Posts Tagged ‘Alan Greenspan’

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It is the new way of doing central banking. It is called forward guidance. It means that central bankers are telling us what they are going to do in the future under different circumstances. In one fell swoop they have done away with an industry; an industry called predicting interest rates. It has become a game, and in some cases a business. The media fill their pages with predictions on which way interest rates are going next. Now we know, if the data says one thing, rates will go in a certain direction. Yet here we are, just a few weeks into the era of forward guidance, and already cracks are appearing. As for the markets, rather than becoming more stable and predictable, they have become more nervous than ever.

“I guess I should warn you, if I turn out to be particularly clear, you’ve probably misunderstood what I’ve said,” or so once and somewhat famously said the former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan. This was the era when Mr Greenspan was set on a pedestal so high that it is a wonder he didn’t need an oxygen mask and climbing ropes. What the markets really loved was the way in which Mr Greenspan had a veneer of knowing something they didn’t know; of having a plan – a cunning plan if you will – that always worked the way it was supposed to.

The finance crisis of 2008, and the fact that we appeared to miss a meltdown in capitalism by a whisker did leave Mr Greenspan’s reputation a little in tatters. Ben Bernanke, his replacement at the Fed, made a great play of saying what he thought; of letting us in, as it were, on his rationale. At first it didn’t go down well. The markets concluded he didn’t really seem to know what he was doing. It is the tragedy of the modern age. All of us stumble around in the dark most of the time, but we just don’t like to admit to it. And when our leaders admit to it, we think they are weak and uncertain.

These days, however, Ben’s stock is high. It was he, first among the central bankers, who came up with the idea of forward guidance, when he revealed that the Fed would keep pumping money into the economy via QE for as long as unemployment remained high. Now they are all at it. The Bank of England – under the leadership of Mark Carney – is now saying that rates will stay at half a per cent as long as unemployment is over 7 per cent.

It is just that the minutes from the latest Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) meeting revealed that one member of the committee – Martin Weale – voted against the policy. It was not so much the idea of forward guidance he was against, it was the perceived timing. He appeared to fear that the 7 per cent target was too loose. Er, or maybe you could say that actually he was against forward guidance, because he wants a policy that one might describe as always flexible.

His dissent is important, because it rather put a question mark over the viability of the policy. You can interpret the Bank of England as saying if the economy does this, we will definitely do that, unless, that is, we change our mind. There are also hints that UK unemployment is set to fall much more rapidly than has been assumed. A survey from the CIPD and the latest Purchasing Managers’ Index both point to positive changes in UK unemployment in the pipeline. See: The UK jobs market boost . This has led to speculation that rates might be rising much sooner than the Bank of England has been suggesting.

It appears that the industry that grew up predicting what the MPC might do next has changed into one predicting what unemployment will do. If nothing else, jobs have become a more important economic indicator – and maybe that is no bad thing; after all common sense suggests it should be the most important indicator.

In the US, recent data has pointed to a sharp improvement in the jobs outlook, with the latest survey suggesting US unemployment is now at its lowest level since October 2007.

So let’s review the situation. The signs, both in the form of hard data and from surveys, point to a labour market that is improving faster than many had dared to hope for. That means monetary policy might be tightened faster than many had feared. The markets are spooked by it all. ‘Better than they dared hope for’ jobs data turned out to be less of a boon than ‘rates rising faster than they had feared’, – at least that is what they are saying at the moment.

But then the markets are fickle and how they react one day can be quite different on another. If you think the markets are making themselves clear, it probably means you “misunderstood what they are saying”.

© Investment & Business News 2013

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“I think I should warn you,” said Ben Bernanke, “if you think I am making myself clear, then that means you have probably misunderstood me.” Witty, and a tad daft. It is just that actually those words were not spoken by Mr Bernanke at all; rather they were spoken by his predecessor as the Fed chairman Alan Greenspan.

In fact, when Ben took over at the Fed he went to great lengths to say he was not one for cryptic remarks. He would say it as he saw it. He promised to be something of a blunt speaker. (Ay up lad, I say wat I mean tha noes). Last week, however, he seemed to do an impressive impersonation of Mr Greenspan. His lips and eyes, or his statement and his inference, seemed all seemed out of sync.

Don’t get confused,” said the Fed Chairman, “The overall message [from the Fed’s rate setting committee] is accommodation.”

