Central banks’ credibility

There is no such thing as doing something you don’t believe in to gain credibility.

The blogosphere is full of articles about why Larry Summers is worse than Janet Yellen (or was it all the way around?) and I don’t intend to add to that discussion. However, it seems to me that there is a bigger question that needs answering, i.e. central banks’ credibility.

I read today a very good summary of the arguments in favour of Larry Summers, put together by Ezra Klein (who makes it painfully clear these are NOT his views). The full article is here and I’d like to quote one paragraph:

Summers is a better dove because he’s a better hawk. (…) There are two versions of this argument. One is that Yellen will tighten prematurely, because her reputation as a dove will make it harder for her to convince the market that she really will begin tightening when the time comes, and so she’ll need to move from promising future tightening to actually tightening sooner than Summers would. Another is that investors won’t trust Yellen’s promises to tighten, and so the market will lose some confidence in the Fed and a risk premium will begin building — which would be even worse than an actual tightening.

I am very sorry to say but this is ludicrous from whatever angle you look at it. Firstly, to assume that the Governor of the mightiest central bank on the planet has to do something to convince the market she means business is a joke. Secondly, to assume that Fed Chair would at some point arrive at a conclusion that policy probably needs to be tightened in, say, 6 months’ time and then go on and tighten immediately is offensive to any sort of intelligence. And thirdly, after all these years of seemingly dollar-debasing / hyperinflationary / zerohedgey policies, can anyone argue that the market would lose confidence in the Fed?

Credibility is composed of two factors: trustworthiness and expertise.

Let’s start with the expertise. I think the cornerstone of economic analysis is the data. The Federal Reserve is the central bank that brought to you FRED and is home to some of the brightest economists out there. Working papers produced by Fed staff are of sensational quality (at least the ones I’ve read) and it’s the central bank that is embracing the modern technology in full (and I don’t mean only tweeting). True, not all of the Fed’s forecasts are spot on but they are probably accurate reflection of the prevailing state of affairs and include all available and relevant information. Additionally, the Fed has been around for almost a century. In other words, the institutional memory of the Fed really should not be questioned. And again, this does not mean they’re infallible.

So then what about trustworthiness? Do I trust Janet Yellen and Larry Summers? Not particularly, no. But it is completely irrelevant. Trustworthiness in the Federal Reserve Chairman or Chairwoman extends from the trustworthiness of the institution. That’s why markets learned to trust Alan Greenspan even if he turned out to be a true maestro of destruction. Interestingly, almost two decades of his reign, which ended in peril, did not dent the Fed’s credibility. You could think that after the mess that Alan made, the frantic printing of money would have been compounded by the disillusion with the Fed’s handling of the economy… Instead, inflation remains in check (perhaps even too much) and I don’t think people have a sense of the Fed losing control. So all in all, I think the fairy tale about the market being worried about trustworthiness of either Yellen or Summers is just that – a fairy tale. Investors will trust them both because both have their own credentials and they will be running one of the best (in terms of human capital) central banks in the world.

But as I said, I don’t want to make it all about the U.S. Do you remember November 2011? The previously modestly (or would it be moderately?) known Governor of Bank of Italy Mario Draghi became the ECB Governor. At that time it was painfully obvious that the ECB had to cut interest rates and yet for some reason people thought it wouldn’t happen during the first meeting. They were saying that it would be damaging for the ECB credibility if an Italian started his tenure in Frankfurt by cutting rates thus infuriating the Germans. Silvia Wadhwa (why does she even have the right to express her own opinions?) said on the day of the meeting she would eat her hat if Draghi cut rates. And what happened? Draghi cut interest rates and… nothing. The EUR did not fall apart, inflation did not soar, the Germans didn’t go on strike. Why is that? Firstly, because the ECB is an important player in the market that makes things happen and secondly because Draghi did the right thing. Imagine how his credibility would look like if he waited a few months just to appease the Wadhwas of the world. Would he be able to play his ace of spades several months later by saying “whatever it takes”? Perhaps but credibility is not built on appeasing investors but by doing what you think is right with support of the institution behind you.

Again, I would like to stress that what I’m discussing here is the issue of credibility rather than making no mistakes. Importantly, sometimes the market goes the other way and assumes that some institutions have limitless credibility (I addressed it in my previous post “Just do as I say, don’t do as I do“) but that’s beside the point.

