The problems faced by the QE era make me wonder if QT is a mirage

If we were to step back in time to when the new QE era began around a decade ago we would not find any central bankers expecting us to be where we are now. In a way that is summarised by the fact that the original QE pamphlet of the Bank of England from the Charlie Bean tour of the summer of 2009 has a not found at this address description on the website these days. Or if we look back this speech from policymaker David Miles finishes like this.

Concluding, David Miles says that quantitative easing will assist spending but also notes it is hard to decide
what the “.appropriate scale of purchases is when the power of the mechanisms at work are difficult to
gauge.” He also notes that the timing and means of reversing this monetary easing will “.depend on the
economic outlook, which in turn depends on conditions in financial markets in general and with banks in
particular.

As to the reversing we are still waiting as all we have had is “More! More! More!” as we note that despite record highs for equity and bond markets financial market conditions are apparently still not good enough.

Switching to the real economy we see that in fact we are back in something of a trough right now. We discovered yesterday that the UK is flat lining and we know the Euro area is similar and the United States has been slowing down as well.

The New York Fed Staff Nowcast stands at 0.6% for 2019:Q4 and 0.7% for 2020:Q1. ( the numbers are annualised )

To that we can add Japan which faces the impact of the rise in the Consumption Tax to 10% this quarter.

Next and in some ways most revealingly is the way that QE has acquired a new name. In Japan it has morphed into QQE or Quantitative and Qualitative Easing at the time purchases of equities and commercial property began. Since then it has become QQE with Yield Curve Control. We await to see if the review being conducted by President Lagarde leads to changes at the ECB but we do know this about the US Federal Reserve. From CNBC on the 8th of October.

Powell stressed the approach shouldn’t be confused with the quantitative easing done during and after the financial crisis.

“This is not QE. In no sense is this QE,” he said in a question and answer session after the speech.

The reality is that it fulfils the description of David Miles above in the case of the Treasury Bill purchases with the difference that they have a shorter maturity, although of course back then QE was not meant to be long-term.

The Bank of England looks ahead

Last night Andrew Hauser who is the Executive Director looked at the state of play.

Before the financial crisis, our balance sheet was modest, at 4% of GDP. Since then, and in direct response to the
crisis, that figure has risen to around 30%: a more than seven-fold increase.

He then looks ahead and point one covers a lot of ground to say the least.

The first is that, judged by historical standards, big
balance sheets are here to stay. That’s not a prediction that QE will never unwind: it will. But we have a
bigger responsibility than we did to provide liquidity to the system, in good times and bad, and to a wider set
of organisations, to maintain financial stability. And that’s not going away.

It was nice of him to give us a good laugh about it being permanent! At least I hope he was joking. The liquidity mention doffs it cap to some extent to the mess that the US Federal Reserve has got itself into as well as the fact that changes to the structure of the system such as banks being required to have more capital have put increased pressure on this area.

The next point meanders a bit but we eventually get to an estimate of circa £200 billion for a QT target or objective,

Point two is that big doesn’t mean outsized – so the balance sheet will eventually shrink from where it is today. That’s something the Bank has been stressing for some time. But the Discussion Paper has allowed us to put a tighter range on that forecast, and suggests our liabilities probably only need to be half the size they are today to carry out our
mission once QT is underway/

Ah “eventually!” Also some would think the sort of sum he is thinking of is indeed outsized.

Point three contains some welcome honesty.

Neither we nor the firms who use our liquidity really know what their demand will be when conditions normalise.

Finally we have this

The final message, therefore, is that we must have as our ultimate goal an end-state framework that can cope with
that ambiguity without shaking itself, and us, to bits.

How Much?

The Bank of England balance sheet is more than just QE

Three quarters of the Bank’s assets is in the form of a loan to the Asset Purchase Facility backing £435bn of
gilt holdings and £10bn of corporate bonds, while another £127bn has been lent to banks under the
Term Funding Scheme. A further £13bn of liquidity has been extended under the so-called
‘Index Linked Term Repo’ facility, part of the Sterling Monetary Framework (SMF).
Nearly all of that activity has been financed by an increase in central bank reserves.

He does not point it out but this structure led to another consequence which is that the Term Funding Scheme (and some smaller factors) adds to the official definition of the national debt raising it by around 8% of GDP.

Hard Astern Captain

I have long considered the Bank of England course reversal plan to be unwise and perhaps stupid.

First, the MPC does not intend to begin QT until Bank Rate has risen to a level from which it could
be cut materially if required. The MPC currently judges that to be around 1.5%.

– Second, QT will be conducted over a number of years at a gradual and predictable pace, chosen by
the MPC in light of economic and financial market conditions at the time.

– Third, the QT path will take account of the need to maintain the orderly functioning of the gilt and
corporate bond markets including through liaison with the Debt Management Office.

– And, fourth, the QT path can be amended or reversed as required to achieve the inflation target.

 

Comment

Frankly the very concept of the Bank of England raising interest-rates as high as 1.5% is laughable under the present stewardship. I have long thought that the plan as described above demonstrates that there is no real intention to reverse QE. There are former policymakers who explicitly endorse this such as David Blanchflower. But there are also implicit issues such as waiting for yields to rise and prices to fall as well as thinking there can be an “orderly market” when the biggest holder sells. When you intervene in a market on such a large scale there is always going to be trouble exiting. One answer to that is to not get too exposed in the first place and to me selling when others might be selling because of losses as well is classic Ivory Tower thinking.

