The madness of central bankers

Today will depending on what time you read this either have seen yet more monetary policy accommodation by the European Central Bank or be about to get it. It;s President Mario Draghi is too smooth an operator to so strongly hint at it for nothing to happen, especially as in my opinion he feels the need to set policy for the new incoming ECB President Christine Lagarde who he knows well. That is quite a damning critique of her abilities if you think about it which is in line with her track record. But as to the action further confirmation has been provided by the way that markets have been toyed with by leaks from what are known as official “sauces”.

For those unaware the “sauces” strategy is to suggest lots of action as I pointed out on the 16th of August.

Investors currently expect the ECB to cut its key interest rate to minus 0.7% and to hold rates below their current level through 2024, according to futures markets. Mr. Rehn said those market expectations showed that investors had understood the ECB’s guidance.

Actually even this position had its own contradictions.

So will he now be overshooting -0.5% or -0.7%? Actually it gets better as -0.6% is in there now as well.

Later we get told that much less will happen as we saw earlier this week as the last thing central bankers want to see on their big day is the word “disappointment”. So we get this.

Oh, the grand old Duke of York
He had ten thousand men
He marched them up to the top of the hill
And he marched them down again
And when they were up, they were up
And when they were down, they were down
And when they were only half-way up
They were neither up nor down

The whole plan here is under the category of “open mouth operations” which might serve the purposes of the ECB but anyone in the real economy is being actively misled. The only saving grace is that most people will be unaware but there have been real world effects on mortgage rates and the rates at which companies and countries can borrow.

Where are we now?

Joumanna Bercetche of CNBC has summarised the expected position.

Here’s what analysts are expecting:
1) Majority expect 10bps rate cut to -50bps (minority 20bps cut)
2) Tiering
3) Restart of Asset Purchases : sov +corp bonds of EUR 30bn x 12 months (risk of LESS given recent hawkish commentary)
4) Enhanced Fwd Guidance

Interest-Rates

Let us address this as it clearly fails Einstein’s definition of madness. As to doing the same thing and expecting a different result well how about cutting interest-rates by 0.1% four times as has happened to the Deposit Rate and then adding a fifth! Or adding another 0.1% ( or even 0.2%) to a sequence of cuts amounting to 3.65% so far and expecting a different result.

Oh and I see more than a few saying the ECB interest-rate is 0% as indeed one of its interest-rates is. However I use the Deposit Rate because the amount of money deposited with the ECB at this rate is some 1.9 trillion Euros.

Next there was a stage where the madness went even further and we were told that shifting the differences between the various ECB interest-rates was a big deal. For example the minimum lending rate has fallen by 4% so 0.35% more than the Deposit Rate. This has an influence for financial markets but little or no impact on the real economy.

It all seems rather small fry compared to this from President Trump.

The Federal Reserve should get our interest rates down to ZERO, or less, and we should then start to refinance our debt. INTEREST COST COULD BE BROUGHT WAY DOWN, while at the same time substantially lengthening the term. We have the great currency, power, and balance sheet………The USA should always be paying the the lowest rate. No Inflation! It is only the naïveté of Jay Powell and the Federal Reserve that doesn’t allow us to do what other countries are already doing. A once in a lifetime opportunity that we are missing because of “Boneheads.”

The problem for the Donald is that if negative interest-rates were any sort of magic elixir we would not be where we are.Sadly the ECB proves this as it ends up having to keep cutting to keep up what I have previously described as a type of junkie culture.

On the upside the “once in a lifetime” reference may mean he is also a Talking Heads fan.

Tiering

This is another sign of central banking madness where their policies are essentially always aimed at the banks. The interest-rate cuts and QE were to help bail them out but went so far that they now hurt the banks. For newer readers this is because the banks are afraid to pass on the negative interest-rates to ordinary depositors in case they withdraw their money.

So we seem likely to see an effort to shield the banks by some of their deposits at the ECB not having the full negative rate applied. The real economy gets no such sweetners.

Again if the policy of protecting “The Precious” worked these new policies would not be necessary would they?

QE

Exactly the same critique applies here. Up until now some 2.6 trillion Euros of bonds has been bought for monetary policy purposes or Quantitative Easing. So what difference will another 360 billion Euros make? Especially if we remind ourselves that the original programme only ended last December so even fans of it have to admit the sugar high went pretty fast.

There is a subtler argument here which is that the ECB is really oiling the wheels of fiscal policy by making debt cheap to issue for Euro area nations. But what difference has this made? Some maybe at the margins but the basic case of Germany is a fail. In spite of its ability to be paid to issue debt Germany still plans to run a fiscal surplus.

Enhanced Forward Guidance

in 2019 this led many ECB watchers to expect an interest-rate rise and instead we are getting a cut. I am not sure how you could enhance this unless they expect to do even worse!

Comment

My critique has so far looked mostly at the ECB but whilst in some areas it is the leader of the pack there are plenty of other signs of madness. After two “lost decades” the Bank of Japan cut interest-rates by 0.1% to -0.1%. Then it introduced Yield Curve Control which in recent times has been raising bond yields rather than cutting them in a complete misfire. In my home country the UK we saw the Bank of England plan to cut interest-rates by 0.15% in November 2016 before fortunately realising that it had misjudged the economy and abandoning the plan. They end up singing along with Genesis.

You know I want to, but I’m in too deep…

As to the situation the immediate one is grim as this from Eurostat today reminds us.

In July 2019 compared with July 2018, industrial production decreased by 2.0% in the euro area.

