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Shooting Blanks

August 2, 2016 4 comments

Almost eight years after the bankruptcy filing of Lehman Brothers and the first of many central bank quantitative easing programs, it appears the expansion – the weakest on record by several measures – is petering out. The Q2 growth rate of GDP was 1.2% annualized, meaning that the last three quarters were +0.9%, +0.8%, +1.2%. That’s not a recession, but it’s also not an expansion to write home about.

But why? Why after all of the quantitative easing? Is the effectiveness waning? Is it time for more?

I read recently about how many economists are expecting the Bank of England to increase asset purchases (QE) this Thursday in an attempt to counteract the depressing effects of Brexit on growth. Some think the increase will be as much as £150 billion. That’s impressive, but will it help?

I also read recently about how the Bank of Japan “disappointed investors” by not increasing asset purchases except incrementally. The analysts said this was disappointing because the BOJ’s action was “not enough to cause growth.”

That’s because no amount of money printing is enough to cause growth. No amount.

It seems like people get confused with this concept, including many economists, because we use units of currency. So let’s try illustrating the point a different way. Suppose I pay you in candy bars for the widgets you produce. Suppose I pay you 10 candy bars, each of which is 10 ounces, for each widget. Now, if I start paying you 11 candy bars instead of 10, then the price has risen and you want to produce more widgets, right? This, indirectly, is what economists are thinking when they think about the effect of monetary policy.

But suppose that I pay you 11 candy bars, but now each candy bar is 9.1 ounces instead of 10 ounces? I suspect you will not be fooled into producing more widgets. You will realize that I am still paying you 100 ounces of candy per widget. You are not fooled by the fact that the unit of account changed in intrinsic value.

Now, when the central bank adds to the money supply, but doesn’t change the amount of stuff the economy produces (they don’t have the power to direct production!), then all that changes is the size of the unit of account – the candy bar, or in this case the dollar – and the number of dollars you need to buy a widget goes up. That’s called inflation. And the only way that printing more money can cause production to increase is if you don’t notice that the value of any given unit of currency has declined. That is, only if I say I’m paying you 11 candy bars – but you haven’t noticed they are smaller – will you respond to the change in terms. This is called “money illusion,” and it is why money printing does not cause growth in theory…and, as it turns out, in practice.[1]

There is nothing terribly strange or unpredictable about what is going on in global growth in terms of the response to monetary policy. The only thing strange is that eight years on, with numerous observations on which to evaluate the efficacy of quantitative easing, the conclusion appears to be that it might not be quite as effective as policymakers had thought. And therefore, we need to do lots more of it, the thought process seems to go. But anything times zero is zero. Central banks are not shooting an inaccurate, awkward weapon in the fight to stimulate growth, which just needs to be fired a lot more so that something eventually hits. They are shooting blanks. And no amount of shooting blanks will bring down the bad guy.

[1] I address this aspect of money, and other aspects that affect inflation, in my book What’s Wrong With Money: The Biggest Bubble of All.

Just One Thing

March 12, 2015 3 comments

The defining characteristics of the markets these days seem to include:

  1. Central bank liquidity matters; central government mistakes do not.
  2. Central bank liquidity matters; economic growth numbers do not.
  3. Central bank liquidity matters; market illiquidity does not.
  4. Central bank liquidity matters; and so does the dollar (but that’s just a manifestation of the fact that central bank liquidity matters).

You may notice some commonality about the four defining characteristics as I have enumerated them above. I will add that this commonality – that seemingly only central bank liquidity operations matter these days – is also the reason that I haven’t been writing as much these last days, weeks, and months. As someone who has watched the Fed for a long time, I might have a decent guess as to when the Fed might change course…but probably no better than many other watchers. (Moreover, as I have said before, whether the Fed actually hikes rates or not probably doesn’t matter either as long as there is adequate liquidity, which is a question independent at the moment from rates. Refer again to the four characteristics.)

Let us take these one at a time.