None of that is Andrew Hausers fault as he is in this regard merely a humble functionary. So we shuld thank him for his thoughts that even if QE somehow was teleported away things would still be different.

Bringing all this together, our conversations with firms suggest the current sterling PMRR is of the
order of £150-250bn.

Meanwhile if Livesquawk are correct Switzerland might be adding more not less extraordinary monetary action. Also the original reason was external ( Swiss Franc) whereas now it seems to have spread.

Oxley said, “There is good reason to take the SNB’s forecasts seriously: it has not tended to change its policy stance in the past unless its inflation forecast foresees deflation at some point over its three-year horizon. If the bank crosses the deflationary Rubicon again, this would lend support to our below-consensus view that the bank will end up cutting the policy rate to -1.00pct in the first half of 2020.”

 

 

 

A new era of US QE starts with it being renamed Reserve Management

Last night saw something of an epoch making event as all eyes turned to Denver Colorado. This time it was not for the famous “hurry up offence” of John Elway in the NFL but instead there was a speech by Jerome Powell the Chair of the US Federal Reserve. In it he confirmed something I have been writing about on here for some time and the emphasis is mine.

Reserve balances are one among several items on the liability side of the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet, and demand for these liabilities—notably, currency in circulation—grows over time. Hence, increasing the supply of reserves or even maintaining a given level over time requires us to increase the size of our balance sheet. As we indicated in our March statement on balance sheet normalization, at some point, we will begin increasing our securities holdings to maintain an appropriate level of reserves. That time is now upon us.

This of course raises my QE ( Quantitative Easing) to infinity theme. I also note Chair Powell raises the issue of the balance sheet so let us look at that. It peaked at around US $4.5 trillion as we moved into 2015 and stayed there until October 2017 when the era of QT ( Quantitative Tightening) or reverse QE began and it began to shrink. Over the last year it shrank from US $4.17 trillion to US $3.76 trillion before the repo crisis struck.

In mid-September, an important channel in the transmission process—wholesale funding markets—exhibited unexpectedly intense volatility. Payments to meet corporate tax obligations and to purchase Treasury securities triggered notable liquidity pressures in money markets. Overnight interest rates spiked, and the effective federal funds rate briefly moved above the FOMC’s target range. To counter these pressures, we began conducting temporary open market operations. These operations have kept the federal funds rate in the target range and alleviated money market strains more generally.

What this misses out is that US Dollar liquidity has been singing along with Queen for some time.

Pressure: pushing down on me,
Pressing down on you, no man ask for.
Under pressure that burns a building down,
Splits a family in two,
Puts people on streets.

Here I am from the 25th of September last year.

The question to my mind going forwards is will we see a reversal in the QT or Quantitative Tightening era? The supply of US Dollars is now being reduced by it and we wait to see what the consequences are.

As you can see the phrase “unexpectedly intense volatility” is not true of anyone who is a follower of my work. One way of looking at this is that forwards pricing of the US Dollar has been in the wrong place for theory. This is one of the reasons why German bond yields have gone so negative ( as I type this the benchmark ten-year yield is -0.58%) because if you try to switch to US Treasury Bonds to gain the 1.54% or 2% higher yield you find that exchange rates take away the gain. To get a higher yield you have to take an exchange rate risk. Returning to the Chair Powell statement we see that it is more realistic to say we were hovering near an edge and then slipped over it.

If we return to the balance sheet we see that it has risen to US $3.95 trillion for a rise of the order of 190 billion in response to the repo crisis. The exact amount varies daily with the individual repo operations and also fortnightly as we now have those too. Just as an example the difference between the operations on Monday and yesterday was some US $9.55 billion lower. I point this out as some places have been claiming you add the repo operations up which is really rather odd when most so far only have the lifespan of a Mayfly.

Those who analyse events via the prism of bank reserves should be happy with this bit.

Indeed, my colleagues and I will soon announce measures to add to the supply of reserves over time. Consistent with a decision we made in January, our goal is to provide an ample supply of reserves to ensure that control of the federal funds rate and other short-term interest rates is exercised primarily by setting our administered rates and not through frequent market interventions.

An official denial

By now you should all know how to treat this.

I want to emphasize that growth of our balance sheet for reserve management purposes should in no way be confused with the large-scale asset purchase programs that we deployed after the financial crisis.

Indeed the next part is simply untrue or if you are less kind a lie.

Neither the recent technical issues nor the purchases of Treasury bills we are contemplating to resolve them should materially affect the stance of monetary policy, to which I now turn.

One of the roles of a central bank is setting interest-rates as part of monetary policy. Those who follow my podcasts will know I defined it as there second role after the existence and provision of a currency, in this case the US Dollar. Briefly monetary policy was affected as overnight interest-rates went outside the official range as described below by the Financial Times.

the pressures that bubbled up in September and sent the cost of borrowing cash overnight via repurchase, or repo, agreements as high as 10 per cent.