But this is a “trade war” issue which has very little to do with monetary policy. As to the domestic impulse the money supply figures have picked up in 2019 so the ECB may be easing at exactly the wrong moment just as it turned out it ended easing at the wrong moment. So let me end with the nutty boys.

Madness, madness, they call it madness
Madness, madness, they call it madness
It’s plain to see
That is what they mean to me
Madness, madness, they call it gladness, ha-ha

Number Crunching

This tweet has gained popularity.

“£4,563,350,000 of aggregate short positions on a ‘no deal’ Brexit have been taken out by hedge funds that directly or indirectly bankrolled Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign” ( Carole Cadwalladr)

I took a look at the article referred to in the Byline Times and if you read it then it conflates being short the UK Pound £ with being short individual shares which is bizarre. Next it has no mention at all of any long positions these companies may have.

Is this a reinvention of Bitcoin or just another passing phase?

Over the past few weeks there has been something of a rave from the grave going on in financial markets. If we look at the news then maybe John Lennon was partly right with his “About a lucky man who made the grade” if that man or indeed woman is a holder of Bitcoin. This is how @fastFT has reported it.

The price of bitcoin soared to its highest level since January 2018, as the cryptocurrency’s recent rally shows little signs of fizzling out. In Asian trading hours on Wednesday, the price of bitcoin traded on the Bitstamp exchange rose as much as 10 per cent to as high as $12,935.58, putting the digital currency on track for its biggest one-day jump in more than a month. Bitcoin’s price pulled back to just under $12,600 in afternoon trading.

So it is back at least for now and the June futures contract on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange is doing better than that because it is at US $12,990 as I type this and peaked at US $13,172.5 overnight. If we look back we see that it did not pass US $4000 until latish in March and US $6000 on the 9th of May. If we return to @fastFT we are told this.

Bitcoin’s value has now jumped for the last eight trading sessions in a row, bringing its overall return for the year to 250 per cent. Still, the digital currency remains some way below its peak of more than $19,000 reached at the end of 2017.

The current position provokes two thoughts. Firstly as a pure chart it reminds me of the “bowl theory” taught to me some years back by a colleague. It is not complex in that you simply draw a bowl shape around such a rise and it predicts that when any fall breaks the line you will see a sharp drop which is both fast and large. Putting it another way the rally needs to keep accelerating to survive as the bowl curve gets steeper.

On the other side of the coin the mention of the US $19,000 peak reminds me of this from the 11th of December 2017.

Bitcoin is in the “mania” phase, with some people even borrowing money to get in on the action, regulator Joseph Borg said. “We’ve seen mortgages being taken out to buy bitcoin. … People do credit cards, equity lines,” he said. Bitcoin has been soaring all year, starting out at $1,000 and rocketing above $19,000 on the Coinbase exchange last week. ( CNBC )

That “madness of crowds” phase when people borrowed to get in on the previous rise, which sadly was the time in fact to get out.

What has driven this?

One factor has been the turn in expectations for monetary policy around the world. We have seen some actual interest-rate cuts by the Reserve Banks of India, Australia and New Zealand as well as hints from the US Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank or ECB. The general expectation for the latter has moved to more QE being announced in September as well as a deposit rate cut. The latter may be more significant here because whilst only a small change of 0.1% is expected it will take it further into negative territory. That would be no surprise for us on here as we have been expecting another phase in the “war on cash” but I think the acceleration in Bitcoin has been affected by that view spreading. After all if we look back many “ECB Watchers” were telling us interest-rates would rise in 2019.

Whilst Bitcoin is priced in US Dollars and the explicit effect on it will be the fall in the US Treasury ten-year yield to 2% I also think that the emergence of this has had a strong impact.

GERMAN 10-YEAR BOND YIELD FALLS TO -0.330%, NEW RECORD LOW ( @DeltaOne)

For that we had to look all the way back to yesterday.

Oh and there is an odd link here because the countries which have cut interest-rates recently are the ones doing best in the cricket world cup.

The Libra Factor

The environment changed with this announcement from Facebook.

The mission for Libra is a simple global currency and financial infrastructure that empowers billions of people. Libra is made up of three parts that will work together to create a more inclusive financial system:

  1. It is built on a secure, scalable, and reliable blockchain;
  2. It is backed by a reserve of assets designed to give it intrinsic value;
  3. It is governed by the independent Libra Association tasked with evolving the ecosystem.

This shook things up in two main ways. Firstly in terms of psychology and awareness. Secondly that a big player in the online world was giving things a push. Of course, Facebook is not what it was ( if you have never seen the millennial job interview where she defines it as something her parents look at I recommend that you do….), but nonetheless it remains a significant player.

Back to the central banks

They have been quickly on the Libra case as this from Reuters highlights.

“A wider use of new types of crypto-assets for retail payment purposes would warrant close scrutiny by authorities to ensure that they are subject to high standards of regulation,” Quarles said ahead of a summit of Group of 20 countries in Japan this week.

Governor Carney of the Bank of England raised the topic at his Mansion House speech last week also.

As designed, Libra may substantially improve financial inclusion and dramatically lower the costs of
domestic and cross border payments.The Bank of England approaches Libra with an open mind but not an open door.

Much of that is public relations flim flam as a genuinely successful cryptocurrency would be like Kryptonite is to Superman for central banks. Not only would it challenge their monopoly over money it would further challenge the business model of “the precious” and frankly there is not much of it left as it is.

So they will be sitting in an ivory tower version of Mount Doom plotting to stop any version of their ring of power being thrown into the fire.