Central bank mistakes don’t matter as much as the question of whether central banks are adding enough liquidity. Exhibit A is the fact that 10-year yields are negative in Switzerland, under 1% in France, Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands, and under 1.60% in (get this) Italy, Spain, and Portugal. This is despite the fact that Greece is likely to leave the Euro either sooner or later, provoking existential questions about whether Italy, Spain, Portugal, and maybe France can also remain in the Eurozone. We can debate whether “likely to leave the Euro” means 20% chance or 80% chance, but if the chance is not negligible – and it certainly looks to be something more than negligible – then it is incredible that the Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish yields are all so low. Yes, it’s largely because of the ECB. Quod erat demonstrandum.

Economic growth numbers do not matter as much as central bank profligacy. The Citigroup Economic Surprise index for the US just fell below -50 for the first time since 2012 (see chart, source Bloomberg).

cesiusd

Now, weaker-than-expected data spelled bad news for stocks in 2008, 2010, and 2011, but not since then. I wonder why? Right: central bank liquidity trumps. Quod erat demonstrandum.

Recently, I have read a fair amount about increasingly-frequent bouts of illiquidity in various markets. The US TIPS market has comfortably more than a trillion dollars’ worth of outstanding issues, but has been whipsawed unmercifully over the last week and a half (after, it should be said, a hellacious rebound from the outrageous selloff in H2 of last year – see chart of 10-year breakevens, source Bloomberg). But that market is not alone by any stretch of the imagination. Energy markets, individual stock names and the stock market generally, and the list goes on.

10y breaks

It isn’t that there has been dramatic volatility – volatility happens. It’s that the effective bid/offer spreads have been widening and the amount of securities that can be moved on the bid and offer has been declining (to say it another way, the real market for size has been widening, or the cost of liquidity has been rising). This in itself is not surprising: some pundits, myself included, predicted five years ago that instituting the Volcker Rule, and other elements of Dodd-Frank that tended to decrease the risk budgets of market liquidity-makers, would diminish market liquidity. (See here, here, and here for some examples of my own statements on the matter). But the other prediction, that markets would fall as a result of the diminished market liquidity – less-liquid stocks for example routinely trade at lower P/E ratios all else being equal – has proven incorrect. Why? I would suggest the central bank’s provision of extraordinary monetary liquidity has helped keep markets elevated despite thinning liquidity. Quod erat demonstrandum.

So what is there to write about? Well, I could talk about the dollar, which at +25% from last June is starting to be in the realm of interesting. But this too is just another manifestation of central bank shenanigans – specifically, the notion that every central bank is being easier than our Federal Reserve. So it comes back to the same thing.

So all roads lead to the question of central bank liquidity provision. This primal single-note drum-beat is, if nothing else, exquisitely boring. But boring isn’t as annoying as the fact that it’s also wrong. The Fed isn’t being any more hawkish this year than it was last year. The growth in the money supply – which is the only metric of significance in the WYSIWYG world of monetary policy – is pretty much at the same level it has been for three years: about 6.0%-6.5% growth year/year (see chart, source Enduring Investments). That’s also exactly where UK M2 growth has been. Japanese money growth, while a lot healthier at 3.5% than it was at 2%, is still not doing anything dramatic despite all of the talk of BOJ money printing (color me surprised, by the way).

M2s

About the only interesting move in money growth has been in the EZ, which is where observers have been the most skeptical. One year ago, M2 growth in the Eurozone was 2.5%; as of January 2015, it was 5.6%.

The weakness in the Euro, in short, makes sense. The supply of Euros is increasing relative to the former growth trajectories, compared to USD, GBP, and JPY. Increase the relative supply; decrease the price. But the dollar’s strength against the rest of the world does not make so much sense. The supply of dollars is still rising at 6.5% per year, and moreover nothing that the Fed is proposing to do with rates is likely to affect the rate of increase in the supply of dollars.

At the end of the day, then, characteristic #4 I listed at the beginning of this article is wrong. It’s the perception of central bank liquidity, and not the liquidity itself, that matters to currencies. And that’s why I think the dollar’s run is going to come to an abrupt end, unless M2 growth inexplicably slows. How soon that run will end I have no idea, but it seems out of bounds to me. At least, if actual central bank liquidity is what matters…and for everything else in the securities markets, it seems to.