That is not as large as you might think as the impact is only for each day but it was way outside the official range. Also there were times when the role of a central bank was in setting the interest-rate for overnight money in terms of its monetary policy. The credit crunch moved events along as that did not have the hoped for impact on the real economy ( and hence we got QE) but the underlying principle remains.

Comment

So we find that the new version of Quantitative Easing or what will no doubt be called QE4 had the champagne bottle smashed on it last night by Jerome Powell as it got ready to go down to the slipway. It remains for it to be fully fitted out as I do not believe it will stop here.

making the case instead for the Fed to buy anywhere from $200bn to more than $300bn of shorter-dated Treasury bills over the next six months. ( Financial Times)

As you can see the lower estimate pretty much coincides with the change in the balance sheet do far with the repo operations. The larger amount perhaps aims for some sort of margin.

The difference between this and the QE we have seen so far is the term of the assets purchased. Treasury Bills last for up to a year whereas Treasury Bonds are for longer periods of time with what is called the long bond being for thirty-years. Also bills do not pay interest as you pay less for them to allow for that.

So there are minor differences with past QE efforts but the direction of travel is the same. Let me put it another way with this from the US Federal Reserve,

Total assets of the Federal Reserve have increased significantly from $870 billion on August 8th, 2007

They have indeed as we wonder how long it will be before we get back to the previous peak of US $4.5 trillion and presumably beyond.

If QE really worked it would not need so many new names would it? Japan now calls it QQE and now the US calls it reserve management. Perhaps Governor Carney will call it climate-related QE.

 

 

 

To Infinity! And Beyond! The Bank of England and QE

It is nice to be proven correct and the business of Bank of England Governor Carney applying for the role of managing director of the IMF is something I suggested years ago. But today I wish to stay with the Bank of England and look at the future of its biggest monetary policy experiment which is what has become called QE or Quantitative Easing where it expands its balance sheet. So let us open with a how much?

Three quarters of the Bank’s assets is in the form of a loan to the Asset Purchase Facility backing £435bn of
gilt holdings and £10bn of corporate bonds, while another £127bn has been lent to banks under the
Term Funding Scheme . A further £13bn of liquidity has been extended under the so-called ‘Index Linked Term Repo’ facility, part of the Sterling Monetary Framework (SMF).

That gives us a total of £585 billion although some care is needed because you see the Term Funding Scheme is in but the preceding Funding for Lending Scheme which as of the last update still accounts for £10 billion is not. So whilst we have precision as so often care is needed with the definition as similar policies in terms of effect ( in this instance promising to boost business lending but somehow boosting mortgage lending instead) can be treated very differently. On that road the Term Funding Scheme managed to be added to the national debt which might have mattered a lot but due to circumstances ( bond market boom) has been much less of an issue than it might have been. Another way of looking at it is below.

Before the financial crisis, our balance sheet was modest, at 4% of GDP. Since then, and in direct response to the
crisis, that figure has risen to around 30%: a more than seven-fold increase.

These figures are from a speech given by Andrew Hauser who is an Executive Director at the Bank of England and he churns out something which could have been spoken by Sir Humphrey in Yes Prime Minister.

‘Too large’, and central banks may find themselves accused of usurping the role of financial markets,
harming innovation and inducing imprudent behaviour; fuzzying the boundary between monetary and fiscal
policy, providing a ‘dangerous temptation for … the political class’ ; or giving unmerited financial rewards to
reserves holders.

Actually this is what they have done and for those of you wondering about the last bit let me explain. One of the features of the QE era is that as the balance sheet has to balance there needed to be reserves on the other side of it and they get Bank Rate. When central bankers talk about there being market pressure for lower interest-rates this is what they mean.

The excess of reserves pushes down on overnight markets rates, but they are prevented from falling much below a floor of Bank Rate by the fact that banks can borrow reserves in the market and earn Bank Rate by depositing them at the Bank of England.

You may note that this is also a response to central bank policy something which they forget. Also let me address this bit.

And rates have indeed been closer to Bank Rate on average than at any point in the past twenty years.

This is both true and misleading. In the money markets this is a success as for example the US Federal Reserve has had its troubles with this ( if you see the acronym IOER that is what they are referring to). But outside that in the real economy it is misleading as so many have diverged from Bank Rate. You do not need to take my word for it as the existence of QE proves it. Putting it another way I pointed this out around 9 years ago when I started blogging and it is still true.

Returning to Bank Rate as being a reward that seems odd as it is a mere 0.75% so let me give you a couple of perspectives. It is compared to the ECB Deposit Rate of -0.4%. But if we stay with the UK you might say dip into a short-term Gilt but the one-year yields 0.59% and the two-year 0.53% so compared to them Bank Rate is a reward.

How will we engage reverse gear?

We get a statement of the obvious.

Just as QE increased the quantity of central bank reserves, QT will reduce it.

For newer readers QT stands for Quantitative Tightening and means this.

But at some point, as part of a future tightening strategy, the time will come to start reducing the stock of
purchased assets.

Okay how will this happen?

First, the MPC does not intend to begin QT until Bank Rate has risen to a level from which it could be cut materially if required. The MPC currently judges that to be around 1.5%.

There is a problem with the “currently judges” as a note to the speech points out.

This judgment was adjusted down from around 2% in June 2018, reflecting revised estimates of the effective lower bound for Bank Rate.