Comment

As we observe the situation we can learn a few lessons. For example I have seen some arguing that Bitcoin is a safe haven but that is only true on the rallies it has seen. In another form that relates to one of the functions of money which is to be a store of value. That is hard to argue if we look at the money chart below.

There are clear phases where it has destroyed value.

If we move to another function which is medium of exchange then the Libra plan offers clear hope for the future. Should Facebook push this then it could easily break new ground and get the cryptocurrency world into the ordinary persons life. Maybe it will help with it being a unit of account which is the area where most ground needs to be made.

So the outlook has brightened but there are two warning signs. Firstly the chart pattern and the bowl theory logic which suggests that the only way is not up. Next is the issue of past revolutions. For example the Victorians had a great success with railways leading to all sorts of things including proper timekeeping across the UK. But it is also true that many of the companies involved went bust.

Where next for the world of Bitcoin?

The world of Bitcoin and indeed all the other altcoins has seen quite a reversal as 2018 has progressed. The days of “free money” have gone and they have been replaced by this according to MarketWatch.

Bitcoin is breaking all sorts of records at the moment, most of them unwanted, and in a few days it will equal a milestone not matched in four years.

Not since October of 2014 has the price of bitcoin   seen four consecutive monthly declines, and a negative close for the month of November, which now seems a foregone conclusion, would match this feat having fallen every month since August, according to Dow Jones Market Data.

So a clear change although in the fast moving world of Bitcoin it is still over ten times higher than it was back then. If anything the fall seems to be picking up the pace.

After opening November above $6,500, bitcoin is down more than 40%, and since the four-month streak began on Aug. 1, the value of the world’s most famous digital currency has more than halved.

As I type this the Bitcoin price is at US $3763.7 which is down some US $282 or a bit under 7%. I note that just to add to the confusion there is also now a Bitcoin Cash. This was created by a fork out of Bitcoin.

Bitcoin cash was one of the marvels of the bitcoin bubble. It is a fork from bitcoin. A fork of a cryptocurrency takes place when someone, anyone declares that a blockchain is going to be transferred to a new set of rules and network infrastructure. ( Forbes)

It did lead to what was free money for a while.

When the fork came out, bitcoin did not fall and bitcoin cash went through the roof rising from the low hundreds to shoot quickly above $1,000. It was free money for bitcoin holders who could get their hands on their bitcoin cash by navigating the technical issues, which were mighty. ( Forbes)

But the gains were short-lived.

The central bankers revenge

From a central banking point of view the altcoin world is a disaster as they have no power to set interest-rates and no control over the total amount of it. Even worse it bypasses “the previous” and in the bull market days saw very heavy disinflation as the price of goods and services became much cheaper. At the limit it would make them be an anachronism and then irrelevant.

John Lewis of the Bank of England put it like this on the 13th of this month.

Existing private cryptocurrencies do not seriously threaten traditional monies because they are afflicted by multiple internal contradictions. They are hard to scale, are expensive to store, cumbersome to maintain, tricky for holders to liquidate, almost worthless in theory, and boxed in by their anonymity. And if newer cryptocurrencies ever emerge to solve these problems, that’s additional downside news for the value of existing ones.

There are of course issues there but being “almost worthless in theory” is a critique that could be pointed at central bank fiat currencies which also rely on an act of faith to have value. Also the bit about new companies would have applied to the proliferation of railway companies back in the day. Whereas we know that whilst many failed the railways are still with us. Those suffering commuters who use Southern Rail may wish that they didn’t but they do.

Let us look at his paradoxes or as he might have put it seven deadly sins.

The congestion paradox

But cryptocurrency platforms are different. Their costs are largely variable, their capacity is largely fixed. Like the London Underground in rush hour, crypto platforms are vulnerable to congestion: more patrons makes them *less* attractive.

The storage paradox

Each user has to maintain their own copy of the entire transactions history, so an N-fold increase in users and transactions, means an N-squared fold increase in aggregate storage needs.

The mining paradox

Rewarding miners with new units of currency for processing transactions leads to a tension between users and miners.  This crystalises in Bitcoin’s conflict over how many transactions can be processed in a block. Miners want this kept small………But users want the exact opposite: higher capacity, lower transactions costs and more liquidity, and so favour larger block sizes.

The concentration paradox

This starts in intriguing fashion.

 97% of bitcoin is estimated to be held by just 4% of addresses, and inequality rises with each block.

However this critique is also applicable to the central banking enthusiasm for higher house prices and the “wealth effects”

An asset is valued by the market price at which it changes hands. Only a fraction of the stock is actually traded at any point in time. So the price reflects the views of the marginal market participant.

You can’t all sell at once and certainly not at that price. The list below is somewhat breathtaking in the circumstances.

But for cryptos they are much larger because i)Exchanges are illiquid ii) Some players are vast relative to the market iii) There isn’t a natural balance of buyers and sellers iv) opinion is more volatile and polarised.

As central banks have sucked liquidity of out markets with their actions, for example the Japanese government bond market has often been frozen, the opening point is a bit rich. Ditto point ii) if we look at the size of central bank balance sheets and of course there was no natural balance between buyers and sellers when they surged into markets. For example some of the recent turmoil in the Italian government bond market has been caused by the “unnatural” buying of the ECB being reduced. As to the last point, well maybe, but so many things are polarised these days.

The valuation paradox

The puzzle in economic theory is why private cryptocurrencies have any value at all.

Fiat currencies anyone?