The Disturbing Evolution of Central Banking

August 7, 2013 7 comments

One of the more disturbing meta-trends in markets these days is the direction the evolution of central banking seems to be taking.

I have written before (and pointed to others, including within the Fed, who have written before[1] ) about the disturbing lack of attention being paid in the discussion and execution of monetary policy to anything that remotely resembles money. Whether we have to be concerned about money growth in the short- and medium-terms, ultimately, will depend on what happens to the velocity of money, and on how rapidly the central bank responds to any increase in money velocity. But there are trends that could be much more deleterious in the long run as the fundamental nature of central banking seems to be changing.

Today the Bank of England released its Quarterly Inflation Report, in which it introduced an “Evans Rule” construction to guide its monetary policy looking forward. Specifically, the BoE pledged not to reduce asset purchases until unemployment dropped below 7% (although Mark Carney in the news conference verbally confused reducing asset purchases with raising interest rates), unless:

“in the MPC’s view, CPI inflation 18 to 24 months ahead is more likely than not to be below 2.5 percent; secondly, if medium-term inflation expectations remain sufficiently well anchored; and, thirdly, the Financial Policy Committee has not judged the stance of monetary policy — has not judged — pardon me — the Financial Policy Committee has not judged that the stance of monetary policy poses a significant threat to financial stability, a threat that cannot otherwise be contained through the considerable supervisory and regulatory policy tools of various authorities.”

This is quite considerably parallel to the FOMC’s own rule, and seems to be the “current thinking” among central bankers. But in this particular case, the emperor’s nakedness is revealed: not only is inflation in the UK already above the 2.5% target, at 2.9% and rising from the lows around 2.2% last year, but the inflation swaps market doesn’t contemplate any decline in that inflation rate for the full length of the curve. Not that the swaps market is necessarily correct…but I’ll take a market-based forecast over an economist consensus, any day of the week.

So, for all intents and purposes, while the BOE is saying that inflation remains their primary target, Carney is saying (as my friend Andy the fxpoet put it today) “…the BOE’s inflation mandate was really quite flexible. In other words, he doesn’t really care about it at all.”

Along with this, consider that the candidates which have so far been mooted as possible replacements for Bernanke at the US Fed are all various shades of dovish.

Here, then, we see the possible long-term repercussions of the 2008 crisis and the weak recovery on the whole landscape of monetary policy going forward for many years. In some sense, perhaps it is a natural response to the failure or monetary policy to “get growth going,” although as I never tire of pointing out monetary policy isn’t supposed to have a big impact on growth. So, the institutions are evolving to be even more dovish.

At one time, I thought it would happen the other way. I figured that, since the ultimate outcome of this monetary policy experiment is clearly going to be higher inflation, the reaction would be to put hawkish central bankers in charge for many years. But as it turns out, the economic cycle actually exceeded the institutional cycle in duration. In other words, institutions usually evolve so slowly that they tend not to evolve in ways that truly hurt them, since the implications of their evolution become apparent more quickly than further evolution can kick in and compound the problem. In this case, the monetary response to the crisis, and the aftermath, has taken so long – it’s only half over, since rates have gone down but not returned to normal – that the institutions in question are evolving with only half of the episode complete. That’s pretty unusual!

And it is pretty bad. Not only are central banks evolving to become ever-more-dovish right exactly at the time when they need to be guarding ever-more-diligently against rising inflation as rates and hence money velocity turn higher, but they are also becoming less independent at the same time. A reader sent me a link to an article by Philadelphia Fed President Plosser, who points out that the boundaries between fiscal and monetary policy are becoming dangerously blurred. It is somewhat comforting that some policymakers perceive this and are on guard against it, but so far they seem ineffectual in preventing the disturbing evolution of central banking.


[1] Consider reading almost anything by Daniel L. Thornton at the St. Louis Fed; his perspective is summed up in the opening sentence of his 2012 paper entitled “Why Money Matters, and Interest Rates Don’t,”  which reads “Today ‘monetary policy’ should be more aptly named ‘interest rate policy’ because policymakers pay virtually no attention to money.”

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