That is revealing in many ways and evokes memories of the way that the so-called equilibrium unemployment rate found its way from 7% to 4.25%. After all when you move things that much you lose pretty much all credibility. The issue of the effective lower bound was created because Governor Carney pointed out several times that he thought it was 0.5%. So he effectively torpedoed his own logic when he cut to 0.25%. Amidst the embarrassment, the Bank’s Ivory Tower suddenly decided that the lower bound for Bank Rate was 0.1% using the Term Funding Scheme as its sword.

Second, QT will be conducted over a number of years at a gradual and predictable pace, chosen by the MPC in light of economic and financial market conditions at the time.

That is ominous as it echoes the language of the talk about interest-rate increases as we have had Forward Guidance for at least five years now but net only one increase of 0.25%! Actually in the current environment even that may go later this year but that is not for today.

Third, the QT path will take account of the need to maintain the orderly functioning of the gilt and corporate bond markets including through liaison with the Debt Management Office.

Who could possibly have thought that buying some £435 billion of something would fundamentally change the Gilt market? Actually more trouble may come with the corporate bond market because it was not especially liquid anyway and being a (relatively) large seller will not be easy.

And, fourth, the QT path can be amended or reversed as required to achieve the inflation target.

So the QT path might involve more QE. It is hard not to laugh but once our mirth fades that is of course the road that the US Federal Reserve may now be on.

Comment

Let me address my “To Infinity! And Beyond!” point. At the current rate of progress Bank Rate will reach 1.5% around 2033. Should the Bank of England then decide it was right about 2% then we move onto around 2043. You get the idea which is rather like what has happened with the maturity of Greek debt which is always kicked further into the distance. The situation regarding timing gets worse should we see further cuts in interest-rates which right now are a lot more likely than rises. 2050s? 2060s?

In a way Mr. Hauser addresses this in his speech but he misses a crucial point.

When might this all start? No time soon, if you ask the financial markets! The current forward yield curve
does not reach 1.5% at all . But options markets price in a small probability of it occurring, and (as
the chart shows) expectations can shift quite rapidly: less than a year ago the implied central case start date
was in 2021.

Interest-rate expectations have shifted downwards time and time again in the credit crunch era and been matched by events. However expectations of interest-rate rise have not be matched by reality, otherwise the ECB and Federal Reserve would be raising later this month rather than either cutting or laying the groundwork for one.

Next let me address options markets as you see I used to be an options market-maker. Why would you price it at zero? Someone might want to buy so you make them pay for it. That is completely different to believing it might happen.

I have long believed that the Bank of England has no intention of reversing QE and this is also confirmed by the speech itself. After all with respect to Mr.Hauser if something was going to be done this would be a subject for the Governor not a mere executive director.

The Investing Channel

 

 

It is a case of harder times for the US economy

A feature of the current world economic slowdown has been that the United States has been outperforming its peers. Some of that has been genuine and some simply because the news flow was slowed by the time Federal workers were unpaid. However the chill winds are now being recorded and reported. From the Atlanta Fed.

The GDPNow model estimate for real GDP growth (seasonally adjusted annual rate) in the first quarter of 2019 is 0.4 percent on March 13, up from 0.2 percent on March 11. After reports on durable manufacturing and construction spending were released by the U.S. Census Bureau this morning, the nowcast of first-quarter real gross private domestic investment growth increased from -2.9 percent to -2.4 percent, and the nowcast of first-quarter real government expenditures growth increased from 1.7 percent to 2.5 percent.

As you can see the latest data nudge things a little higher but only to the giddy heights of 0.1% per quarter as we record GDP growth. It is noticeable that investment growth is is still solidly negative whilst we are seeing the Trump fiscal expansion in play perhaps also. Whilst one may disagree with the details of it the plan is turning out to be anti-cyclical as fiscal policy is supposed to be as opposed to the pro cyclical effort that we observed so devastating the Greek economy only yesterday.

Stuck like glue

However the head of the Atlanta Fed Ralph Bostic wants us to focus on other matters.

The U.S. economy, by most standard metrics, is doing pretty good,” he said. “We’ve been in a growth trajectory for 10 years now coming out of the Great Recession. Unemployment is at historic lows, 3.8 or 3.9 percent — rates we have not seen since the 1960s. Job creation is happening somewhere around 200,000 to 250,000 jobs a month. And we’re not seeing signs of accelerating inflation.

So classic deflection territory as whilst that was true when he made the speech on the 5th by the 8th we had a rather different view on job creation.

Total nonfarm payroll employment changed little in February (+20,000)

That seemed rather extreme so let us look for some perspective.

After revisions, job gains have averaged 186,000
per month over the last 3 months.

So our tentative view is that a slowing economy is now feeding into lower employment growth. Yesterday we saw that this is also beginning to impact on the unemployment situation.

Initial jobless claims data came out worse than expected. Last week it grew from 223K to 229. Continued claims stood at 1776K against 1758K one week earlier. ( fxpro)

So whilst these numbers are much lower than we saw a decade ago we are now facing a situation where the falls in unemployment and the unemployment rate are about to be replaced by rises. Perhaps Ralph meant that with this but it is hard to say as you can see.

 because there are a lot of things going on.

