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Should the Bank of England hike rates?

Many of us have become accustomed to a world of ultra-low interest rates and quantitative easing (QE). Taking into account inflation, real short-term interest rates are negative in most of the developed world. Of course, these historically low interest rates were a central bank response –co-ordinated on some occasions – to the Great Financial Crisis of 2008. Whilst we are still waiting for the official data, it appears increasingly likely that 2013 marked the start of a synchronised recovery in the advanced economies. So is it now time for the Bank of England to consider hiking the base rate? Perhaps good – and not awesome – economic growth is more appropriate to avoid a bust down the line.

Economic theory and real world experience tells us that interest rates that are kept too low for too long will distort investment decisions and lead to excessive risk-taking. They may also result in the formation of asset price bubbles that ultimately collapse. With parts of the UK housing market (including London and the south-east) posting double-digit returns in 2013, the FTSE 100 within arm’s reach of an all-time high last seen during the tech bubble (and up over 60% since 2009), and UK non-financial corporate bond spreads 45 basis points away from 2007 lows; it is clear that ultra-low interest rates have had a great effect on both financial markets and the real economy.

At the risk of being called a party pooper, here are 5 reasons why I think we could see an interest rate hike before year end (the market is pricing in around February/March 2015), and certainly before the third quarter of 2016 (the time when the BoE think the unemployment rate will fall to 7%).

  1. Asset price bubbles are forming
  2. Unemployment is falling quickly towards 7%
  3. Inflation risks should not be forgotten
  4. The Taylor rule suggests interest rates are way below neutral
  5. The risk of Euro area break-up appears to have fallen

Asset prices bubbles are forming

There has been a significant run-up in UK financial assets over the course of the past five years, particularly since QE became a feature of the financial landscape. Investors in equity and bond markets alike have been enjoying the fruits of QE. Those that own financial assets have seen their net wealth increase substantially from the post-crisis lows. Consensus forecasts for 2014 suggests that most market forecasters expect another robust year for risk assets, fuelled by easy money and the search for positive real returns.

Of course, the greatest financial asset that the average UK household own is their own house. In 2011, it was estimated that around 15 million households are owner-occupied (a rate of around 65% of total households). Thus it is unsurprising that newspaper readers are usually hit with a headline about rising house prices on a daily basis. House prices, on a number of measures, have begun to accelerate again with low interest rates and tight housing supply a key contributor to the price increase. Low interest rates have given UK consumers the incentive to accumulate high levels of household debt compared to their incomes.  The average house price is now 5.4 times earnings, the highest level since July 2010 and well above the long-run average of 4.1.

UK house prices are re-accelerating and pushing higher

The Help-To-Buy scheme is contributing to the run-up in this highly leveraged and interest-rate sensitive sector (a topic I covered back in July here). By hiking the base rate this year, the BoE would hopefully achieve a reduction in speculation and debt accumulation in the housing sector. This would not be a popular action to take – it never is – but we should all be wary about the damage a rampant housing market can have on an economy.  BoE Governor Mark Carney – as head of the Financial Policy Committee – has already moved to stop the Funding for Lending Scheme and mentioned that placing restrictions on the terms of mortgage credit may be a tool that can be used to reign in house prices.

Whether macro-prudential policy tools will work or not remains open to debate. Ultimately, central banks are trying to focus in on one element of the economy by raising interest rates or restricting credit. We do have a real-life macroeconomic example currently taking place though. On October 1, the Reserve Bank of New Zealand imposed a limit on how much banks could devote to low-deposit loans and required major banks to hold more capital to back loans. It’s very early days but for the month of November, the Real Estate Institute of New Zealand reported a 1.2% increase in New Zealand house prices and 9.6% over the year. The RBNZ and BoE might find that trying to slow the housing market using macro-prudential measures is a bit like trying to stop a car by opening the doors and hoping that wind-resistance does the rest. You really need to put your foot on the brake.

The longer the boom lasts, the greater the pain when it inevitably ends.