The anonymity paradox

The (greater) anonymity which cryptocurrencies offer is generally a weakness not a strength. True, it creates a core transactions demand from money launderers , tax evaders and purveyors of illicit goods> because they make funds and transactors hard to trace.

This is both true and an attempted smear. After all the recent money laundering spree undertaken in the Baltics by customers of Danske Bank seems to have been at 200 billion Euros or so much larger than the altcoin universe in total.

Of course for a central banker it needs central bankers.

 Keep a cryptocurrency far from regulated institutions and you reduce its value, because it drastically restricts the pool of willing transactors and transactions. Bring it closer to the realm of regulated financial institutions and it increases in value.

The innovation paradox

Perhaps the biggest irony of all is that the more optimistic you are about tomorrow’s cryptocurrencies, the more pessimistic you must be about the value of today’s.

Odd though that this sort of logic is not applied to forward guidance.

Expect it to be worthless in the future, and it becomes worthless now.

Comment

There is a lot to consider here and let me start by offering some sympathy for those who did this back in the day. From CNBC.

Bitcoin is in the “mania” phase, with some people even borrowing money to get in on the action, regulator Joseph Borg said. “We’ve seen mortgages being taken out to buy bitcoin. … People do credit cards, equity lines,” he said. Bitcoin has been soaring all year, starting out at $1,000 and rocketing above $19,000 on the Coinbase exchange last week. ( CNBC )

Hard to believe that was the 11th of December last year as it feels like a lifetime ago. Also yes I do feel sorry for them even though it was pretty stupid. A fortnight or so earlier we were looking at some of the issues above.

That statement is true of pretty much every price although of course some have backing via assets or demand. So often we see a marginal price used to calculate a total based on an average price that is not known………This leaves us with the issue of how Bitcoin functions as a store of money which depends on time. Today’s volatility shows that over a 24 hour period it clearly fails and yet if we extend the time period so far at least it has worked rather well as one.

As to the store of value function that still holds as early buyers have still done really rather well but more recent ones have taken a bath and a cold one at that. Looking ahead it does not look as though the market has capitulated enough to find the ground to rally, But in the background there are still flickers of good news.

Ohio appears set to become the first state to accept bitcoin for tax bills, a show of support for a technology that has garnered lots of hype but failed to gain traction as a form of payment. ( WSJ)

 

Bitcoin both is and is not a store of value

The weekend just gone has seen some extraordinary price moves and yet as I looked through most of the media early this morning there was no mention of it. For example I have just scanned the front page of the online Financial Times and there was not a peep. One mention on Bloomberg seems a little confused.

Bitcoin’s march toward respectability faces another hurdle as hedge-fund platforms reject the overtures of firms trading cryptocurrencies.

I didn’t realise it was marching towards respectability myself and if it was are hedge funds a benchmark? Apparently things are going badly.

It’s the latest blow for a digital currency that’s struggling to break into the financial mainstream.

The next bit I found particularly fascinating.

Joe Vittoria, CEO of the Mirabella platform, said he has doubts over bitcoin’s liquidity and where oversight might come from. There are also suggestions that the digital currency’s valuation should be below where it’s currently trading, he said.

You see that second sentence applies to so many markets right now for example many of the world’s bond markets have been pumped up by central bank buying. Others might be wondering is another example is the online food delivery company Just Eat in the UK which looks set to join the FTSE 100 as it has a larger market capitalisation than the supermarket chain Sainsburys.

For an article posted around 4 hours ago they seem rather behind the times.

While investors have embraced bitcoin, sending it soaring above $8,000.

Last night as I checked how financial markets were starting the week in the far east I noted this and put it on Twitter.

Bitcoin has been on another surge and is US$ 9396 now.

Of course it is soaring above $8000 technically but is behind events. Indeed this morning it has risen again as Reuters point out.

Bitcoin’s vertiginous ascent showed no signs of stopping on Monday, with the cryptocurrency soaring to another record high just a few percent away from $10,000 after gaining more than a fifth in value over the past three days alone.

The digital currency has seen an eye-watering tenfold increase in its value since the start of the year, and has more than doubled in value since the beginning of October.

It BTC=BTSP surged 4.5 percent on the day on Monday to trade at $9,687 on the Luxembourg-based Bitstamp exchange.

There are different pricing platforms but on the one I look at it reached US $9771 earlier. Although as ever there is a fair bit of volatility as it is US $9606 as I type this sentence.

Jamie Dimon

The Chief Executive of JP Morgan hit the newswires back on the 12th of September.

If a JPMorgan trader began trading in bitcoin, he said, “I’d fire them in a second. For two reasons: It’s against our rules, and they’re stupid. And both are dangerous.” ( Bloomberg)

Considering the role of the banking sector in money laundering and financial crime this bit was somewhat breathtaking.

“If you were in Venezuela or Ecuador or North Korea or a bunch of parts like that, or if you were a drug dealer, a murderer, stuff like that, you are better off doing it in bitcoin than U.S. dollars,” he said. “So there may be a market for that, but it’d be a limited market.”

This intervention can be seen two ways. The first is simply expressed by the fact that the price of Bitcoin has more than doubled since then. The second is ironically also that it has doubled as of course that is a building block in determining whether something is a bubble or not.

What has driven this surge?

Back on the 29th of December last year I pointed out the Chinese connection.

There have been signs of creaking from the Chinese monetary system as estimates of the actual outflow of funds from China seem to be around double the official one. Oops!

If we move onto this morning Reuters have been on the case.