So Ralph as Marvin Gaye would say “What’s going on?”

The Federal Reserve

If we widen the analysis to the chair of the Federal Reserve he has been shifting his position.

 Because interest rates around the world have steadily declined for several decades, rates in normal times now tend to be much closer to zero than in the past. Thus, when a recession comes, the Fed is likely to have less capacity to cut interest rates to stimulate the economy than in the past, suggesting that trips to the ELB may be more frequent.

Odd if a recession is not feared by Jerome Powell why he is so bothered about it isn’t it? Also the question is begged as to why all the interest-rate cuts and the QE below seem to have us more afraid of recessions?

Between December 2008 and October 2014, the Federal Reserve purchased $3.7 trillion in longer-term Treasury and agency securities.

As to the programme to reduce the balance sheet or Quantitative Tightening then as I pointed out on the 12th of February that seems set to be put away in a cupboard and maybe to the back of it.

Current estimates suggest, however, that something in the ballpark of the 2019:Q4 projected values may be the new normal. The normalized balance sheet may be smaller or larger than that estimate and will grow gradually over time as demand for currency rises with the economy. In all plausible cases, the balance sheet will be considerably larger than before the crisis.

Tucked way in there is a potential rationale for the QE to infinity I discussed back on the 12th of February as well. If we switch to Chair Powell a few days later we get a hint of what he is really aiming at. The emphasis is mine.

Low- and moderate-income homeowners saw their wealth stripped away as home values dropped during the financial crisis and have not recovered as quickly or completely as others. Because home equity has been the main source of wealth among low- and moderate-income people, the crisis dealt a particularly severe blow to these households. Most Americans rely on home equity to send their children to college, invest in their own education and training, or start or grow a business. These aspirations are the basis upon which a strong economy is built. 

Also Chair Powell continues to apparently deliberately ignore the countries which have negative interest-rates of which Japan comes to mind today as it has just reconfirmed its -0.1% official rate.

Just over 10 years ago, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC, or the Committee) lowered the federal funds rate close to zero, which we refer to as the effective lower bound, or ELB. Unable to lower rates further.

If like in the UK they felt unable to lower interest-rates further due to problems with “the precious” ( the banks) they should say so as otherwise it is simply untrue.

Money Supply

Here the news looks better because the growth rate of the narrow M1 measure has picked up. It has grown at an annual rate of 4.6% in the most recent quarter up to the 4th of this month as opposed to 4.1% over six months and 3.2% over the preceding year. Whilst there has been a rise in checkable deposits the main move has been in money or cold hard cash. Yes the same money we are supposed to neither want nor need! Although of course the US banking system is somewhat backward in electronic developments.

So in the latter half of 2018 the US economy may well see a beginning of a pick-up in economic growth. The only caveat here is that the 2018 numbers were revised lower which flatters the recent growth numbers as we mull whether they might also be revised lower?

Comment

The official data is finally telling us the scale of the US slow down as the Atlanta Fed now cast gives us a running score. We now know it is close to flatlining like so many others although it id fair to point out that as Ralph Bostic hinted out its recovery has been stronger than elsewhere and let me add it was growing more strongly in 2018. Ironically that means it has slowed the most as economics lives up to its reputation of being the dismal science.

The latter part of 2019 may see a bounce but it does not look that strong so we may be in for a period of stagflation of sorts. The of sorts part is that inflation is historically low but then wage growth is no great shakes either if we look at the weekly pattern. This is because whilst hourly wages rose by 3.4% in the latest employment report hours worked fell back by 0.1 so weekly wages rose by less.

So let us end with some lyrics inspired by Ralph Bostic..

Well if you’re stuck for a while consider our child
How can it be happy without its ma and pa
Let’s stick together
Come on, come on, let’s stick together ( Roxy Music)

We are now facing a reality of QE to infinity

Today has according to CNBC brought us to a birthday anniversary.

Happy birthday to the BOJ it’s the twentieth anniversary of them starting QE ( @purpleline)

As ever the picture is complicated as the Bank of Japan started buying commercial paper ( which we consider part of QE now) in 1997 and started purchases of Japanese Government Bonds in March 2001. But the underlying principle is that it has been around for much of the “lost decade” period and those claiming success have an obvious problem with the “lost decade” theme. Also they have a problem with then explaining why the name was changed in Japan from QE to QQE as name changes are a sure sign of something that has gone wrong. After all if you have a great brand you don’t change the name. In case you were wondering it is now Qualitative and Quantitative Easing.

It was not consider a triumph as even early on (2006) the San Francisco Fed was worried about this.

While these outcomes appear to be consistent with the intentions of the program, the magnitudes of these impacts are still very uncertain. Moreover, in strengthening the performance of the weakest Japanese banks, quantitative easing may have had the undesired impact of delaying structural reform.

That second sentence has echoed around all subsequent attempts at QE leading to the zombie banks theme of which at the moment Deutsche Bank and Royal Bank of Scotland come to mind but there are plenty of others. The gain was a small drop in JGB yields which is why government’s love the policy as it makes it cheaper for them to borrow.

In 2012 the IMF conducted its own review but with similar results.