I only ask you this. Don’t tell me that differentiating candidates should be based on what they may or may not do if and when the need to hike rates arises. Rest assured that they will do whatever they think is right and that it has more to do with the incoming data and the analysis coming from within the Fed. There is no such thing as doing something you don’t believe in to gain credibility (In fact, I like this sentence a lot so I will put it on the top)

Just do as I say, don’t do as I do

One of the oh-so-many unintended consequences of what we’ve seen in the market for the last five years is the widespread belief that no matter what happens policy makers are in almost full control of the events. Moreover, we seem to be more willing to take their word for granted rather than analyse what they’re actually doing (which reminds me of this old Genesis song, hence also the title of the post).

Think of it.

  • If the US growth numbers turn sour, who do we think can come to save the day? Either the government with the fiscal package or, more recently, the Fed with some sort of money printing magic wand.
  • When a eurozone country gets into trouble, all the research says “if only the Troika was there to help them” or “if only Mario Draghi was not on vacation and said something about whatever it takes”.
  • Similarly, if the day of reckoning comes in India after years of screwing up the fiscal situation and very little progress on boosting competitiveness to sort out the current account (yes, that does matter), all we want is the RBI to tighten the liquidity situation to go back to normal.
  • Or when Turkey pushes the current account deficit and short term external debt to levels previously unseen in the emerging markets universe, simultaneously pumping up credit growth to very high levels and keeping negative real rates, all the JP Morgan research wishes for is for Governor Basci to sound hawkish to make it all go away. Indeed, they hiked the upper end of the interest rates corridor today and people are very happy even though it really means nothing.
  • In Egypt where the fiscal situation is completely unsustainable and people are rioting at the time when FX reserves are being depleted at a Formula I pace, many people think that the Gulf states or the IMF or some other Santa Claus can come and save the day with a simple loan. If only the government asked for it…
  • Finally, when the Governor of the National Bank of Poland categorically says that policy easing has finished at 2.5% and that he is sending a strong signal to the economy that the worst is over and therefore the economy can grow again, the market immediately takes it as a gospel even though it does sound an awful lot like my favourite Baron Munchhausen.

Trust me, I do have many more examples of when we either wish for or treat policy makers’ decisions as the ultimate solutions. Whereas if you think of it, many times it is a very twisted logic, which a friendly portfolio manager summarised as “when we turn left, a road to the left will appear”.

It didn’t use to be like this. Our faith in policy makers’ ability to reverse the course of the market has proven correct in many cases (see whatever it takes) but I think that oftentimes it’s just a reflection of the laziness of the market. After all, it’s much easier to buy bonds in Slovenia or Italy because the ECB says it will defend them rather than to look into the fundamentals. Or it’s much easier to buy the Turkish lira because the CBRT says it is hawkish rather than to think whether it’s actually true (NB it most definitely isn’t, in my opinion).

I am not denying the fact that the policy makers control developments in the very short term no matter how much you disagree with them but we need to be very careful when extrapolating that. I strongly believe that there are still things which are beyond fixing and that sometimes it really is too late. The following points are not necessarily things I am convinced about but I think you can make such counterarguments to the propositions I presented above:

  • Fed saving the day – what if the US is in the classical liquidity trap in which case without a strong fiscal stimulus you will get nowhere via QE?
  • Draghi doing whatever it takes – what if the EMU debt is actually not sustainable, in which case it’s just a matter of time before dominoes start falling? (ok, I actually don’t really agree with this one but Nouriel, Nassim and Zero would probably make that point; Also, “Zero” is the first name of Mr Hedge, right?).
  • RBI saving the rupee by squeezing front end rates to 8% – what if the awful policy mix of the recent years actually requires long term yields to increase considerably to attract any sort of interest from international investors?
  • CBRT rescuing the lira – what if we are ahead of a proper old-school funding crisis in which case the current account deficit will need to be closed in a disorderly fashion triggering a massive increase in interest rates and a huge recession?
  • Egypt bail out – what if the cost of saving Egypt is too high for anyone to bear and the country actually is unable to sustainably fund the fiscal deficit, particularly in the local market?
  • Poland recovering – what if the excessively tight monetary and fiscal policies have durably lowered the potential growth rate in Poland turning it into a country more resembling the Czech Republic (i.e. with very high savings rate and no domestic demand)?