By some estimates, China’s overall debt is now as much as three times the size of its economy……..Outstanding household consumer loans have surged close to 30 percent since the middle of last year and reached 30.2 trillion yuan as of October.

This has the government worried.

China’s central bank governor, Zhou Xiaochuan, made global headlines with a warning last month of the risks of a “Minsky moment”, referring to a sudden collapse in asset prices after long periods of growth, sparked by debt or currency pressures.

In such a position Bitcoin investment may seem a lot more sensible than otherwise. If nothing else those caught in the clampdown on the shadow banking sector may think that it is worth a go and the funds involved are so large it would only take a relatively small amount to have a large impact.

It was also be a particular irony if some of the money the Bank of China pumped into the system last week found its way into Bitcoin.

ECB and the war on cash

This is something which must provide some support to Bitcoin which is simply fears over what plans central banks have for cash. This particularly applies to those who have been willing to dip into the icy world of negative interest-rates such as the European Central Bank and I am reminded of this from the 22nd of this month.

The general exception for covered deposits and claims
under investor compensation schemes should be replaced by limited discretionary exemptions to
be granted by the competent authority in order to retain a degree of flexibility. Under that approach,
the competent authority could, for example, allow depositors to withdraw a limited amount of
deposits on a daily basis consistent with the level of protection established under the Deposit
Guarantee Schemes Directive (DGSD)34,

Currently those with most to fear seem to be those with money in Italian banks although just to be clear as we stand now the deposit protection scheme up to 100,000 Euros still operates.

If we look forwards to the next recession it would appear that some central banks will arrive at it with interest-rates still negative so if they apply the usual play-book we will  then see interest-rates negative enough to mean that cash will be very attractive. I have postulated before than somewhere around -1.5% to 2% is the threshold. Then they will have to do something about cash. Perhaps they are on the case.

 

Other fears may come from the way that central banks have expanded balance sheets and thus narrow measures of the money supply. The Bank of Japan explicitly set out to double the monetary base.

Comment

There is a mixture of fear and greed in the price of Bitcoin. The fear comes from those wishing to escape domestic worries in China in particular as well as worries about the next moves of central banks. The greed simply comes from the rise in the price which has been more than ten-fold since I looked at it on December 29th last year. So if you have some well done although of course the real well done comes when you realise the profit. I note others making this point.

Bitcoin’s market cap just passed 150 billion USD. For those who do not know, that is how much money NEW bitcoin “investors” will have to spend, in order for the current bitcoin holders to get the money that they THINK they have.  ( @JorgeStolfi )

That statement is true of pretty much every price although of course some have backing via assets or demand. So often we see a marginal price used to calculate a total based on an average price that is not known. Also with a price that has varied between US $8992 and 9771 today alone I would suggest that this below must have more than a few investors screaming for financial stretcher bearers. From @JosephSkinner74

Long/Short Bitcoin swings with up to 100x Leverage at Bitmex! 💰💰 Enjoy a 10% Fee Discount! 👌🏽

What could go wrong?

This leaves us with the issue of how Bitcoin functions as a store of money which depends on time. Today’s volatility shows that over a 24 hour period it clearly fails and yet if we extend the time period so far at least it has worked rather well as one.

A royal wedding

Firstly congratulations to the hopefully – our royal family has form in this area – happy couple. But fans of the magnificent Yes Prime Minister will already be wondering what it is designed to distract us from and whether Theresa May has turned out to be more effective in this regard than Jim Hacker?!

Fiscal policy was on the march at Jackson Hole

Over the weekend many of the world’s central bankers were guests of the Kansas Federal Reserve in Jackson Hole Wyoming. In terms of location I believe it was chosen because a previous chair of the US Federal Reserve Paul Volcker was a keen fisherman. However this late August symposium has become one which influences the economic winds of change as central bankers discussed easing policy in response to the credit crunch and in more recent times a speech was given on what were perceived to be the wonders of Forward Guidance. Michael Woodford was very clever in suggesting to a group who wanted to believe that they could influence events via mere speaking or what has become called Open Mouth Operations.

I shall argue that the most effective form of forward guidance involves advance commitment to definite criteria for future policy decisions.

They are still at that today to some extent although the definite criteria theme has mostly been ignored especially in the UK where it went wrong for the Bank of England almost immediately.

What about now?

The problem for the central bankers is that to coin a phrase that monetary policy may be “maxxed out” or as it is put more formally below.

despite attempts to set economies on normalization paths after the Great Recession and the Global Financial Crisis, the scope for countercyclical monetary policy remains limited: benchmark interest rates have continued to hover near or even below zero.

This is from a paper presented on Saturday by Alan Auerbach and Yuriy Gorodnichenko of the University of California Berkeley. In their conclusion they go further.

Although economists do not believe that expansions die from old age, the prolonged U.S. expansion will end sooner or later and there is serious concern about the ability of policymakers in the United States and other developed countries to fight the next economic downturn. Indeed the ammunition of central banks is much more limited now than before the Great Recession and it is unlikely that expansionary monetary policy can be as aggressive and effective as it was during the crisis.

Actually if monetary policy had been effective the paper would not be necessary as the various economies would have responded and we would be on a road where interest-rates were say 2/3% and central bank balance sheets were shrinking, In reality such interest-rates to quote Star Wars are “far, far away”.

Fiscal policy

If monetary policy has less scope for action then our central planners face being irrelevant so they will be grasping for an alternative and fortunately according to our two valiant professors it is at hand.

With tight constraints on central banks, one may expect—or maybe hope for—a more active response of fiscal policy when the next recession arrives.