Using different measures for economic activity, ranging from growth to unemployment, the VAR
regressions pick up some impact on economic activity. While the evidence is still weak, these results are still an improvement over earlier findings looking at previous QE periods

Looked at like that it makes you wonder why some many countries copied this course of action? The band Sweet gave us a clue I think.

Does anyone know the way, did we hear someone say
We just haven’t got a clue what to do
Does anyone know the way, there’s got to be a way
To Block Buster

Central banks cut interest-rates to what they considered the lower bound saw it was not working and were desperate to find something else. On that subject a theme of mine was confirmed yesterday when David Blanchflower who was a Bank of England policymaker tweeting this.

at mpc in 2008 we were told zlb was .5% for tech reasons relating to building societies. ( ZLB = Zero Lower Bound)

In response to my enquiry that I had heard it was the banks he replied he thought it was due to a regulation but cannot remember exactly. It certainly was a line repeated by Governor Carney although he of course then contradicted it by cutting to 0.25%!

To Infinity! And Beyond!

Regular readers who have followed by argument that interest-rate increases in the United States could be accompanied by more QE in what would no doubt be called QE4 will not be surprised that I spotted this.

U.S. central bankers are currently debating whether it should confine its controversial tool of bond buying to purely emergency situations or if it should turn to that tool more regularly, San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank President Mary Daly said on Friday.

This is intriguing not least because the actual policy right now is an unwinding of QE that we call Qualitative Tightening or QT. We actually have not had much QT and already there seems to be an element of cold feet about it. Let us look at her exact words.

In the financial crisis, in the aftermath of that when we were trying to help the economy, we engaged in these quantitative easing policies, and an important question is, should those always be in the tool kit — should you always have those at your ready — or should you think about those are only tools you use when you really hit the zero lower bound and you have no other things you can do,” Daly told reporters after a talk at the Bay Area Council Economic Institute.

“You could imagine executing policy with your interest rate as your primary tool and the balance sheet as a secondary tool, but one that you would use more readily,” she added. “That’s not decided yet, but it’s part of what we are discussing now.”

These sort of “open mouth operations” are often a way of preparing us for decisions which if not already been taken are serious proposals. So there is an element of kite flying about this to see the response. The bit that sticks out for me is that Mary Daly is willing to use more readily something she is not even sure worked as this below is far from a claim of success for QE.

when we were trying to help the economy,

That is rather different to it did help.

If we move on to looking at the economic outlook then if the US Federal Reserve is debating this the European Central Bank must be desperate to restart QE. Maybe there was a hint this morning from Jens Weidmann of the German Bundesbank when he spoke in South Africa.

Central banks all over the world were forced to climb great hills over the last decade. And there are more hills on the horizon.

Comment

Let us step back for a moment and consider what QE is and what it has achieved. Is it money printing? Well in electronic terms yes as the money supply grows but it is also a liquidity swap in that the money is exchanged usually for government bonds which then leads to other liquidity swaps via purchases of other assets. Then the trail gets colder….

So the economic effects are

  1. Money flowing into other assets leading to equity and house prices being at least higher than otherwise and usually higher.
  2. It supports companies that would otherwise have folded leading to the zombie banks and businesses theme.
  3. Lower interest-rates and bond yields meaning that it has indirectly helped both politicians and fiscal policy. This does not get much of an airing in the media because it is not well understood.
  4. Higher narrow money supply which has not led to the surge in inflation expected by economics 101 although that is at least partly due to consumer inflation measures being directed to ignore asset prices.

These may improve economic growth at the margin but there are no grand effects here although Mario Draghi only recently claimed that it was responsible for the Euro improvement in 2016/17. But this ignores the problems created as for example many central bankers are now telling us economic growth has a “speed limit” of 1.5% and the place with QE longest ( Japan) guides us to below 1%. Also there are the problems with productivity which have popped up. Finally there is the issue of helping the already wealthy and boosting inequality that is so bad they have to keep making official denials.

Quantitative easing has also helped to reduce net wealth inequality slightly through its positive impact on house prices. ( ECB January 2019)

This looks like the end of the interest-rates rising cycle

This feels like one of those days where there has been an epoch shift or to be more specific the morning after the night before. It is not as if we have been caught by surprise, as unlike so many have been ahead of the curve about the world economic slow down, and hence the implications for interest-rates and monetary policy. But there will be much wider implications from this as we go forwards and let us start from the fact that the biggest economic decision of 2019 may have just been made by a technocrat.

What happened?

The US Federal Reserve is significant on several counts. There is the ordinary significance of it being responsible for monetary policy in the world’s largest economy and for its reserve currency. There has recently been an additional one as it has been the standard-bearer for voluntarily raising interest-rates. Yet last night we got a combination of this.

 the Committee decided to maintain the target range for the federal funds rate at 2-1/4 to 2-1/2 percent……… In light of global economic and financial developments and muted inflation pressures, the Committee will be patient as it determines what future adjustments to the target range for the federal funds rate may be appropriate to support these outcomes.

No great surprise in the lack of a move last night but the promises that peaked at 3-4 interest-rate increases in 2019 have morphed into “will be patient” or perhaps 0. Then there was an additional statement which copied a part of what has become the European Central Bank model.