His words had been eagerly awaited. Last month Ben suggested the Fed may be tightening monetary policy soon. This time he said they will be doing no such thing. Rather that we may see a “gradual and possible change in the mix of [monetary] instruments.”

So what does that mean? A change in mix suggests the details are different but the overall thrust the same.

So that’s the headline.

What about the substance?

The latest minutes from the Fed said that many members of the FOMC – that’s the Federal Open Market Committee – “indicated that further improvement in the outlook for the labour market would be required before it would be appropriate to slow the pace of asset purchases.” Again this needs translating. “Many” is supposed to be code for slightly over half. Subsequent to the meeting of the FOMC to which these minutes relate, job data on the US has seen another big improvement. That rather suggests that more than half of the men and women who determine monetary policy are on the cusp of agreeing to “slow the pace of asset purchases.”

So Ben says one thing, and the minutes say something else.

The minutes also said that ‘some members’ wanted to see evidence that GDP growth was picking up before they agreed to tighten policy. So let’s decode that. In this case, “some” means fewer than half. The data on GDP is not expected to be so good in Q2. In other words, fewer than half are not ready to tighten policy.

Would you believe it? The markets loved all this. Somehow they concluded that the Fed is not going to tighten monetary policy as quickly as they had feared, so they went out and bought, pushing the Dow and S&P 500 to new all-time highs.

Capital Economics took a look at the Fed’s words and concluded that they suggest QE will be reduced somewhat in September, will cease altogether in 2014 and rates will rise in 2015. This is actually pretty much the same as what it was saying before the Fed released its minutes.

In other words, all that has really changed is that the Fed is saying much the same thing as it was a few weeks ago; it is just using more ambiguous words to say it.

And that was enough to get the markets all bullish again.

© Investment & Business News 2013

It is not often that we get a chance to test theories, at least not when it comes to the economy. But we have such a chance right now, and it relates to China, and whether or not China is experiencing its own credit crunch, or something altogether less serious.

Critics of Mervyn King and Ben Bernanke said that they misread things before the crisis of 2007/08 erupted. These critics say that during the build-up of the credit bubble, central banks should have hit the brakes, and upped interest rates. In short, like the very best party pooper, take away the punch bowl just as things start to get going.

Right now, in China, it appears that the central bank – presumably under instructions from the government – has taken away the punch bowl. The markets don’t like it, but then maybe on this occasion that is how it should be.

The interbank rate in China – that is the interest rates at which banks lend to each other –has soared. Déjà vu say those who recall what it was like in 2007 and 2008 in the West, when the words credit and crunch first started to appear in the same sentence.

It is just that some say China is not at that stage yet. Sure, signs of a credit bubble are clear, but it is not like the UK and the US during the height of their bubble – not yet.

The People’s Bank of China, or PBC, published a note last week saying: “Liquidity for the banking system as a whole remains at a reasonable level.” And since the PBC tends to follows the dictates of government, it is generally assumed that is the view of China’s government too.

China’s State Council recently stated: “We must promote financial reform in an orderly way to better serve economic restructuring.” Again, this suggests the government wants to rein back all that borrowing.

There is one major difference between China’s credit bubble and the one we experienced in the West. In the economy behind the Great Wall, it is local government and state owned companies that are hitting the credit button.

What China needs is for less money to be thrown at investment projects and more to trickle down into wages. In the case of China, squeezing credit may boost consumer spending – in the long run at least. It is all part of the process of adjustment China must go through as it shifts from investment to consumer led growth.

China’s government appears to understand this.

Interest rates are going up – at least that’s the way it looks. They are going to go up in the US, as the Fed has suggested, and they appear to be rising in China, as the government wants.

In the case of the US, if rates rise it will be because of good news on the US economy. If they rise in China, it is because the government is trying to learn from the lessons of Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke.

© Investment & Business News 2013

“I guess I should warn you,” once said Alan Greenspan, chairman of the US Federal Reserve before Ben Bernanke held that position, “If you think I am making myself clear, that probably means you have misunderstood me.” Ben Bernanke doesn’t say things like that. When he took over at the Fed he vowed to say it straight, tell it like it is, and avoid launching into jargonese whenever possible. And that is how it has panned out. Take monetary policy, for example.

Ben had spelt it out in terms a child could understand, (well at least a child that had studied economics): monetary policy would be tightened under certain circumstances. He then defined what those circumstances were and they now appear to be emerging. This is not new; the data had already been set before us in the full light of media scrutiny. Mr Bernanke has reacted the way in which he always said he would, and the markets react as if the Fed chairman has grown two heads, or taken on an alter ego.