The problem with this the familiar theme of the “bond vigilantes” turning up.

It is certainly conceivable (see e.g. Aguiar et al. 2017) that a significant fiscal stimulus can raise doubts about the ability of a government to repay its debts and, as a result, increase borrowing costs so much that the government may find its debt unsustainable and default.

This of course was last seen on a major scale in the Euro area crisis particularly in Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain. Of course the European Central Bank intervened by buying bonds and later followed another part of Michael Woodford’s advice by introducing a larger and more widespread QE or bond buying program. So we have seen central banks intervening in fiscal policy via a reduction in bond yields something which government’s try to keep quiet. We have individual instances of bond yield soaring such as Venezuela but the last few years have seen central banking victories and defeats for the vigilantes. In another form that continued this morning as I note that a North Korean ballistic missile passed over Japan but the Nikkei 225 equity index only fell 87 points presumably influenced by the way that the Bank of Japan buys on down days.

What about more overt fiscal policy?

Apparently this can work.

We find that in our sample expansionary government spending shocks have not been followed by persistent increases in debt-to-GDP ratios or borrowing costs (interest rates, CDS spreads). This result obtains especially when the economy is weak. In fact, a fiscal stimulus in a weak economy may help improve fiscal sustainability along the metrics we study.

Indeed this for them is essentially a continuation of past work.

This constraint on monetary policy coincides with a resurgence in activist fiscal policy (Auerbach and Gale, 2009), which has moved from a focus on automatic stabilizers to a stronger reliance on discretionary measures, reflecting not only necessity but also growing evidence of the effectiveness of such policy to fight recessions (e.g., Auerbach and Gorodnichenko, 2012, 2013).

Also I am reminded that we should never believe something until it is officially denied.

Given the nature of the sample analyzed, our results should not be interpreted as an unconditional call for an aggressive government spending in response to a deteriorating economy.

The UK

Jonathan Portes who is an advocate for fiscal policy has written this in Prospect Magazine.

The answer is very technical—£100 billion or so of the extra debt relates to the Bank of England’s Asset Purchase Facility. Briefly, the BoE makes loans to banks and buys corporate bonds, in return for cash (“central bank reserves”).

He suggests that as this has been mostly ignored( not on here) we could borrow for other purposes.

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider here as I note that North Korea has done its bit as bond markets have risen today and yields fallen. For example the UK ten-year Gilt yield has dropped to 1% giving us food for thought with inflation at either 2.6% ( CPI) or 3.6% ( RPI). A clear factor in the expected push for fiscal policy is that bond yields are so low as conventional UK Gilt yields do not go above 1.7% and other countries such as Germany Switzerland and Japan can borrow for much less. Against such bond yields theoretical analysis is always likely to look good so the first issue is whether they would be maintained in a fiscal expansion. Or to put it another way are central banks being asked here for a type of QE to infinity?

Next is the issue of how a fiscal stimulus is defined as for example countries which have stopped borrowing and run a surplus like Germany and Sweden are relatively rare. Most have continued to borrow and run annual fiscal deficits albeit usually declining ones. Thus the ballpark seems to have shifted to increasing deficits rather than having one at all which is the sort of “junkie culture” road that monetary policy went down. If we look back to a past advocate of fiscal stimulus John Maynard Keynes he was also someone who suggested that when the growth came there would be a period of payback.

What we also find ourselves mulling is the difference between the specific and the general. I am sure that everyone can think of a project that would provide plenty of benefits and gains but as we move to a more generalist position we find ourselves facing a reality of Hinkley Point and HS2. To be fair our two professors do acknowledge this.

Bridges to nowhere, “pet” projects and other wasteful spending can outweigh any benefits of countercyclical fiscal policy.

As a conclusion the Ivory Tower theory is that fiscal policy will work. There are two catches the first is that if they were even regularly right we would not be where we are. The next is that on some measures we have been trying it for quite some time.

In reality the establishment seems likely to latch onto this as we have discussed before.

 

 

The rocky upwards ride of Bitcoin continues

One of the features of 2017 has been the extraordinary price volatility exhibited by Bitcoin. This has of course come at a time when many have been mulling exactly the reverse in equity markets although of course the current rhetoric over and from North Korea may well change that. For some perspective let us look back to the 29th of December.

“When I signed off before Christmas I ended with this.

The average price of Bitcoin across all exchanges is 910.16 USD

As you can take the boy out of the city but it is much harder to take the city out of the boy I had noted that it had been further on the move this week and now I note this.

Bid: $972.27 Ask: $972.28

So there has been a push higher and of course we are reminded of two things. The first is simply a factor of the way that we count in base ten meaning that the threshold of US $1000 is on the near horizon and the second is the Bitcoin surge of a bit more than a couple of years ago.”

Back then I pointed out two things. Firstly the chart pattern was of a “bowl” formation so that the price would need to keep rushing higher or it would end up like one of those cartoon characters who run over the edge of a cliff and briefly levitate before the inevitable happens. The next was that it was approaching the price of gold in individual units although later we looked at the fact that as an aggregate it was a long way away as there is much more gold.

What was driving things?

There were various influences. One generic was fear of what plans central banks have for fiat countries in an era of low and indeed negative interest-rates. Partly linked with this was the specific issue of demonetisation in India where some bank notes were withdrawn. Added to this was the continuing demand from wealthy Chinese to move some of their money abroad and the efforts of the authorities to block this so at times Bitcoin gets used.

The surge

Here is Fortune to bring us up to date.

