago.

The Federal Reserve’s public relations arm holds up the chairmanship of Ben Bernanke as a model of transparency. And it’s true. Press conferences and federal funds rate forecasts are major steps forward for a central bank that until the mid-1990s didn’t even tell the markets what it was doing with interest rates.

Still, the old habits of secrecy die hard. Monetary policy transparency aside, the Fed has remained adamantly opaque in other ways – to the point that it took a Bloomberg News lawsuit for it to name the recipients of emergency era loans.

The Fed’s befuddling transparency

The Fed is being more transparent. Any questions? Lots, apparently. Wall Street economists have published a flurry of research notes speculating about just how much new information the U.S. central bank will release along with its federal funds forecasts on Wednesday, and what form it will be presented in.

Even Vincent Reinhart, a former Fed economist now at Morgan Stanley, doesn’t know what to make of it:

Many market participants admit to being somewhat confused about the new disclosure policy. The exercise should be viewed as incremental in nature, limited by design flaws, and as likely to cloud as to clarify the public’s understanding of policy intent, at least at the outset. And the mission statement, if one appears, may amount to little more than a strong commitment to motherhood and apple pie among central bankers – i.e., the importance of price stability in the long run – but provide no practical guidance as to near-term policy choices.

Fed rate forecasts as a micro QE3

The Fed’s decision to begin publishing policymakers’ own forecasts for the path of policy may effectively constitute a minor easing of the central bank’s already ultra-loose monetary policy at its Jan. 24-25 meeting, according to Harm Bandholz of UniCredit. That’s because in doing so, officials will likely show that they expect the benchmark federal funds rate to remain near rock bottom levels until later than mid-2013 – the Fed’s current guidance on policy.

While the minutes do not say in which direction the forward guidance should be adjusted, we assume that mid-2013 is seen by many FOMC officials as too early. In that context, the decision for Fed officials to publish their projections of the target fed funds rate could provide an opportunity for a back door policy easing in January. If e.g. most participants would not pencil in any rate hike until the end of 2014, the market would certainly take this as a strong signal.

Along the same lines, David Hensley at JP Morgan says:

All else constant, these projections would further flatten the yield curve if the FOMC signals a later start to rate hikes than currently is discounted in markets.

Love, dissent and transparency at the Fed

All four Federal Reserve policymakers who dissented on U.S. central bank policy this year will lose their votes next year. That could make the New Year full of love, but not necessary free from dissent, Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher joked on Friday.

Fisher, like Minneapolis Fed President Narayana Kocherlakota and Philadelphia Fed President Charles Plosser, lobbied and lost against Fed easing earlier this year; all three dissented twice. Chicago Fed President Charles Evans dissented twice from the other side of the aisle, arguing for further easing at the most recent two meetings against the majority’s decision to stand pat.

None will have votes next year. Not, of course, because they voiced their opposition to the majority, but simply because votes rotate among regional Fed presidents according to a set schedule, and it just so happened that all four regional Fed presidents with votes this year used those votes to dissent.

Fisher sees folly in Fed’s “full frontal”

Dallas Federal Reserve President Richard Fisher is not one to pull his punches. He was one of three dissenters on the Fed’s most recent move to ease policy, and has argued the move will not only be ineffective but also potentially harmful to jobs. Speaking with reporters after his refreshingly frank defense of his dissent this week, Fisher – an architect of the Fed’s new communications policy aimed at more transparency – suggested there are times when he would prefer to be a bit more demure.

Asked if the Federal Open Market Committee’s gloomy economic outlook in its post-meeting statement last week matched his own, he said: “I think the FOMC does its job to honestly state how it views things. We are in an age of enhanced transparency.”

But that’s not always a good thing, he suggested, especially when the market is not used to getting an unvarnished view. Warning that he was about to make a “bad joke” – and then proceeding with it – Fisher said:

Chile, Singapore among most transparent SWFs

Chile, UAE, Singapore, Azerbaijan, Ireland and Norway claim top rankings on the latest transparency index, published by SWF Institute. At the bottom of the ranking is Venezuela, Oman, Nigeria, Mauritania, Kiribati, Iran, Brunei and Algeria.

The Linaburg-Maduell index is calculated with 10 principles — such as whether the fund provides up-to-date, independently audited annual reports, or whether it provides clear strategies and objectives. It also gives points on whether the fund gives ownership percentage of company hodlings, total market value, returns and management compensation.

Enhancing transparency is a key task for sovereign wealth funds, whose often opaque operations have come under heavy criticism by some Western politicians who suspect them of investing with political, rather than commercial, motives.