As has been pointed out here many times, the news out of the US has been good of late. Notwithstanding the fact that in Q2 the US is likely to see less growth than in Q1, signs are afoot that the US economy is slowly returning to normal: to pre 2007, or even pre 2004 type conditions.

This is not bad news. It is good news. The US consumer, so long the central hub in the global economy, looks set to be moving back to the centre stage. Companies that export their wares to the US, and US companies that sell their wares to the US consumer can celebrate. There may be a knock on effect too, as companies benefit from a resurgent US themselves see growth rise, giving their suppliers reason for hope.

What do the markets do? They panic.

They panicked because when Ben Bernanke announced that the Fed will be forking out $85 billion a month purchasing bonds – otherwise known as QE – (QE3, or maybe 4, depending on how you define these things), he said that once the economy improves, and unemployment falls to a certain level, the QE campaign will be cut down, and eventually stopped.

They panicked because Mr Bernanke confirmed that he hasn’t changed his mind and that if things carry on improving, QE will be reduced later this year (September being the expected month).

He also confirmed that if things carry on improving next year and the year after that interest rates may rise in 2015.

Certain things in life are predictable, Mr Bernanke’s comments yesterday, or at least their inference, falls in this category.

But the markets are nervous. They fear that in a world where interest rates are higher and US consumers have less debt, more jobs and spend more, certain assets – propped up as they are by bubble-like money flows – may fall or even crash.

The obvious candidates for such falls are US and UK bonds; equities too, but to a lesser extent. The markets themselves are worried about emerging market debt.
Why they are worrying now, over something that was always inevitable is a puzzle. It just goes to show that the markets are as wise as a wise man who has had a lobotomy.

And talking about wise, the latest wisdom out of the Eurozone is that the crisis is nearly over.

Certainly the latest PMI, produced by Markit, suggests the region is now merely in recession, as opposed to being in deep recession.

But here is a tip to the wise; maybe as bond yields rise, as QE comes to an end, it will be indebted Europe that suffers the real woe.

Of course if the ECB launches QE when the Fed stops, that may just be enough to allow the euro area to follow the US into recovery (two years or so behind, but follow nonetheless).

But the ECB is far too wise to do that. Remember Mario Draghi once said the ECB will do whatever it takes to save the euro. But just in case you think Mr Draghi was making himself clear, just remember that he actually said: “Within our mandate, the ECB will do whatever it takes to save the euro.” The markets probably misunderstood what that meant.

© Investment & Business News 2013

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Be under no doubt, record low interest rates and quantitative easing are the main reasons why equities are riding high at the moment. There is this view that central banks control interest rates; that they can determine flows of money. So why panic about rising rates spoiling the party? Central banks will only do this once the economy is back on its feet. It is just that there are reasons to think this analysis is wrong.

It is remarkable how, in this post financial crisis era, central banks still seem to operate under a kind of halo. The media and organisations such as the IMF still suggest that these central bankers are like mini gods, moving the pieces of the economy around. They are like Zeus in one of those old Hollywood movies, in which the gods of Olympus (played by the likes of Lawrence Olivier), controlled the movements of mortal man in much the same way a croupier moves chips across a roulette board.

Maybe the truth is that central banks have about as much power as Zeus does in the real world, which is to say that the sense of the central bank’s omnipotence is based on a myth.

So did central banks create the financial crisis of 2008 by letting interest rates fall too low, or were their actions largely irrelevant? Maybe the real reason why inflation fell during the 1990s and noughties was that the Internet helped to promote price competition and globalisation – in particular the rise of China – meant cheaper manufactured goods.

At the same times, ageing in Japan, China’s policy of protecting the yuan, and rising corporate profits led to a global savings glut, meaning there was lots of money sloshing around the system, pushing down interest rates. Alan Greenspan himself alluded to it when he was chairman of the Fed and he talked about long-term interest rates set by the markets being lower than short-term rates set by central banks.

But supposing things went into reverse. The Ernst and Young ITEM Club recently forecast that inflation will rise later this decade as wages increase in China, which will lead to rises in the price of manufactured goods. It also forecast that UK bank rates will be increased to 1 per cent in 2015 and to 2 per cent in 2016. On the back of rising interest rates, it forecast that mortgage interest payments will jump 15 per cent in 2015 and by a massive 23.4 per cent in 2016.