Bitcoin was worth less than $590 a year ago. Then early Tuesday, the cryptocurrency surged to yet another all-time high above $3,500, as investors likely pulled their funds from the new Bitcoin spinoff, Bitcoin Cash or “Bcash,” to invest it in Bitcoin.

Bitcoin pulled back slightly by mid-day, trading at $3,430.

CNBC returned to the comparison with the price of gold although to be fair they did offer some perspective.

That’s nearly three times the price of gold, which settled at $1,262.60 an ounce, up nearly 10 percent for 2017…….That said, the gold market is worth trillions while bitcoin’s market capitalization is only about $57 billion…..Lee pointed out that the overall size of the gold market at about $7.5 trillion dwarfs that of bitcoin.

It didn’t take long from approaching the price of gold to nearly triple it did it? Bloomberg has decided to give us a comparison which will upset central bankers everywhere.

It has increased more than threefold this year, compared with a doubling in the value of Vertex Pharmaceuticals, the best performer in the S&P 500 Index.

At least they didn’t point out that it has gone up (much) more than house prices as there is only so much a central banker can take in one go! Still they were not finished with comparisons.

Here’s some other stuff you could buy for the price of one bitcoin, including but not limited to 100 22-pound boxes of Hass avocados.

 Actually that don’t impress me much to coin a phrase as a PC user who is not especially keen on living solely on avocados and facing the consequences of setting up a stall to sell them all. But we get the idea.

Splitting the atom

The cryptocurrencies have a problem around growth and change and here is the FT Alphaville view on the fork at the opening of this month.

In the next 24 hours, the trust in the bitcoin system is going to be even more severely tested than usual. The community of miners, nodes and developers is initiating a so-called hard fork which hopes to expand the network’s processing capacity, allowing it to scale more effectively. In the process bitcoin will be split in half, and two new systems will emerge.

The hope is that faith will be channelled into the newly evolved, expanded and improved chain, while the old chain will be abandoned. But anyone and everyone who has a bitcoin will via the process suddenly be endowed with two assets instead of one, with a free option to support one and render the other useless. If the effective split makes people feel twice as enriched, it’s worth asking, why they shouldn’t feel inclined to keep hold of both of them? And that too will be an option.

It would appear that investors have sold the new Bitcoin cash to buy more of the existing Bitcoin. It would be amusing if they are rejecting change wouldn’t it? On a more serious note is this how money will be created in the future? We only have a very short time frame to consider but as we stand there has been both money and wealth creation here. Perhaps the central banks are in charge after all……

The only way is up baby

Business Insider seems rather keen.

Arthur Hayes, CEO of BitMEX, a bitcoin derivative exchange, thinks SegWit marks an important milestone for bitcoin’s future.

“At long last, the solution touted to solve bitcoin’s scaling problems, Segwit, is activated,” Hayes said.

“With Segwit implemented, I believe $5,000 Bitcoin is within striking distance,” he concluded.

Comment

Let us look at the functions of money and start with a unit of account. Many people will know of Bitcoin but how many will account in it? Not much I would suggest. The price surge will mean that so far it has performed really rather well as a store of value and indeed quite an accumulator of it but we also need to note that along the way there have been sharp drops. There has been progress in it being a medium of exchange as more places accept it but it is still a very long way away from anything like universal acceptance.

However in continues to survive and in more than a few ways thrive. Fears of central banks blocking bank accounts continue to feed its growth. Frankly the rumours that Euro area bank deposits could be frozen in a banking collapse would have been cunning if started by a Bitcoin fan. There are loads of risks just like there are in any new venture but also care is needed as this from Gadfly of Bloomberg indicates.

There are also fears that big traders are having an undue influence on the price of Bitcoin, with one blogger flagging the actions of “Spoofy” — a nickname for traders who apparently place million-dollar orders without actually executing them. Bitcoin is essentially unregulated, so risks are abundant.

I love the idea that regulation has pretty much fixed risk, what could go wrong? But even more importantly many ordinary or dare I say it regulated markets are being spoofed these days and if the reports that reach me are any guide the regulators seem to have both a tin ear and a blind eye. Along that road we may well find a reality where for some Bitcoin looks rather like a safe haven although these days we need to add the caveat whatever that is?

Also finance regularly provides us with curiousities. Today’s comes from the land of the rising sun as we note that it is clearly in the firing line from North Korea and yet the Yen has strengthened through 110 versus the US Dollar.

Central banks face an inflation inspired policy exit dilemma

Later today the ECB ( European Central Bank) will announce it latest policy decisions on interest-rates and extraordinary monetary policy such as QE ( Quantitative Easing) asset purchases. I am not expecting any grand announcement of change as this came last time if you recall.

As regards non-standard monetary policy measures, we will continue to make purchases under the asset purchase programme (APP) at the current monthly pace of €80 billion until the end of March 2017. From April 2017, our net asset purchases are intended to continue at a monthly pace of €60 billion until the end of December 2017, or beyond, if necessary, and in any case until the Governing Council sees a sustained adjustment in the path of inflation consistent with its inflation aim.

Ever since then they have been keen to tell us this is not a taper and the formal minutes showed quite a bit of debate on the matter.

either to continue purchases at the current monthly pace of €80 billion for an additional six months, or to extend the programme by nine months to the end of December 2017 at a monthly pace of €60 billion. In both cases, purchases would be made alongside the forthcoming reinvestments starting in March 2017.

I think they made the right choice to reduce the size of the monthly purchases but do not see why they guaranteed it to the end of the year apart from them being afraid of markets getting withdrawal symptoms.