Some of those things sound less plausible than others but I guess the message is that don’t let the policy makers whisper the reality and pull the wool over your eyes. Granted, they can and should impact your trading decisions in the short-run but if the brightest and best-paid minds working in the financial industry are having problems with forecasting what is going to happen in the marketplace then how can you assume that people who – for the most part – are politicians constantly make the best possible decisions?

I am back and so is the balance of payments

As we get a breather in the indiscriminate sell-off, I think it is a good time to consider what it is that actually drives the faith of various emerging markets.

Naturally, the easiest explanation currently is “tapering”, which is something I’ve been trying to fight for the last several weeks among the investors that I speak to. Alas, the power of the front page of FT or WSJ saying “EM is doomed as Fed tightens (sic!) the policy” is difficult to overcome. What is particularly worrying is that this sort of über-lazy argumentation is very often used by fairly young traders. The reason why it worries me is that those guys will at some stage be responsible for the way the market behaves and that spells all sorts of issues, especially when it comes to concentration of views and positions.

The “reasoning” is as follows.

A financial tsunami is coming because the Fed will taper. Therefore let’s try to look for another crisis of similar sort. Oh, we don’t need to look too far back as we’ve got 2008. Brilliant! So which position would’ve made me a billionaire back then? Shorting the EUR, receiving the xccy basis in anything-USD, selling all emerging markets, particularly CEE and a few more. So why don’t I do it again as “this time is different” never works. – Risk meeting at a macro fund

I honestly can’t tell you how much I hate such an approach. Probably as much as popular it has become. Meanwhile, people are forgetting the simple, transparent approach to looking at various countries, ie the balance of payments. Everything you need to know is there, particularly in emerging markets.

You want examples? Ok, a few recent things:

– Turkey. It is selling off not because of some protests or handling thereof by the government. It is selling off because the market has realised that the current account and it’s funding is not sustainable at the current level of rates. And this process started before the infamous Bernanke speech. The only way to tackle that is by adjusting the main culprit, ie the monetary policy. Not the currency. It is very common to confuse currency depreciation with the balance of payments adjustment. Therefore the correct trade in my opinion is ratesa/bonds rather than FX. With or without the taper.

– Egypt. Again, the balance of payments will tell you that the country was going to go bust even before the whole Morsi debacle started. Why is the current account so bad? Because the fiscal policy is too lax (subsidies etc). Will FX depreciation help? Nope, it might actually worsen things. Either way, what’s going on in Egypt has very little to do with Ben or protests.

– Hungary. It’s not selling off. How come? Debt stock is huge, after all. That’s irrelevant. The balance of payments is looking ironclad and that’s why the HUF is strong like a bison. Bernanke or not.

– Eurozone. How many people have lost their shirt on shorting the euro in the last couple of years. “The euro needs to crash to help the periphery” has been such a lovely slogan. But look at eurozone’s balance of payments. It is looking spectacular both on the current account side and on the funding component. Even the intra-EMU BoP is not bad (as represented by, pardon Lorcan, shrinking Target2 balances). And this is why the euro is not crashing. Sure, Bernanke’s testimonies could create some volatility but the “macro investors” should take a step back and see how poorly shorting the euro has worked and maybe rethink their approach.

– China. Here the situation is trickier because at face value the current account and financial account don’t seem to be problematic. But there’s a third component to the balance of payments, ie fx reserves. Equally important as the other two as it determines the level of liquidity in the local banking system (the central bank by accumulating reserves pumps in more local currency), which can then create all sorts of issues, including the unprecedented growth in credit/GDP. And this is why the Shibor market has become so unstable.

I could multiply those examples but the point is that it is my profound conviction that in most cases the analysis of the balance of payments will help you both ask the right questions and get you the right answers. This is also the place where policy mistakes are laid bare.

Therefore, stop trying to guess whether the market misinterprets Ben Bernanke in one or another way because – as the last few weeks have shown – this will stop you out of positions unless you are the luckiest trader alive (in which case sit back, relax, you’re all set). But go back to the basics. Have a look at the balance of payments and this will help you get above the monkeys who trade Bloomberg headlines and are proud when they’ve guessed whether it was a risk on or a risk off day.