But is it possible that it is underestimating the changes that may occur?

Zeus is a myth. We now know that bankers’ hubris gets punished, and maybe central bankers have an Achilles heel. And that heel is that actually, there are forces at work – underlying forces – that are far more important than what members of monetary policy committees say and do.

Alan Greenspan once said it is the job of central bankers to take away the punch bowl as the party gets started. Maybe changes across the global economy will do this anyway, no matter how much gin and vodka central bankers pour into the QE punchbowl.

© Investment & Business News 2013

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It is the great dread. Right now, inflationary pressures are weak in the Eurozone, and deflation is seriously looking like it is back on the agenda. But suppose, just suppose, that from out of nowhere inflation starts to rise, and central banks find that, in order to keep it in check, not only must the rate of interest rise, but the real rate of interest – that is to say relative to inflation – must rise too. It won’t happen, you might say. Why should inflation rear its ugly head at times like these? Well, don’t go so fast.

There are deeper forces at work, and there are reasons to think that in the next few years inflation may return. This is why.

During the boom years central bankers must have had sore vertebrae. They must have because economists, and finance ministers around the world kept slapping it. To let you into a secret, it seems that to an extent central bankers also slapped their own backs – albeit in a subtle way. Mervyn King gave Alan Greenspan’s spine a good tingling; Greenspan let his hand fall upon Mervyn’s spinal column.

The IMF was at it too, slapping away. Why such so much friendly smacking? It all boils down to NICE: that is to say non-inflationary, continuously expansionary. During the noughties, and indeed the late 1990s, economies in the developed world (with the exception of Japan) enjoyed the best of both worlds: strong growth, but modest inflation. Central banks were held up as the reason. Even Gordon Brown received some praise for giving the Bank of England independence, and giving it free rein to do what was right.

These days, central bankers’ savvy is not quite so appreciated, but even so, only a few months ago, they were being cited as the main reason why inflation across the world is so low.

But here is an alternative view for you. Maybe there was another cause of such low inflation. Perhaps there were even two main causes: globalisation and technology. The Internet created unprecedented price competition, while technology helped more efficient production, which led to lower costs. And the rise of emerging markets led to far cheaper manufactured goods, which were imported by the West from factories in Asia.

The part played by commodities in all this confused the picture. The rise of China may have meant cheaper manufactured goods, but also led to a rise in demand for oil, metal and then food. So we had downward inflation pressure on manufactured goods, and upward pressure on commodities. This confused the picture, and may have fooled central bankers, leading them to make mistakes.

But are the forces putting downward pressure on prices still in action? Maybe the Internet effect in creating price pressure via the magic competition was a one-off.

Now take globalisation. Earlier this week, LGIM economist James Carrick suggested that many of the forces that helped globalisation push down on prices are moving into reverse.

He said: “LGIM research shows that [the] increase in global import penetration effectively reached a plateau in 2006, largely due to changes in the Chinese economy. This has grown massively since joining the WTO, but it is also maturing quickly. Greater use of technology and more sophisticated production capabilities mean that China is getting richer and its workers are paid more.

“If the benefits of shifting basic assembly work to China are decreasing, companies will keep production closer to home, an effect we are seeing already with Mexico no longer losing market share in the US. This ultimately means firms can’t keep cutting costs by using cheaper suppliers and therefore will result in higher inflation.”

Mr Carrick reckons there are already signs of this change in the nature of globalisation putting upward pressure on inflation. Well maybe, but to be frank it is early days. We are talking about a trend that may take several years before it becomes obvious.

But would a rise in inflation be a bad thing? After all, inflation is a good way to reduce the real value of debt.

It depends. If we get wage inflation too, then household debt will suddenly look more manageable, and nominal government tax receipts will rise, making government debt look less frightening.

But…suppose wages don’t rise. Suppose prices rise, making us all worse off, interest rates rise making those with debts even worse off, but wages rise more slowly. That would be a nasty set of circumstances.

One thing seems likely. If inflation does start to pick up substantially later this decade, bond prices will suddenly look way too expensive, and we may well see their values crash.

Central banks may have less say over inflation than they are given credit for and QE may be less inflationary than it is assumed. But QE has forced up asset prices, and if external factors then cause a crash, the fall-out would be very unpleasant. If all this happened, maybe, as a punishment, we would need to give central bankers a good flogging.

© Investment & Business News 2013