The Committee is prepared to adjust any of the details for completing balance sheet normalization in light of economic and financial developments. Moreover, the Committee would be prepared to use its full range of tools, including altering the size and composition of its balance sheet, if future economic conditions were to warrant a more accommodative monetary policy than can be achieved solely by reducing the federal funds rate.

So what has been called Quantitative Tightening or QT where some of the bonds bought previously are allowed to run off has run out of steam or “economic and financial developments”. The use of the word financial is significant as frankly it only reinforces the view that past falls in equity markets have driven this and we do get a flicker of democratic involvement ( I will leave readers to decide if that is good or bad) as of course they upset President Trump.

Next comes something which regular readers will know is something I have long suspected which is that in any slow down QE4 will come down the slipway. Or to be more specific the Federal Reserve balance sheet will no longer be contracting but will be expanded again. A particular significance of this will be that it could start with the balance sheet already being over US $4 Trillion in size.

There are various consequences of all of this. Two of them are major themes of my work with one of them being the earliest. As central banks went “all in” in terms of monetary policy I feared they would delay any exit policy and thus end up in the wrong cycle. The Fed deserves some credit for at least trying ( unlike so many others) but if not too little it was too late. Next is the issue of “junkie culture” where I feared we would be unable to wean ourselves off cheap credit and yields well that looks like where we are at right now. Some of you deserve credit for pointing out that the “new normal” would mean interest-rates would not go above 3% as that is looking rather en vogue today. That is in spite of the annualised economic growth rate being reported as 3.4% and the unemployment rate being reported as 3.9%.

Along this road the concept of independence of the US Federal Reserve and Chair Jerome Powell has folded like a deck chair, although some ( often ex-central bankers) retain a touching faith in the concept.

The Consequences

Equity Markets

The issue here is summarised to some extent by this tweet from James Mackintosh of the Wall Street Journal.

The FTSE 100 dividend yield ended 2018 3.5 percentage points above the 10-year Gilt yield, the most ever. One possibility: Market pricing risk of dividends being slashed after Brexit. Another: UK stocks are cheap. Or Gilt yields far too low.

After last nights Powell U-Turn whilst Gilt yields are in my opinion too low the reality is that going forwards they look more likely to stay there than before. Therefore on that measure the equity market looks cheap. Or to express it in another form the Yellen put for equity markets which replaced the Bernanke put has not been replaced by the Powell put option. This does not mean that they cannot fall but it does mean that monetary policy will do its best to stop them falling.

This brings us to the concept of the Plunge Protection Team a phrase I do use and sometimes I am joking. But this monetary policy  U-Turn following the way that Treasury Secretary Mnuchin spoke to the largest banks just before Christmas looks like a concerted effort.

Fiscal Policy

That to my mind has just seen a shift too and it comes from bond yields. Pressure for them to rise has just ended at least from one source. If you take the view that bond yields are the sum of expected future interest-rates then the latter has been shifting lower. If we stay with the US forecasts of 4% bond yields now face a reality of a ten-year Treasury Note yield of 2.67% and a thirty-year yield of 3.02%.

Thus fiscal policy just got cheaper and in some places it is currently very cheap if we look at a 1.24% ten-year Gilt yield in my country the UK and ultra-cheap if we look at Germany with its ten-year Bund yield of 0.18%. Let me offer you some thoughts on this.

  1. I know people like to laugh at the Donald but his fiscal plan of tax cuts has coincided with an economic slow down and now has got less expensive via lower bond yields.
  2. The concept of us all turning at least partly Japanese gets another tick in the box as they have never fully escaped the easing cycle either.
  3. Was the original plan of central bank “independence” to allow policies the politicians could never get away with?
  4. Ironically the countries that can most afford a fiscal boost such as Germany are those most set against it. Of course an element of its lower yields is due to its fiscal surplus but to my mind only a small bit.
  5. Politicians seem to be more in favour of fiscal policy when it is more expensive (higher bond yields) rather than cheaper. I cannot fully explain that but it often happens, perhaps they are just slow on the uptake.

Comment

There is a lot to consider here and the truth is some of this we have been observing over the last month or two as markets have adjusted to a newer reality. I have developed a new theory in the credit crunch era which is that conventional thought once it believes something takes quite some time to change after the evidence has shifted or the complete opposite of the famous quote attributed to JM Keynes.

When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do sir?

In reality many have continued on with thoughts about interest-rate rises in 2019 perhaps most bizarrely in the case of the ECB. Whereas for now central bankers seem to have Taylor Swift on repeat to sooth away any such thoughts.

We are never ever ever getting back together,
We are never ever ever getting back together,
You go talk to your friends, talk to my friends, talk to me
But we are never ever ever ever getting back together

 

 

 

Did the Riksbank of Sweden just panic?

This morning has brought news of an event that had been promised so many times but turned out to be a false dawn. Indeed on their way to apparently making sense of this world Rosa & Roubini Associates told us this.

Riksbank Likely to Wait Longer Before Lift-Off

I guess you are now all expecting this.

Economic activity is strong and the conditions are good for inflation to remain close to the inflation target in the period ahead. As inflation and inflation expectations have become established at around 2 per cent, the need for a highly expansionary monetary policy has decreased slightly. The Executive Board has therefore decided to raise the repo rate from −0.50 per cent to −0.25 per cent.