What are these policies supposed to do?

Back in 2015 the ECB issued a working paper on how it thought QE worked.

First, via the direct pass-through channel, the non-standard measures are expected to ease borrowing conditions in the private non-financial sector by easing banks’ refinancing conditions, thereby encouraging borrowing and expenditure for investment and consumption.

Actually this is a generic explanation of the claimed benefits of extraordinary policies and applies in some ways more directly to the TLTROs (Targeted longer-term refinancing operations) . As ever it is the “precious” which is considered to be the main beneficiary.

this encourages banks to increase their supply of loans that can be securitised, which tends to lower bank lending rates.

Of course this can have plenty of effects and let us remind ourselves that house prices in Portugal are rising at an annual rate of 7.6% which is the “highest price increase ever observed” as I analysed on Monday. Let us then move on by noting that officially this will be recorded as a “wealth effect” and will benefit the mortgage books of the troubled Portuguese banking sector whereas for first-time buyers and those looking to move up the property ladder it is inflation. Although the Euro area measure of inflation ignores this entirely.

In December 2016, the annual rate of change was 0.9% (0.5% in the previous month)

We note that even so it is rising and move on.

Next we have this effect.

Second, via the portfolio rebalancing channel, yields on a broad range of assets are lowered. Asset purchases by the central bank result in an increase in the liquidity holdings of the sellers of these assets. If the liquidity received is not considered a perfect substitute for the assets sold, the asset swap can lead to a rebalancing of portfolios towards other assets.

This is how the 0.1% and indeed the 0.01% benefit as they of course by definition have plenty of assets overall. It is also part of the road where 8 people have as much wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population.

There is supposed to be a third announcement effect but it is hard not to have a wry smile at the claims made for Forward Guidance when you read this.

It has been found to be muted in the United Kingdom, moderate in the euro area and highly uncertain in the United States,

Inflation Target

Here we have the definition of it.

The primary objective of the ECB’s monetary policy is to maintain price stability…….The ECB has defined price stability as a year-on-year increase in the Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices (HICP) for the euro area of below 2%.

There is clear abuse of language here as the Euro area his in fact had price stability with inflation ~0% in recent times but the ECB does not want this. Back in the day a past ECB President ( Trichet) gave us a rather precise definition of 1.97% in his valedictory speech.

Where are we now?

Yesterday there was something of a change.

Euro area annual inflation was 1.1% in December 2016, up from 0.6% in November. In December 2015 the rate was 0.2%.

So the broad sweep of higher inflation in December around Europe continued as we saw quite a jump. Some of that may unwind but 2017 is likely to see a higher and higher theme as we note transport for fuel rising at an annual rate of 6% and vegetables at 5.2% so exactly the wrong sort of inflation for consumers and workers. There is only one country now with disinflation which is Ireland but more than a few clustering around 2% including Germany at 1.7%. It makes you think if we move to today’s house price update how statisticians in Ireland can report disinflation with house prices rising at an annual rate of 7.1%. Also we seem set to see a phase of more general inflation worries from Germany which has house price inflation of 6.2%.

Exit strategies

Back in December 2009 my old tutor at the LSE Willem Buiter wrote this.

The large-scale ex-ante and ex-post quasi-fiscal subsidies handed out by the Fed and to a lesser extent by the other leading central banks, and the sheer magnitude of the redistribution of wealth and income among private agents that the central banks have engaged in could (and in my view should) cause a political storm.

He was not aware then of the scale of what he calls fiscal subsidies which have been handed out by the Bank of England, Bank of Japan and the ECB since amongst others. But here is his crucial conclusion.

Delay in the dropping of the veil is therefore likely.

The prediction that they will delay exiting from monetary policies such as QE is spot on in my view and is where we are now. We have seen a PR campaign for example by Bank of England Governor Mark Carney as he sings along to Shaggy on distributional issues concerning wealth and also income.

She saw the marks on my shoulder (It wasn’t me)
Heard the words that I told her (It wasn’t me)
Heard the scream get louder (It wasn’t me)

However I disagree with Willem completely here.

There are few if any technical problems involved in reversing the unconventional monetary policies – quantitative easing, credit easing and enhanced credit support – implemented by central banks around the world as short-term nominal interest rates became constrained by the zero lower bound.

I was never entirely convinced by this line of argument but of course to be fair to Willem the situation now concerning QE is completely different in terms of scale.  Many bond purchases look to be permanent and the UK for example has bought Gilts which mature in the 2060s.

Comment

If we look at the overall picture we see that 2017 poses quite a few issues for central banks as they approach the stage which the brightest always feared. If you come off it will the economy go “cold turkey” or merely have some withdrawal systems? What if the future they have borrowed from emerges and is worse than otherwise? We learn a little from what the US Federal Reserve has done but maybe not as much as we might think for two reasons. Firstly whilst it stopped new QE purchases it continues to reinvest maturing purchases from the past. Secondly in terms of the international picture it did so whilst so many others were on the “More.More,More” road as it got a type of first mover advantage.

The Bank of England is in a particularly bad place as it applied more when in fact there were arguments for less ( likely higher inflation) followed by the Bank of Japan which is buying assets so quickly. Accordingly I wait to see if we get any hints of future moves from the ECB today.

Oh and do you note that the official rationale for QE type policies never seems to involve confessing you would like a lower value for your currency?

Me on TipTV Finance

 

http://tiptv.co.uk/inflamed-inflation-not-yes-man-economics/