Posts Tagged ‘the fed’

Woe is us. The pound is crashing. You would need to rewind the clock back all the way to October 2011 to find the last time the sterling euro exchange rate was so low, or so was the case at 9.30 am 25 February 2013. Come to think of it, October 2011 wasn’t actually that long ago. But hey, let’s not ride against the tide, the media says the pound is crashing; that this is bad, so let’s run with the crowd.

Except before we do that, let’s turn to the minutes from the Bank of England’s MPC published a few days before Christmas last year. The minutes stated: “The gradual appreciation of sterling between mid-2011 and mid-2012, as prospects for the euro area had deteriorated, had been unwelcome.” Errr what was that? The appreciation of sterling has been “unwelcome.”  Can you say that a rise in the pound is bad, and a fall in the pound is bad? Does that add up?

The minutes continued: “Although the nominal effective exchange rate remained well below its pre-crisis level, some measures of sterling’s real exchange rate provided a less comforting view of the improvement in UK competitiveness. In particular, a measure  based on relative manufacturing unit labour costs was now only 10 per cent below its level in 2007, and just  5 per cent below its average in the decade prior to the depreciation. It was therefore possible that the real exchange rate consistent with current account balance might be lower than its current value.”

Let’s put it this way, back in December, the MPC had a wish for a Christmas present. Their letter to the man in Lapland said: “Dear Santa, please may I have a cheaper pound”.  Their wish was not granted in one go. But it has been granted in stages. Sterling fell in January, stayed pretty static for the first half of February, then – after Moody’s cut the UK’s triple A credit rating – fell some more.

From the point of view of UK plc we may be getting the best of both worlds. Because of all that talk of currency wars at the recent G20, neither the UK government nor the Bank of England are allowed to deliberately push the pound downwards. Well there is no need. Moody’s is doing the job instead.

All praise be to the credit ratings agencies.

Some say that this shows the UK is bankrupt; on the road to ruin. Why can’t we do things like Japan, which lost its triple A credit rating years ago, or the US, or France, both of which lost their top notch rating some time ago.

It is embarrassing for poor old George. Mr Osborne invested a lot of political capital in saying he had to follow the policies he was adopting in order to avoid the disaster of the UK losing its triple A rating. Now that rating is lost, it is quite hard for him to say: “it doesn’t matter.” Although in truth it probably doesn’t.

In part sterling’s fall is down to the view that other economies are picking up. The Fed has hinted that QE may be drawing to a close; China’s central bank is tightening monetary policy. The markets still seem to think, somewhat inexplicably, that the euro is past its worst.

Talking of inexplicable, some economists think the key to the UK’s recovery is lower inflation, so that wage growth outpaces growth in consumer prices. Others think the recovery lies with a cheaper pound giving exporters a lift. But since a falling pound will lead to inflation, you can’t have both.

The trouble with the UK exporting its way out of trouble is that such a strategy can only work if firstly, UK exporters combine their terms of trade advances with investment and productivity improvements, and secondly if demand abroad is growing.

The first condition requires more investment – something the banks seem unable to promote. Unless QE is directed more precisely, and targeted in the form of investment in companies, especially exporters and innovators, the first condition probably won’t be met. As for the second, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that either the Bank of England or George Osborne can do about that.

©2012 Investment and Business News.

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Germany’s head central banker calls it the work of the devil. Last year, Jens Weidmann, Germany’s answer to Mervyn King, told a story from ‘Faust’. A king is running out of money, and the devil disguised as fool persuades him to solve his problem by printing new money. The result was hyperinflation. And that, says Mr Weidmann, is why QE is like the work of the devil.

It is just that QE is not really money printing at all. When the Bank of England buys government bonds it is assumed that it will sell the bonds at a future date.  So if QE looks as though it is leading to inflation, the effects can be reversed.

That’s the theory.

The reality is that that QE doesn’t seem to be doing an awful lot. Sure it may have stopped the recession from becoming  worse, but given the sheer size of this measure – £375 billion in the UK so far – it seems remarkable how low inflation is, and how tiny growth is.

The snag is that debt is the key to the banking system we have these days.  When we borrow money from a bank, we spend it and the recipient of our money pays it into a bank. So when a bank lends money, the money it lends reverberates around the economy. In this way, by their lending, banks create money.

But if we all suddenly decide to borrow less, or if banks decide they can’t afford to lend so much, the broad money supply may well contract faster than an anaconda on speed. QE has had the effect of mitigating this contraction. But it certainly has not had the effect of creating massive growth in the broad money supply.

Perhaps then it is time to really engage in money printing and hand the resulting money out across the land. Milton Friedman pretty much suggested such an idea once. He said that in times of a depression if all else fails, why not scatter money from a helicopter. Before he was chairman of the Fed, Ben Bernanke once said he thought Friedman may have been right.

But that’s where the devil comes in: wouldn’t money printing in this way just create inflation?

For that matter, this whole idea of running a large government deficit is also seen as pretty much akin to devil worship – by some.

Well, maybe. But explain why it is that in times of war – World Wars 1 and 2 for example – governments suddenly found that they could print money to fund the war effort, and could run-up huge deficits. And why is it that the post war periods were not followed by inflation, rather than economic boom, which was often the result. Sure, Germany had hyperinflation, but that was down to the Treaty of Versailles. The UK limped along in the 1920s, but that was largely because adherence to a gold standard removed the Bank of England’s ability to create money. The argument continues to say that periods in history when governments ran surpluses were invariably followed by economic depression. See: conspiracy theories, free lunches, and the theory that banks are destroying wealth .

Some go further – they say the insistence that governments run prudent fiscal policy is a conspiracy, forced upon us by banks who are trying to protect their nice little way of making money. Is the conspiracy theory right? Probably not. But the point is that there is an alternative idea to the established view. The idea suggests that instead of the money supply growing via debt created by banks, the government boosts the money supply by creating new money, and banks’ ability to create credit is then curtailed by legalisation.

The argument may or may not be right. But we may be getting an opportunity to test the theory soon.

As US politicians refuse to compromise, and Republicans and Democrats blame each other for the US’s woes, Obama may have come up with a solution.

Under US law the US government cannot print money – that job is entrusted to The Fed. Except, thanks to legislation from 12 years ago, the government is allowed to create platinum coins. The legislation was designed simply to enable the US government to create commemorative coins.

So why not make a one trillion dollar platinum coin, deposit it with the Fed, and then withdraw money against it, thereby abolishing the US government’s need to have approval from Congress before raising its fiscal debt? Friedman and Bernanke will get their money drop, and the conspiracy theorists will have their chance to put their theories to the test.

But such a measure, unlike QE, can’t be reversed. Critics say such a move really would create inflation.

Paul Krugman, the Nobel Laureate who pens a highly influential blog for the ‘New York Times’, has suggested he is in favour of the idea. But it seems he really sees this as kind of a warning shot. He doesn’t really want to see a one trillion dollar coin; rather he reckons the threat of taking such an action will be enough to ensure that the Republicans compromise with Obama.

Perhaps what we can say is that that we are seeing a very interesting development in the story of our times.

©2012 Investment and Business News.

Investment and Business News is a succinct, sometimes amusing often thought provoking and always informative email newsletter. Our readers say they look forward to receiving it, and so will you. Sign-up here