Last night’s move by the Federal Reserve to change its approach to US monetary policy to effectively reduce the focus on the inflation target was just the latest step in an accelerating project by the world’s monetary authorities. In a world where unemployment rates are well above pretty much anyone’s estimate of the natural rate, and in many geographies well above 10%, the need for growth is seen as much more pressing that the fear of missing the 2% inflation targets. So at the latest FOMC meeting the Fed decided that inflation would be tolerated if it nudged higher to 2.5% as long as unemployment remained too high (above 6.5%). You can read the text of the Fed’s statement here.
We call this move by the world’s authorities away from the old idea of 2% inflation targets Central Bank Regime Change. We wrote this blog about it in March. The chart is worth showing again.
The chart from the IMF shows us that in the period post Paul Volcker’s appointment to the US Fed in 1979 (the orange line), the monetary authorities kept interest rates higher than the rate of inflation (they were reacting to the damage that inflation caused in the 1970s). As a result inflation steadily fell – and as well as high “real” rates, the rhetoric was all about inflation (inflation targets, the Bank of England’s Inflation Report, independent central banks). It’s been an awesome 30 years (on the whole!) to be a government bond investor, as yields fell in response to inflation fighting credibility. However, I’ve added another line to the IMF chart (blue), showing how central banks have behaved since Lehman went bust, and the credit crisis was followed by the sovereign debt crisis. It’s a very different story, with sharply negative real yields. Nominal interest rates are near zero in much of the developed world, yet inflation has been sticky above 2%. This is deliberate central bank policy – negative real rates are designed to make it attractive to borrow to invest and stimulate growth (and to deliver gains to indebted consumers), and also to encourage risk taking as investors reach for yield (government bond investors buy credit, investment grade investors buy high yield etc.).
Negative real rates also have an impact which we’ll discuss in more detail another time – debt reduction for bust governments. There are a few ways to reduce debt burdens: strong real growth (seems out of reach for the foreseeable future), austerity (unproven and probably counter-productive, although some point to Canada and Sweden as success stories), default (will be necessary for some Eurozone economies without their own currency to depreciate) and inflation. It’s the last that’s likely to be effective – and as the red line on that chart shows, it’s the method by which the western economies reduced the war debts following WWII.
So whilst we don’t believe the world’s central bankers and finance ministers are sitting high in some Swiss cable car complex, stroking white fluffy cats and cackling maniacally, plotting to generate super high levels of inflation, this is becoming the pragmatic (only?) response to a world without other policy responses (no fiscal flexibility left). Now the Fed’s latest move to target both inflation AND unemployment rates is very interesting – when I was a young student of economics, the idea that you could chose BETWEEN inflation and unemployment was discredited. To quote, er, Wikipedia on that idea, known as the Philips Curve “while it has been observed that there is a stable short run tradeoff between unemployment and inflation, this has not been observed in the long run”. So the idea that you can choose both is probably even more far fetched.
Anyway, what does the Fed’s action mean? Well watching Bernanke’s press conference last night it struck me that in changing the Fed’s guidance away from the “no hikes until 2015” towards the unemployment and inflation numerical targets should actually be seen as a potential monetary TIGHTENING. After all, we are exceptionally bullish on US housing as a driver for growth in 2013 and 2014, so if things go well we could end up with the Fed raising rates ahead of the old 2015 date.
So I’ve asserted that Central Bank Regime change is taking place, but I thought it would be worthwhile to put together a brief list of the evidence so far. Here it is.
Evidence for Central Bank Regime Change
- The level of real rates set by the Central Banks: the best evidence is obviously shown on the graph itself. Are central bankers hitting inflation targets? Not really – for example the Bank of England has only had CPI at or below the 2% target for 6 months in the last 5 years, and for much of that period it’s been above 3% (and above 5% at one point!). On latest data the UK, the Eurozone and the US all have negative real rates of 1.75% or higher. Western central banks are even considering setting negative NOMINAL interest rates. Only Japan of the major economies has positive real rates at the moment – although we think this might change dramatically, as I’ll discuss below.
