MacroScope

Japan finally takes Bernanke-san’s advice – 10 years later

This post was based on reporting by Leika Kihara in Tokyo

Japan has crossed the monetary rubicon: the government is actively intervening in the affairs of the central bank, pressuring it to more aggressively tackle a prolonged bout of deflation and economic stagnation. The Bank of Japan is expected to discuss raising its inflation target from the current 1 percent level during its next rate decision on January 21-22.

Overnight, a Japanese newspaper reported the finance ministry and the central bank were considering signing a policy accord that would set as a common goal not just achieving 2 percent inflation but also steady job growth.

Key Japanese policymakers played down the prospect of making the BOJ responsible for stable employment like the U.S. Federal Reserve, but said a 2 percent inflation target will be at the heart of a new policy accord with the central bank.

That type of language sounds an awful lot like the advice Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke offered Japan in 2003, when he was a governor on the Fed’s board.

There is no unique solution to the problem of continuing declines in Japanese prices; a variety of policies are worth trying, alone or in combination. However, one fairly direct and practical approach is explicit (though temporary) cooperation between the monetary and the fiscal authorities. Let me try to explain why I think this direction is promising and may succeed where monetary and fiscal policies applied separately have not.

Bond market prices Fed out – but just wait ‘til the debt ceiling

U.S. government bonds sold off last week following December Fed meeting minutes indicating growing doubts inside the central bank about the effectiveness of quantitative easing. Yields on benchmark 10-year notes hit an eight month high of 1.975 percent on Friday, in part as investors priced out some of the Fed asset purchases traders had been counting towards the end of 2013.

Other forces were also at work. Markets were relieved that the ‘fiscal cliff’-related expiration of Bush-era tax cuts had been circumvented, and encouraged by some moderately better U.S.economic data. The S&P 500 closed the first week of the year at its highest in five years.

Still, as has erroneously been the case in recent years, talk of a bond bubble resurfaced.

What Bernanke didn’t tell us

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke spoke to reporters for well over an hour at his quarterly press conference this week, but he was vague on the most important question of monetary policy today: what exactly would it take for the central bank to either ramp up or curtail the pace of monthly asset purchases? Since bond buys have effectively replaced interest rates as the dominant tool of Fed policy in recent years, the central bank’s new thresholds, which reference only rates, are not particularly useful.

After all, in the original threshold plan as crafted by its inventor, Chicago Fed President Charles Evans, the Fed would offer a jobless rate trigger for quantitative easing itself.

Asked about this during his briefing, Bernanke said:

We are prepared to vary that as new information comes in. If the economy’s outlook gets noticeably stronger we would presumably begin to ramp-down the level of purchases. But, again, the problem with giving a specific number is that there are multiple criteria on which we make this decision. We will be looking at the outlook for the labor market, which is very important. We will also be looking at other factors that could be affecting the outlook for the economy, for example – I hope it won’t happen – if the fiscal cliff occurs, as I have said many times, I don’t think the Federal Reserve has the tools to offset that event, and in that case, we obviously have to temper our expectations about what we can accomplish.

Fiscal tightening + monetary stimulus = ‘borderline insanity’?

It’s a curious pattern being repeated around the industrialized world. Governments are trying frantically to tighten their belts even as the monetary authorities loosen their purse strings. This week in the United States is a perfect example: the Fed looks set to extend its bond purchase program even as Washington fails to reach an agreement to avoid the dreaded “fiscal cliff.”

It’s the sort of dissonant policy that is unlikely to yield very constructive results at a time when the U.S. economy is struggling to achieve a meager 2 percent growth rate.

Thomas Lam, group chief economist at OSK-DMG inSingapore:

The current one-sided policy mix of fiscal tightening and monetary easing is problematic (for example, the UK experimented with this approach –  fiscal consolidation and monetary accommodation – and it clearly failed to generate a sustained recovery).  In some cases, it’s borderline insanity –  it’s like you’re trying the same or broadly similar approach but hoping for a different outcome every single time.

Jobs, triggers and the Fed

As Federal Reserve officials debate whether to use thresholds for inflation and joblessness to guide monetary policy, Friday’s jobs report may be a cautionary tale.  The idea of thresholds is to pick markers for potential policy change – an unemployment rate of 6.5 percent, for instance, as a guidepost for when the central bank might begin to raise rates – so that the market has a better idea of where Fed policy is headed. As the unemployment rate nears that level, the theory goes, investors will gradually start to price in tightening; if the unemployment rate rises again, they’ll price it out.