Actually there is quite a bit that is odd about this as indeed there has been, in my opinion, about the monetary policy of the world’s oldest central bank for some time. Let me give you two clear reasons to be doubtful. Firstly GDP growth plummeted from the 1% of the second quarter of this year to -0.2% in the third. Or as the Riksbank puts it.

As expected, Swedish GDP growth has slowed down during
the second half of this year. However, the downturn in the third  quarter was greater than expected.

So if we step back we immediately wonder why you raise rates when economic growth is slowing when you could have done so when it was rising? The excuse provided looks weak especially as we note the automobile industry has continued to struggle.

One contributory cause of  this was that household consumption fell by a surprisingly large  degree, but this can partly be explained by temporarily weak car sales.

Also inconvenient numbers are regularly described as temporary even when they are nothing of the sort.

Moving onto inflation the outlook has also changed as we have moved towards the end of 2018.

The inflation rate according to the CPI with a fixed interest rate (CPIF) was 2.1 percent in November 2018 (2.4 percent in October). The CPIF decreased by 0.1 percent from October to November.  ( Sweden Statistics)

Here is FXStreet from last week when these numbers came out.

Nordea Markets 1/2: : CPIF inflation stood at 2.1% in November, below consensus and 0.3% point below the ’s forecast. Core inflation, i.e. CPIF ex energy, came out at 1.4%, as much as 0.3% point below the Riksbank’s call.

To be fair to Nordea they were expecting a hike so perhaps they had received an official nod because there is now another factor at play. That is of course the lower trajectory of the oil price which looks set to depress headline inflation numbers in the weeks and months ahead. If we take a broad sweep the price of a barrel of Brent Crude Oil has fallen some US $30 since the Riksbank balked at raising Swedish interest-rates. I think you can spot the problem here. Apparently the wages fairy will turn up which of course is yet another central banking standard view in spite of reality not being that helpful.

Wage growth has certainly become a little lower than
the Riksbank’s forecast over recent months and the forecast has been revised downwards slightly.

The Riksbank’s own view

Let me know switch to some sections of their monetary report which frankly would fit better with an interest-rate cut.

The global economy, which has grown rapidly in recent years, is now entering a phase of more subdued GDP growth, which is in line with the Riksbank’s earlier forecasts.

So Sweden is swimming against the trend?

Economic activity in Sweden is still strong, although GDP growth and inflation have been weaker than expected.

So definitely maybe. What about inflation prospects?

Even though inflation has been lower than expected, the conditions remain good for inflation to stay close to the inflation target going forward.

Then we get quite a swerve because you might think that with the claimed view of the Riksbank more interest-rate hikes will be on the way. It would be logical assuming there is anyone who believes the growth path remains strong and inflation will be ~2% per annum. But apparently not.

The forecast for the repo rate has therefore been revised downwards to indicate that the next repo rate rise will probably occur during the second half of 2019 . After this, the forecast indicates approximately two rate rises per year by 0.25 percentage points each time.

If we skip the last sentence on the grounds that this has been not far off the promised pattern since the Riksbank last raised back in 2011 we see that what is now called a “dovish hike” has just taken place. What that means is that whilst there has been a rise the future expected path falls. Thus if you follow central banking forward guidance interest-rates as 2019 develops may now be lower than you were expecting.

Operation Twist and QE

The other factors in Sweden’s monetary policy are described below.

At the end of November, the Riksbank’s government bond
holdings amounted to just under SEK 350 billion, expressed as a nominal amount.

But they are giving Operation Twist an extra squeeze.

In December 2017, the Executive Board also decided that reinvestments of the large principal payments due in the first six months of 2019 should be allocated evenly across the period from January 2018 to June 2019 . This means that the Riksbank’s holdings of government bonds will increase temporarily in 2018 and the beginning of 2019.

If you wished to tighten monetary policy then you could simply let these bonds mature and not replace them.

US Federal Reserve

As we were expecting it did this last night.

Today, we raised our target range for short-term interest
rates by another quarter of a percentage point. ( Chair Powell)

Not everyone was on board however as there was a nearly 800 point swing in the Dow Jones Industrial Average in response to it. This also meant it ignored the advice from President Trump not to do so and to cut the amount of Quantitative Tightening. The issue was summed up by the Wall Street Journal but not in the way the author thought it meant.

The data says the economy is doing great; the markets say it could be headed for a recession.

At turning points the data is always too late by definition which means that some sort of judgement call is required. Central banks have about a 0% success rate in predicting recessions.

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider in the latest central banking moves but the major point is one of timing. Monetary policy is supposed to lead events and not to lag them which is why “data dependency” is not only flawed it is illogical. To be fair to the US Federal Reserve it has at least tried to get ahead of events whereas the Riksbank has not.

Meanwhile there is a country with a central bank meeting today which has just had some strong economic news.

The quantity bought in November 2018 when compared with October 2018 increased by 1.4%, with a strong monthly growth of 5.3% in household goods stores….The strongest growth can be seen in comparison with the same period a year earlier where the amount spent increased by 5.0% and the quantity bought increased by 3.6%.

Is anybody expecting Mark Carney and the Bankof England to have raised interest-rates in response to the strong retail sales data? I am using the past tense as the vote was last night.

Number Crunching