Whilst I was listening to Ben Bernanke last night, who announced his decision to reduce the monthly rate of purchases of treasuries and mortgage backed securities by $10 billion per month, it became clear that the time has come to coin a new phrase. With the employment picture improving substantially in the last few months from a very weak point, and with GDP growth moving in a similarly positive direction from a similarly weak point, it is entirely justifiable in my opinion that the Fed continues to provide historically vast quantities of liquidity, albeit at an ever so slightly slower pace. The Fed sees growth returning to between 2.8% and 3.2% for the next couple of years, and it sees unemployment falling to between 5.5 and 5.8% within that horizon. Take a step back, briefly, and you would look at these predictions for the economy and expect the policy rate to be substantially higher than zero. So why did Ben Bernanke spend so long anchoring the market’s expectations for the future path of interest rates, and why is he still creating $75 billion of cash each month?
In the 1970s the more economically developed nations were experiencing an unexpected new phenomenon: low employment and high inflation. This, as we all now know, came to be known as stagflation. Today, the US, and just very recently the UK, is experiencing the opposite: rapidly improving employment and falling inflation. I am going to call this disinfloyment.
Chairman Bernanke said that low inflation is “more than a little concern”. One has to think that it was the improving economic and political picture, as well as perhaps some concern over early bubble formations, that brought about the decision to taper, on the one hand, and the inflation picture that brought about the strengthening forward guidance and lowering and weakening of the unemployment rate ‘knockout’ on the other. Otherwise, given a better broader economic outlook, you would expect a truer normalisation of policy, with the provision of liquidity being stopped and rates being hiked. The concern I think Bernanke has, and the question I would have asked him, would have been “what if zero interest rates, massive liquidity provision, and forward guidance do not manage to generate inflation at or above target? What then Ben?”
If the Fed were to find itself in a position of full employment, acceptable growth, and disinflation, with policy rates and long term interest rates near their extreme floors, and the efficacy of increased liquidity provision being increasingly marginal of benefit, or perhaps worse, then the Fed is alarmingly close to the limits of its powers. Perhaps only helicopter drops would remain a viable tool at this point. It is the awareness of this that I think is framing current Fed action. At 1.5% 10 year treasury yields earlier this year, rapid liquidity provision, and zero interest rates, there was almost nothing the Fed could do to counteract falling inflation; it simply couldn’t add much more stimulus. The utterance of the ‘t’ word in May, and now the first minor reduction in the pace of stimulus last night has seen 10 year yields rise to 3%, and from this point there is scope for data to disappoint to such an extent that yields fall, forward guidance is pushed out further, and QE can be increased so as to stimulate the economy.
So disinfloyment is a state of the economy that policymakers are rightly very scared of, as, depending on the economy’s starting point, it is a state in which economic policy is getting ineffective. But do I actually think that this is a term that we will hear more of in the next couple of years? Probably not.
For disinfloyment to become a problem, the employment picture must continue to improve, and inflation must continue to fall or fail to rise. Whilst I believe the former to be highly likely at this point, I find that latter harder to believe, and the Fed’s projection yesterday was for inflation to return to 1.4% to 1.6% in 2014. Whilst this is clearly still below target, it is less worryingly so than it is today. Bernanke told us yesterday that he presently sees the glide-path for tapering to continue at $10 billion at each meeting, until liquidity provision stops at the end of 2014. I believe that there is a very difficult line for the Fed to tread over the next 12 months. As tapering continues and the markets come to expect the end of the stimulus, long-term yields will rise (as we saw in the Summer) and the economic data risks going in the wrong direction for the tapering to continue. For a gradual rise in rates not to detrimentally affect the recovery, the economy must be growing with such underlying momentum as to shrug off these higher rates: and in this environment, surely inflation would be returning? So: either the Fed finds the recovery to be too fragile to continue tapering, in which case it continues to increase the supply of money each month, thereby risking higher inflation further into the future when the economy improves; or the recovery is sufficiently strong, and inflation (excluding commodities, which the Fed cannot control) is rebounding.
Markets are being staggeringly complacent about inflation at the moment, aided by presently low inflation in the developed world. We would do well to remember that monetary policy since the start of the Great Financial Crash has been designed with one major purpose: to avoid the spiral of deflation witnessed in the 1930s. Deflation, clearly the greater evil of the dichotomy, has been avoided so far. But now developed economies are recovering, liquidity-driven positions are coming back out of commodities and emerging markets, which are pushing down inflation numbers around the world. 2014 will be treading a fine line between these disinflationary forces prevailing, and so monetary policy having to re-start the liquidity machines, and recoveries managing their ways through this transition and finding underlying momentum. Respectively, we either continue to risk higher inflation further in the future through increasing the supply of money, or we start to see it come through sooner than we all presently think: either way, we get inflation. Lest we forget: the Fed will have increased the supply of money by $4.25 trillion at the end of the tapering cycle. When the velocity of money starts rising on top of the increases in money supply, nominal output will start to rise unless the money supply is taken out to an offsetting extent. It is this that I find so unlikely, and it is this that would increase the probability of disinfloyment. In my opinion, we are more likely to get nominal output surprises, and so returning inflation, than anything else in the UK and US. We won’t hear too much, at that stage, about disinlfoyment.