But some Fed officials, notably the hawkish heads of the Richmond, Philadelphia and Dallas regional Fed banks, oppose the idea. One reason: the unemployment rate alone cannot capture the state of the labor market. Friday’s report show why.

Unemployment in November fell to 7.7 percent, the lowest in nearly four years. But the decline was not a sign of labor market strength – far from it. People were giving up looking for jobs, signaling hopelessness, not hope.

America is not Greece: Low funding costs give U.S. government room to borrow

Is the U.S.on the road to Greece, as some politicians have proclaimed?

Most economists say the comparison is nonsense. At a towering $15 trillion, the U.S. economy is not only the world’s largest, it is also more than 50 times the size of Greece’s. This gap makes any type of comparison difficult – it would be like analyzing trends in Maryland in relation to the entire euro zone.

Another key difference: Unlike Greece, the U.S. actually controls its own currency. That means a debt default is effectively impossible. This reality, coupled with strong monetary stimulus from the Federal Reserve, helps explain why U.S. bond yields remain near historic lows despite larger deficits.

Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the progressive Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, says a country’s interest burden is far more important than its total debt levels in determining the government’s ability to service it. He argued in a recent editorial:

Hey, at least it beats the Mayan outlook

A panel of economic luminaries took the stage in Chicago this afternoon to join in a tradition repeated this time of the year in cities across the country, opining on the outlook for the coming year.

Raghuram Rajan, a finance professor at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, began with a joke involving 973 sheep and a dog, the butt of which was the intellectual capacity of economic forecasters. He went on to predict slow world growth ahead, highlighting the geopolitical risks from conflict in the Middle East and Asia, and the limits of fiscal and monetary policy to turn things around.

Carl Tannenbaum, Northern Trust’s chief economist, focused on the still-troubled housing market and risks posed by the failure of European political leaders to resolve their financial crisis (he observed that Americans frustrated by the deadlock in Washington over resolving the U.S. fiscal cliff have only to look across the Atlantic for comfort that things, certainly, could be worse).

Geithner’s gauntlet: Social Security is a “separate process” from fiscal cliff talks

Social Security should not be part of the current negotiations over the U.S. budget – that was the message from outgoing Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner over the weekend. During a veritable tour of Sunday shows aimed at addressing negotiations surrounding the “fiscal cliff” of expiring tax cuts and spending reductions, Geithner told ABC News’ “This Week”:

What the president is willing to do is to work with Democrats and Republicans to strengthen Social Security for future generations so Americans can approach retirement with dignity and with the confidence they can retire with a modest guaranteed benefit.

But we think you have to do that in a separate process so that our seniors aren’t – don’t face the concern that we’re somehow going to find savings in Social Security benefits to help reduce the other deficit.

At the Fed, there’s a way to raise rates — but is there a will?

The Federal Reserve has kept its key federal funds rate at near-zero for four straight years, and it expects to keep it there for at least two more. But with each trip around the sun, outsiders wonder whether central bank policymakers will act without hesitation when the time finally comes to tighten monetary policy?

This week, the official with his hand on the Fed’s interest-rate lever, so to speak, asked that same question. Simon Potter, head of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s open market operations, was at NYU‘s Stern School of Business discussing the various ways the central bank can tighten policy: the federal funds rate; the interest rate on excess bank reserves; reverse repurchase agreements. Potter runs the unit that carries out Fed policy in the market, and sits in on most policy-setting meetings in Washington. Asked by a student about the inflationary or deflationary risks associated with tightening policy in the future, he had this to say:

The real heart of that question is a willingness one. I’m pretty confident we have the technical ability to raise rates. The hard part will be the willingness in some people’s minds. What I’ve seen among most people in financial markets is they’re pretty sure that the Fed will raise rates when it’s appropriate to do it… Definitely compared to 2009-2010, the type of hedge funds and people who took large bets thinking this would lead to high inflation have given up on that bet.

Could the private sector stage a stimulus plan?

Since the financial crisis, the federal government has implemented a fiscal stimulus plan and the Federal Reserve took to the road of monetary stimulus, actively seeking new routes to revive the U.S. economy.

The private sector, however, has been laggard in adding its muscle to the revival efforts. Private firms have added employees, but very cautiously, and wages are stagnant. Meanwhile, a huge amount of cash sits idle on corporate balance sheets.

“Capital expenditure plans are being retrenched,” notes Dan Heckman, senior fixed income strategist and senior portfolio manager at Minneapolis, Minnesota-based US Bank, with $80 billion in assets under management. “Most major corporations are sitting on tons of cash. They have no appetite for borrowing and credit line utilization is at all-time lows.”