Unemployment is falling quickly towards 7%

The unemployment rate has fallen from 7.9 to 7.4% over the past nine months and is a key tenet of the BoE’s forward guidance. The fast decline has seen some speculation amongst economists that the BoE may lower the unemployment threshold from 7.0 to 6.5%. Of course, the 7.0% threshold that it has set it is not a trigger to hike interest rates, rather it is a point at which the BoE would consider hiking rates. However, the labour market has improved much quicker than the BoE has been expecting with the unemployment rate now sitting at the lowest rate since March 2009. We are still well above the average unemployment rate seen during the period between 2000 and 2008, but I would argue that this was an abnormal period for the UK economy. It was a NICE period – non-inflationary, constantly expanding – and is unlikely to be repeated. Arguably the UK’s natural rate of unemployment is now a percentage point or two higher than that of the noughties, suggesting less spare capacity in the UK economy than many expect. It may not be long before we start to see wage demands start to pick up, leading to rising inflationary pressures. Higher wage growth in 2014 would bode well for consumption and household net wealth given the increase in house prices and investment portfolios.

The UK unemployment rate is below the long-run average

As it is generally accepted that monetary policy operates with a lag, (the BoE estimate a lag time of around two years), and the unemployment rate itself is a lagging indicator of economic activity. If the BoE waits until the unemployment rate hits 7%, or for confirmation that economic growth is strong, then it may be too late. A slight tap on the breaks by hiking the base rate may be appropriate.

Inflation risks should not be forgotten

Ben wrote an excellent piece on the UK’s inflation outlook last month. To quote:

Current inflation levels may seem benign. However, potential demand-side shocks coupled with a build-up in growth momentum and the difficulty of removing the huge wall of money created by QE will pose material risks to inflation in the medium term. Markets have become short-sightedly focused on the near term picture as commodity prices have weakened and inflation expectations have been tamed by the lack of growth.

In addition, central banks have a nasty habit of keeping monetary policy too loose for too long. It even has a name – “The [insert FOMC Chairperson Name] Put”. The easy-money policies of the FOMC in the 1970s are seen as a key contributor to the runaway inflation seen during the period.  Eventually, the FOMC reversed its own policies, hiking rates to 19% in 1981.

Of course, what central bankers really fear is that ultra-easy monetary policy and the great experiment of QE will lead to an increase in inflation. A return of inflation will only be tamed by hiking rates. Whilst the inflation rate has been moderating in the UK and is close to the Bank of England’s target at 2.1%, it follows almost 5 years of above target inflation. Whist it is not a clear and present danger, the experience of the 1970s suggests that we cannot ignore the threat that inflation poses to the UK economy, especially as rising inflationary expectations are often difficult to contain.

The Taylor rule suggests interest rates are way below neutral

The Taylor rule provides a rough benchmark of the normal reaction to economic conditions as it relates interest rates to deviations of inflation from target and the output gap. According to the Taylor rule for the UK, a base rate of 0.5% is around 2.0% below where it should be given current rates of growth and inflation.

The BoE base rate remains highly stimulatory

Negative real interest rates have done the job by stabilising the economy, but is it now time to tap the brakes? With the UK economy growing at an annualised rate of more than 3% in the second and third quarters of 2013 (above the long-term average of 2%), the UK may be operating much closer to full employment than many currently estimate. Forward looking survey indicators and economic data suggest the UK economy is growing strongly, with business confidence at a 20 year high and the UK Services PMI for December suggesting a strong broad-based upturn. Of course, the BoE would like the other components of GDP like exports and investment to contribute more to economic growth. A rising currency wouldn’t help this. But sometimes it is difficult to have your cake and eat it too, especially if you are a central banker.

The risk of Euro area breakup appears to have fallen

Now it’s time for the “Draghi Put”. Draghi’s famous “whatever it takes” speech is probably the most important speech ever given by a central banker. The speech has had a fantastic effect on assets from government bonds to European equity markets and everything in between. More importantly, as I wrote here back in July 2013, despite the problems that Europe faces – the concerning outlook, the record levels of unemployment and debt, the proposed tax on savers in Cyprus – no country has left the EMU. The EMU has in fact added new members (Slovakia in 2009, Estonia in 2011, Latvia in 2014). European countries remain open for trade, have continued to enforce EU policies and have not resorted to protectionist policies. EU banking regulation has become stronger, the financial system has stabilised, and new bank capital requirements are in place.

