Posts in Monetary Policy
Circular Reasoning

It’s easy to trip over trying to formulate a market narrative at the moment. One interpretation of the dramatic decline in global bond yields is that the smart money is de-risking their portfolios ahead of global slowdown and a rout in equities and credit. The ramp-up in the global trade wars, and still-soggy economic data seem to confirm this version of the narrative, but it is also a somewhat naive story. The global economy is not in perfect shape, but it is hardly on the brink of a recession, especially not since it is usually coordinated tightening by central banks that push the major economies over the edge in the first place. The market is now pricing-in one-to-two rate cuts by the Fed this year, and three in 2020. The money market curve in the Eurozone is even starting to price in the idea that the ECB will further scythe its deposit rate below -0.4%. The argument in the U.S. is particularly delicious. Last year, the consensus was angling for a recession in 2020 based on the idea that the Fed was in search for a “neutral” FF rate at about 3%. Now that the Fed has thrown in the towel, the idea is that it will cut rates to prevent the recession that it itself was supposed to have sown the seeds for in the first place, by hiking interest rates.

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Doves on Parade

My main job on these pages is to  distil the market Narrative™ for my readers, and recent events have made this week’s missive a layup. The debate on whether to fire, and how to arm, the fiscal bazooka has continued, and now monetary policymakers have joined the party. For a while, it seemed as if the world’s biggest central banks were sleepwalking into coordinated tightening, or in the case of the PBoC, failing altogether in the attempt to counter a sustained cyclical slowdown. To the extent that the Q4 chaos in equities was investors’ vote on this strategy, they should consider their message received. In Japan, signs of wage growth briefly alerted markets to the prospect that the JGB market would be un-frozen by further loosening of the yield-curve-control. But the truth is that Kuroda-san is stuck. With global headline inflation pressures now easing, manufacturing and exports struggling, and the looming consumption tax, the BOJ isn’t going anywhere fast; zero rates and (modest) balance sheet expansion will continue as far as the eye can see.  In Frankfurt, the ECB recently downgraded its assessment of the economy—the convoluted shift from “broadly balanced” to “downside” risks—and expectations are building that the TLTROs will be extended, or even renewed and expanded.

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It's that yield curve again

For all the talk about a flattening U.S. yield curve, it is ironic that it steepened last week, albeit slightly. The trend, though, is clear enough. The 2s5 and 2s10s have flattened 27 and 32 basis points in the past year, respectively. Another 12 months at this rate and the curve would invert by the middle of next year. This wouldn’t be odd. It’s normal for the curve to flatten as monetary policy is tightened, and it is also normal for the Fed to keep going until the curve inverts. If you believe that an inverted curve is a good recession indicator—which is debatable—this is tantamount to saying that the Fed will keep going until something breaks, consistent with what almost always happens at the tail-end of policy tightening cycles. This probably won’t prevent investors and analysts from continuing to pay close attention to the yield curve. I have sympathy for that, for two reasons. Firstly, it is not clear to markets whether the Fed cares about a flattening curve or not. Some members of the FOMC do, some don’t. Secondly, if the shape of the curve is important to the Fed, the recent pace of curve flattening challenges the prediction by economists and markets that the Fed funds rate will be hiked by 25 basis points three-to-four times in 2018 and 2019.

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A return of the USD carry trade?

A few weeks ago I provided a bird’s eye view of most of the major asset classes, what they did in Q1, and what they’re likely to do for the rest of the year. I neglected the most important one though; the dollar. I am convinced that other markets eventually will take their cue from what happens to the greenback. The bull case is simple. The U.S. economy is about to get a jolt of fiscal stimulus, propelling growth to above 3%. The labour market has plenty of hidden slack, and productivity is rising, which mean that the Fed won’t have to hike the economy into the stone age to quell inflation and wage growth.  Trade wars aren’t a problem, and in the case of U.S. tariffs on imports, the dollar will appreciate offsetting a boost to competitiveness. If the shit hits the fan, the dollar will be the safe haven of choice as capital flees the more open and exposed economies in Europe and China. Mr. Trump might not get a lower trade deficit but he can “win” a trade war with the rest of the world. The contrasting bear case is equally straightforward. The U.S. twin deficit is about to widen significantly, and foreign investors need compensation to finance the party. Higher bond yields and a weaker dollar are a necessary adjustment to reach a new equilibrium.

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