- The US refocus on the dual mandate: after three decades of inflation targeting, the Fed has been moving towards this new objective for a year or so now. First Charles Evans of the Chicago Fed started floating the concept of an unemployment target, then Janet Yellan (Bernanke’s probable successor) of the San Francisco Fed joined him, leading up to last night’s actions. This was pushing on an open door for Ben Bernanke who has written the following in his previous academic life…
- Bernanke’s 4% inflation target for Japan: in this paper, Japanese Monetary Policy: A Case of Self-Induced Paralysis, written whilst he was at Princeton in 1999, Bernanke argues that the solution for an economy like Japan with a burst property bubble, broken banks, sluggish growth and deflationary pressures should be to target inflation of between 3% and 4%. Looks similar to the US situation, so why wouldn’t Bernanke think that this is the correct response from the Fed for the US?
- Mervyn King’s softening stance on the inflation target: I guess actions speak louder than words, and the lack of actual inflation targeting in the UK for the last 5 years should tell you more than any speech, but I’d never heard the Governor soften his rhetoric until these words in this speech Twenty Years of Inflation Targeting this October. “There may be circumstances in which it is justified to aim off the inflation target for a while in order to moderate the risk of financial crises”.
- New Bank of England Governor Mark Carney talks about a new regime of nominal GDP targeting rather than pure inflation targets: in a speech to the CFA Society of Toronto this week, Carney (who takes over at the BoE next year) suggested that when policy rates approach 0% (the “zero bound”), targeting nominal growth might be more effective than targeting inflation rates. He even used, for the first time from a central banker (?) the term “regime change”. “Under Nominal GDP targeting, bygones are not bygones and the central bank is compelled to make up for past missed on the path of nominal GDP.” Of course, targeting nominal GDP is a very effective way of reducing debt levels in an economy too.
- Japanese regime change, the “Abe Trade”: this weekend Japan goes to the polls with opposition leader Shinzo Abe of the LDP favourite to emerge as the new Prime Minister. Japan has yet to recover from its bust, decades ago, and Abe wants to aggressively target growth. With deflation of 0.4% in Japan despite the BoJ’s 1% inflation target, Abe wants the central bank to do MUCH more. This would include raising the inflation target to 2% (or even 3%) and doing whatever it takes (more QE, currency intervention) to achieve that. This is a manifesto commitment that might get watered down at a later date – but having seen a BoJ member in Tokyo recently I get the feeling that a hike in its inflation target is inevitable.
- Europe: hard evidence is more difficult to find, but with hawkish German ECB members like Axel Weber and Juergen Stark both resigning in 2011 (“It’s generally known that I’m not a glowing advocate of these (bond) purchases” – Stark) the ECB has been much more open to extraordinary balance sheet expansion (LTRO, SMP, OMT). And to more “traditional” Quantitative Easing at a later date?
So with all of this evidence that the authorities are changing how they think, and act, on inflation, you would expect that bond markets would have reacted badly right? If Ben Bernanke thinks 4% is an appropriate level for inflation in the US, you wouldn’t be lending money to the government at 0.65% for the next 5 years would you? And with Mark Carney taking over at the BoE next year, breakeven inflation rates (i.e. market inflation expectations) would be overshooting the 2% inflation target over the next few years too? Well 5 year Treasury yields are still well below 1% (helped by QE buying of that sector, announced last night) and UK breakeven inflation rates on a CPI basis are below the 2% inflation target. In both cases it feels as if state intervention in these markets (financial repression through QE, capital requirements etc.) will keep yields low despite high inflation. And this is entirely necessary – with half the US Treasury market maturing in the next 3 years or so, if yields ever did adjust higher then western governments, with marginal solvency in any case, could go bust quickly.