This bodes well for the UK, as stabilisation in the Eurozone suggests stronger export demand, increased confidence, and higher investment in the UK from European firms. Perversely, an interest rate hike might actually improve confidence in the UK economy, signalling that the central bank is confident that economic growth is self-sustaining.

The BoE must walk the tightrope between raising rates slightly now to avoid higher inflation and financial instability or risk having to do a lot more monetary policy “heavy-lifting” down the line. A base rate at 0.5% is way below a neutral level and the BoE has a long way to go before getting anywhere near this level. It could act this year and gradually start raising interest rates to lessen the continued build-up of financial imbalances. The difficult action in the short-run to raise the base rate will help to support “healthy” economic growth in the long-run.

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A Fed taper is on the table

The FOMC took markets and economists by surprise in September this year when the committee members decided to hold off from tapering and maintain its bond-buying programme at $85bn per month. Three months down the road and the consensus for the December meeting outcome is that the Fed will not reduce the pace of MBS or treasury purchases. Consensus has been wrong before; will it be wrong again tomorrow? We think it will be a closer call than many expect.

In our opinion, there are several good reasons for the Fed to taper very slowly. Firstly, inflation is a non-issue, below target and close to lows not seen for decades. Secondly, the 30 year mortgage rate has risen from 3.5% in May to around 4.5% today, impacting US housing affordability and already tightening policy for the Fed. Thirdly, there is continued concern that 2014 may bring a return of the political brinkmanship that characterised late September, with the US Treasury signalling that the debt limit will have to be raised by February or early March to avoid default. Ultimately, the Fed is nowhere near hiking the FOMC funds rate.

There is no doubt after the September decision that tapering is truly data dependent and in this sense, macro matters. Fortunately, Ben Bernanke has told us what economic variables he and the FOMC will be looking at a press conference in June. The Fed wants to see a broad based improvement in three economic variables – employment, growth and inflation – before reducing the scale of bond buying.

The table below shows that the data has improved across the board. Annualised GDP is stronger, the unemployment rate is lower and the CPI is only 1.2%. Other key leading economic indicators like the ISM and consumer confidence are higher while markets are in a remarkably similar place to where they were three months ago with the 10 year yield at 2.86%.

US macroeconomic indicators chart

After the surprise of September’s announcement, we believe that every FOMC meeting from here on out is “live” – that is, there is a good chance that the Fed may act to reduce its bond-buying programme in some way until it reaches balance sheet neutrality. A reduction in bond purchases is not a tightening of policy, we view it as a positive sign that policymakers believe that the US economy is finally healing after the destruction of the financial crisis. As I wrote in September, interest rate policy is set to remain very accommodative for a long time, even after balance sheet neutrality has been achieved.

Given the positive developments in the US economy over the past three months, the December FOMC announcement could announce a) a small reduction in bond buying and b) an adjustment of the unemployment rate threshold or a lower bound on inflation. Whatever the case, quantitative easing is getting closer to making its swansong.

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The Fed didn’t taper – what’s next for US monetary policy and bond markets?

Last night the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) delivered a massive surprise by deciding to not taper QE. For us, this isn’t a huge deal. Since May, the market has placed way too much emphasis and concern over tapering and lost focus on the fundamental economic situation that the US has now found itself in – an economy where unemployment has fallen to 7.3% (helped by a falling participation rate) and a central bank that remains dovish due to a declining trend in core inflation. Now we are through the Fed meeting, arguably the market will now re-focus on the economic data. With interest rate policy set to remain very accommodative for a long period of time – even after balance sheet neutrality has been achieved – the sell-off in government bonds may be close to coming to an end (as witnessed by the 19bps fall in the US 10 year yield from 2.89% yesterday afternoon to 2.70% this morning).

US 10yr bond yields during quantitative easing

Fed concern number 1: US core PCE inflation is flirting with historic low levels

It is well known that FOMC Chairman Ben Bernanke, a student of the US economic depression of the 1930s, has great concerns about deflation and in 2002 gave a speech outlining how the US could avoid a deflationary trap which gave him the moniker “Helicopter Ben”. In the speech, Bernanke makes the important statement that “…Congress has given the Fed the responsibility of preserving price stability (among other objectives), which most definitely implies avoiding deflation as well as inflation.”

The Fed’s preferred inflation measure, the core PCE, is exhibiting a worrying downward trend. This greatly concerns at least one member of the FOMC – St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank President James Bullard – who believes the FOMC should have more strongly signalled its willingness to defend its inflation target of 2 per cent in light of recent low inflation readings. The Fed minutes from the June meeting (at which Bullard dissented) showed that Bullard believed that the Fed was not doing enough to protect against the threat of deflation and that the FOMC must defend its inflation target when inflation is below target as well as when it is above target.

A key component of the Fed’s dual mandate – price stability – is clearly below where the FOMC wants it to be. There are big risks to reducing stimulatory monetary policy when core inflation is running at recessionary levels and on this measure suggests any interest rate hikes a long way away.

 

Inflation trending lower on both total and core PCE

Fed concern number 2: the labour market

The latest payroll report was weaker than market economists had become used to, with payroll growth averaging around 148,000 over the past three months. This is some way off the 200,000+ numbers that the consensus was expecting earlier in the year and confirms a deceleration in the trend in nonfarm payroll growth. Yes, the unemployment rate fell to 7.3%, but this was largely the result of the labour force shrinking and a decline in the participation rate in August. The labour market is not as strong as the headline number suggests.

Arguably, the fall in the unemployment rate has surprised most Fed members. Nonetheless, unemployment is not expected to fall to the 6.5% “think about raising interest rates” level until late 2014. It would have been a confusing message to start to implement tapering given the lower trend in job creation. The Fed reiterated that the economy and labour market have to be strong enough before in contemplates reducing asset purchases going forward. This helps to explain why the FOMC sat on its hands in September.

 

Unemployment rate quickly falling towards Fed thresholds

Fed concern number 3: the increase in mortgage rates

Following the moves in markets over the summer, the average rate for a 30-year fixed mortgage has now increased to around 4.5% from 3.4% in May. Essentially, the market has already tightened for the Fed. The housing market is a vital component of US economic growth, and this increase will cut into housing affordability. It could also force potential homebuyers out of the market. A slowing housing market means fewer jobs, less consumption, and lower growth. The increase in yields in the government bond market has been brutal, and does pose some risks to interest-sensitive sectors.

 

The rise in 30 year mortgage rates will concern the Fed

Given the above, it appears that the Fed refused to be bullied into tapering today by the bond markets, though tapering speculation may have reduced the “froth” that had developed in risk assets over the first half of 2013. It is likely that low inflation, a recovering labour market, and a slowing housing market will ensure that interest rate policy remains accommodative for the foreseeable future. The “Fed fake” suggests that tapering is truly data dependent and not predetermined. Macro matters.

As the market begins to refocus on the economic data, it is likely that government bonds may find some support. Additionally, the FOMC may reduce bond purchases slower than anyone currently expects. We expect that market concerns over the impact of tapering decisions will likely diminish over time as the Fed slowly and gradually moves towards a neutral balance sheet policy next year.

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It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day. The ECB takes baby steps towards QE

Just when you thought the Fed had well and truly killed the carry trade, a surprisingly dovish Mario Draghi reminded markets yesterday that Europe remains a very different place from the US. Having previously argued that the ECB never pre commits to forward guidance, yesterday marks something of a volte-face. ‘The Governing Council expects the key ECB interest rates to remain at present or lower levels for an extended period of time.’ The willingness to offer guidance brings the ECB closer to its UK and US peers, the latter having been in the guidance camp for some time. This firmly reinforces our view that the ECB retains an accommodative stance and an easing bias.

The willingness to offer forward guidance to the market no doubt came after some long and hard introspection within the Governing Council. So why the change ? Firstly, the ECB is worried that it may miss its primary target of maintaining inflation at or close to 2% over the medium term. Secondly, Draghi indicated an increasing concern that the real economy continues to demonstrate ‘broad based’ weakness, and finally, as has been the case for some time, the Council worries that the Eurozone continues to labour with subdued monetary dynamics. This sounds increasingly like Fed talk of recent years.

Draghi also expressed his concern yesterday during his Q&A at the effective tightening of monetary conditions via higher government bond yields (see chart) since the Fed’s tapering discussions. Frankly the last thing the Eurozone needs at this stage in its nascent recovery is higher borrowing costs.

Bond yield have risen

Draghi in communicating that the next likely move will be an easing of policy has attempted to talk bond yields down. European risk assets appear to have taken his comments positively but the bond market remains sceptical. At the time of writing only short to medium dated bonds are trading at lower yields.

In conjunction with revising down its 2013 Italian GDP forecast from -1.5% to -1.8%, the IMF has publicly urged the ECB to embark upon direct asset purchases. Is this a likely near term response ? For now those calls will likely fall on deaf ears especially with German elections later this year. The ECB clearly believes that its next move would be to cut rates further in response to a weaker outlook. Buying time seems to be the current approach.

However, should Eurozone inflation expectations continue to undershoot (the market is currently pricing 1.36% and 1.66% over the next 5 & 10 years, see chart)  and economic performance remain downright lacklustre across Europe, then the ECB will have to think very carefully about what impact it can expect from a ‘traditional’ monetary response. QE may be some way off, and would no doubt see massive objections from Berlin, but in the same way that the ECB never pre commits, maybe just maybe, QE will be on the table sooner than the market is currently anticipating.

Inflation expectations in Europe

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Video: whilst the market gets excited about unemployment falling to 6.5%, the Fed’s attention is turning to falling inflation

I spent a couple of days in New York last week seeing economists and academics. The US Treasury market had just seen a significant sell-off, with 10 year yields rising from 1.63% at the start of May, to over 2.2%, with much of the damage done by Bernanke’s surprise talk of QE tapering during the Q&A following his address to Congress’s Joint Economic Committee. US 30 year mortgage rates sold off in parallel, and are now around 4%, potentially damaging the housing recovery.

I came away with two main conclusions. Firstly, given the stuttering nature of the US growth recovery (and the second half of this year could be mediocre, thanks to some back-loading of fiscal cliff tightening) the case for a slowing of QE in the next few months is not at all strong. Economists point out that Bernanke’s prepared testimony to the JEC was very dovish and in no way suggested that tapering might happen this year. His Q&A response appears to have been a communication error, as evidenced by some rolling back over the last couple of days via well connected journalist Jon Hilsenrath in the Wall Street Journal. And secondly, whilst we all focus on the jobs data in the States and try to forecast the timing of hitting the 6.5% unemployment rate threshold, we might be taking our eyes off the Fed’s other concern, inflation. Having spiked higher in 2011/2012, thanks largely to higher commodity prices (cotton, oil), core inflation measures, and particularly the Fed’s preferred Core PCE Deflator statistic, are falling to around 1%. Wage growth is also weak. With inflation 1% below the target level, a Taylor Rule approach would see the Fed easing interest rates by 1.5%, not hiking or withdrawing monetary stimulus! And with rates at the zero bound and a cut impossible, unconventional monetary policy would have to take the strain. More, not less, QE might be more likely than any tapering.


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Time gentlemen please: the Fed prepares its exit from QE

The punch bowl of easy money that the US Federal Reserve has offered the market has been significant over the last 5 years: from low rates, to quantitative easing and benign regulation. The purpose of the party was to keep animal spirits high and prevent the gloomy cycle of recession from turning into depression. This generosity has been mirrored around the world in different guises, and so far the policy has worked with varying degrees of success. The net effect has been to avoid economic depression.

Low interest rates and deficit spending have worked in the USA. The two charts below show the long term trend in US interest rates (wow what a party!) and the trend in unemployment, with the annotations showing how long after the peak in unemployment the Fed waited before hiking rates. This time around, not only has the volume of liquidity that has been served been record breaking, but the extent of the party, in terms of how long we have been sitting at the bar enjoying ourselves, has been remarkable compared to other cycles. Unwinding this is obviously going to pose some challenges.

US interest rates have been in a 30 year bull market

S unemployment continues to trend lower

Barman Ben Bernanke realises he is faced with this problem, as depression is now highly unlikely in his neighbourhood. The financial system is functioning, the housing market is in a new bull market, and unemployment is on a firm downtrend. The futures market is currently discounting the first rate hike from the Fed in early 2016, but growth could easily come in stronger than expected given the rebound in the housing market, which could also reduce unemployment faster than people anticipate (see Jim’s blog here for a discussion of how powerful the housing effect could be). So there’s a real risk that the Fed will have to move before the market expects. The attached chart shows that according to Unicredit, given the average pace of payroll gains over the past 6 months, the unemployment threshold could be reached as early as mid 2014, and possibly sooner if the housing market continues to strengthen.

Timeline for 6.5 unemployment under different scenarios

Given the jittery moves in the markets over the past couple of weeks on talk of tapering QE, Bernanke needs to decide how to wind down the party he has generously hosted, with the minimum of damage.

He does not want to upset his customers (the markets) too much, as the chaos that can ensue when a crowd of drunks is thrown out onto the street is never pleasant. He needs to gently guide his customers genially to the door.

This in effect is what Fed speak is currently doing. The Fed knows the economy is on a sound footing and that it needs to take some of the financial stimulus away. It is basically saying thanks for your custom, please finish up your drinks and leave the bar. And like any fine host, the Fed pats its drunk customers on the back and promises they will reopen tomorrow so the customer leaves smiling and hopeful.

Time gentleman, please.

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Video – The new normal: the thin line between deflation and inflation

Last week Jim took part in an Asset.tv masterclass. The panel discussion was hosted by the BBC’s economics editor Stephanie Flanders with the main theme tackling one of the big conundrums of the past few years – whether we’re heading into an era of deflation or inflation and indeed whether central bankers really care about inflation anymore. The video also covers a range of related topics, such as the efficacy of QE, currency wars and the implications for markets if and when central banks begin their exit strategies.

To view the video you will need to enter your Asset.tv registered email address. This is required by Asset.tv as part of the broadcasting rights for this masterclass. If you do not have an Asset.tv email address you can register on the Asset.tv website and then return.

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Do Central Banks tell us too much for our own good?

I read in The Times last week that the Shadow Monetary Policy Committee (a panel of economists and Bank of England alumni) thinks that the Bank of England should announce a freeze on UK rates for an extended period of time. The Federal Reserve also had this policy (now replaced by even more explicit guidance about the unemployment rate and inflation levels), as did the Bank of Canada. In the past few years the Fed has spent weeks debating its communications strategy. Elsewhere we get monthly press conferences (including in Trichet’s time as head of the ECB the use of the explicit codewords “strong vigilance” which meant “rates going up next month”). We also get Inflation Reports and Financial Stability Reports, fan charts and GDP forecasts from which market economists pronounce that the Bank’s two year ahead projection means no more QE just yet. I wonder though whether we’re being given too much information, and that in telling us exactly what they are going to do, central banks risk either a) having to not change their policy even if economic circumstances mean that they should (for example if economic growth comes back strongly yet they’ve promised to keep rates on hold for years), or b) lose face, credibility and trust with the market by going back on their promise. Each of these actions has a cost, and should lower an economy’s potential GDP rate.

Is the promise of low rates forever fuelling the return of those Four Horsemen of the Bondocalypse – CLOs, PIK notes, CCC rated high yield issuance, and mega – LBOs? Does it lead to complacency in investment? To schemes that can only survive if rates don’t ever rise? Is current central bank policy generating asset bubbles? And what are central bankers left with, without the ability to surprise and shock? Worse still, what if “low rates forever” has the opposite effect than intended? Does it say “doomed, we’re all doomed”? Perhaps central bankers should realise that keeping us guessing is their most powerful tool (OK maybe QE Infinity is their most powerful tool, but still).

The clip below is of Diego Maradona, scoring against England in the Mexico World Cup finals in 1986.

I was reminded of it when I picked up a copy of Steve Hodge’s autobiography The Man With Maradona’s Shirt in the sales. Maradona was fortunate enough to swap shirts with Nottingham Forest legend Hodge after that game. Anyway, back in 2005 Bank of England Governor gave a speech in which he said the most interesting thing a central banker ever said.

“The great Argentine footballer, Diego Maradona, is not usually associated with the theory of monetary policy. But his performance against England in the World Cup in Mexico City in June 1986 when he scored twice is a perfect illustration of my point. Maradona’s first “hand of God” goal was an exercise of the old “mystery and mystique” approach to central banking. His action was unexpected, time-inconsistent and against the rules. He was lucky to get away with it. His second goal, however, was an example of the power of expectations in the modern theory of interest rates. Maradona ran 60 yards from inside his own half beating five players before placing the ball in the English goal. The truly remarkable thing, however, is that, Maradona ran virtually in a straight line. How can you beat five players by running in a straight line? The answer is that the English defenders reacted to what they expected Maradona to do. Because they expected Maradona to move either left or right, he was able to go straight on. ”

If Maradona had put out a press release and a booklet explaining exactly what he was going to do, it could never have happened. But by keeping the England team guessing and by shifting his weight from left to right (the footballing equivalent of raised eyebrows) he scored the greatest goal of all time.

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Jim’s video from Tokyo – cup noodles, lessons about QE from the Edo period, and the fiscal multiplier effect

Last week Jim attended the annual meetings of the IMF and World Bank in Tokyo. For Bond Vigilantes, he took the camera along and documented his trip. Jim told me that the IMF and World Bank meetings, and even more the conversations and debates beyond the formal schedule, gave him some interesting food for thought. With the fiscal cliff arising and the UK’s failing experiment with austerity, Olivier Blanchard’s views around fiscal multiplier effects have been quite thought provoking. But not only has the conference helped shape his views, Tokyo itself has been inspiring. Much seems to be genuinely different, but at the same time there are many things that make you think Japan might be leading the way for the rest of the developed world.

Postscript: Anyone who was expecting further insights from Jim’s research trips into national sports will be disappointed. This time he didn’t bother to sight new football talent after his lack of success in Brazil. And he still prefers cricket over baseball…

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Climate change – bzirc monetary policy

As investors we get used to living within certain recognised bounds. For example, it has been commonly assumed that interest rates cannot be sub-zero. There has been the odd historical quirk when we’ve seen negative rates (Switzerland in the 1970s), but that’s more for amusement than general investment consumption. However, there now appears to be the potential for a major investment climate change.

There are already plenty of bond markets now living in the sub zero ice age, such as Switzerland, Denmark, Germany, Finland and the Netherlands. In these cases, the existence of negative rates could be down to the desire to express a currency or re-denomination view (as Mike previously wrote), so may be seen as a by-product of external factors and not of domestic monetary policy. However, there is now the potential for G7 monetary policy to enter the previously unbelievable reality of official sub-zero rates.

Many G7 economies have implemented very low rates and quantitative easing for a number of years, yet still appear to be in the economic doldrums with high unemployment, low growth and limited fiscal room. It could now be time for a significant change in the investment text book as central banks experiment with rates below zero.

Theoretically, a negative interest rate sounds simple – you put £100 in the bank and you get £99 back a year later if the rate is -1%. A  rational investor would of course have the alternative of simply keeping their cash under the mattress and not suffering the negative rate, although the incentive to behave rationally would be limited by the administrative burden and security risk of holding cash.  The central bank could simply limit this activity by basically not printing enough cash. Therefore the vast majority of money would have to be held electronically and could therefore suffer a penal negative rate. Implementation of sub zero rates is possible.

From a central bank’s point of view this should be stimulative, as it would discourage saving and encourage consumption like any traditional interest rate cut. At the extreme you could create exceptionally low, zero, or even negative borrowing rates.

The challenges faced by central banks and governments are still there despite traditional and unconventional policy action. Maybe it will soon be time to use the conventional tool of cutting interest rates in an unconventional way by making them negative. The next step to be taken by the authorities might mean economies working in a below zero interest rate climate (bzirc monetary policy).

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