It’s not me, it’s you

This week one of the German banks (starts with “D” and ends with “eutsche Bank”) decided to enlighten us with their insight into Fed’s communication policy and transparency. One of their “analysts” has plotted the size of the Fed’s balance sheet against the number of words in FOMC statements. This person has also decided it would be useful to do a regression and inform us that R^2 is very high. There also was an arrow to show joint direction. Reluctantly, I will paste this chart below.



And before anyone starts saying I don’t have a sense of humour, let me assure you I get the wit here. Additionally, I will not spend time explaining how absolutely retarded from the econometric point of view this is (on at least five levels).

When I moaned about it on twitter I got a few replies including one that says that the chart is “provocative”. Presumably because it points out the fact that the communication policy of the FOMC has been somewhat imperfect. In fact, this sort of criticism is often used against many other central banks, particularly after they’ve depleted traditional monetary policy tools.

I profoundly disagree with such opinions and here’s why.

The world is not exactly a carbon copy of any Macroeconomics 101 course. In fact, it is a pretty screwed up place with tons of opinions and research floating around simultaneously wrestling with burgeoning financial markets which themselves have become increasingly more random. Sure, occasionally there are chaps who make careers on calling some things right but then it quickly emerges they were one trick ponies (Roubini, Paulson, Taleb, Schiff, Whitney to name a few). And the private sector does reward being right so you can bet that many MANY people in banks, asset managers or hedge funds (including yours truly) are throwing a lot of resources at the problem of forecasting. With average results at best. So if the private sector has significant issues despite using an enormous amount of resources then why wouldn’t the public sector suffer from the same problem?

Pretty much no policy maker has never lived through anything resembling what we’re dealing with at the moment. Comparisons to the Great Depression and Japan have their significant shortcomings too. The system is extremely complicated and I am beginning to think that the whole economic analysis has hit a stumbling block similar to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in physics. Perhaps we could calculate the trajectory of the global economy going forward but we would pretty much have to rebuild the whole world in some other place and watch it. Or, if that comparison doesn’t speak to you then maybe let’s use the Bitcoin example – the cost of mining (electricity) has now exceeded the benefits. So we end up with a combination of intuition and luck, unfortunately.

What has been the response of the central banks? Well, they’ve opened up. They started revealing all sorts of (dirty) secrets. It started even before the crisis with all sorts of fan charts. I remember very well when Poland was introducing its own Inflation Projection. The NBP spent considerable amount of time to inform people that this wasn’t a forecast but a projection. In other words, it was a work of a (pretty crappy) econometric model, which the central bank was filling with all the data it found relevant. And obviously, as the data changed, so did the outcomes of the model.

Same kind of thing happened to the forward guidance. Flawed concept as it is, it was misinterpreted from the very beginning. Yes, there were pretty silly thresholds but they were merely a reflection of what the central bank thought at the time. Plus they were always accompanied by phrases like “at least until” orunless” to demonstrate they were very soft. Anyway, the clue is in the name (“forward guidance“). Here’s a short clip to that effect:

And guess what? It turned out things have changed and central banks reacted as they saw fit. The classic example was the decision not to start tapering in September. But for some reason, people started screaming that this means the Fed has lost the credibility. Sure, the Fed has lost the credibility rather than those who came up with the cretenic #septaper hashtag in the first place. The same kind of thing happened with #dectaper and again, the Fed’s communication policy was to blame. Ok, feel free to argue that the FOMC made a series of mistakes in their assessment of the economy but for crying out loud do not say their communication policy was incorrect because that just goes against any logic.

I have this rule when analysing central bankers’ comments. When they talk about current month’s decision, I listen no matter what – after all, they are the ones pulling the trigger. When they talk about what they think they will do in the next 1-3 months, I take that into consideration when doing forecasts. And if they talk about anything beyond the next three months I just go to make myself a coffee. Sure, it might be interesting to read what they say but the disclaimer here is simple: They.Don’t.Know.

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)

What I make of it all

I have given a friend a task lately to come up with a consistent theory explaining recent moves in markets. I said it could be a conspiracy theory, a preposterous theory or any-other-theory as long as it provides a consistent explanation of recent moves. His reply was “people are selling what they were very long of” but then he reflected and said that it wouldn’t be consistent with the equity rally.

While I do not aspire to give you a comprehensive explanation, I think I have one that at least I feel comfortable with. But let’s start with a snapshot of what’s going on:

  • USTs are selling off.
  • Inflation keeps surprising to the downside.
  • USD is not really rallying (except against the yen).
  • US equities are generally supported.
  • Credit is wider but not spectacularly so.
  • Implied vols are creeping higher.
  • EM bonds are under tremendous pressure and currencies are weakening.
  • Commodities had come off but have sort-of stabilised lately.

Now, it may well be the case that we’re simply experiencing a risk-off period, although I’m not sure equity and commodities markets would agree with that fully. Neither is the UST sell-off the first thing that springs to mind when discussing the dreaded risk-off.

A theory, which is a bit closer to my heart is what Paul Krugman put in his blog today but again the USD is not really rallying. Alternatively, stuff like the Mexican peso shouldn’t be under so much pressure in such a scenario, I reckon.

I see two main forces driving the market at the moment. The first one is the Bank of Japan. In my post Eddie Vedder and the Japanese carry from April 13 (USD/JPY approaching 100 ) I was being skeptical about the whole concept of yen being used to fund stuff elsewhere saying that the Japanese will probably find plenty of opportunities locally if they believe in Abenomics. However, I did also say that if anything they’d go for bonds in the US, which are looking considerably better than other global bonds on a currency-hedged basis. Similarly, if a Japanese investor wants to bet on the yen decline, then they should keep it simple and do USD/JPY rather than, say, AUD/JPY. And this is a very important point because whenever USDJPY jumps 1%, it pushes the USD index higher by almost 0.15%, thus creating the impression that the risk is off because the USD strengthens. Therefore, the previous correlation of “yen lower, risk higher” does not work like a charm anymore.

But then, if it’s just a localised intervention in USD/JPY, which has very little to do with the fundamentals in the US of A then perhaps it is safe to assume that some investors have been skewing their own USD index by buying a bit more USD against the JPY and selling the greenback against the EUR? I will explain in a second why.

A global bond investor, which has a WGBI index as a benchmark (that’s representative of around 3-4trn USD in AUM) has 23 countries to choose from. These include the bond behemoths like US, Germany, Japan or Italy but also smaller markets, mostly in Europe. And the way this investor looks at the world at the moment is as follows.

  • She just heard from Ben Bernanke that the Fed might start limiting bond purchases. Granted, this will still be an expansion of the balance sheet but at a slower pace. The investor in question will be reassured that this is not a policy mistake but rather the response to recent data when, e.g. looking at the tax receipts data (chart below):
    The chart shows the annual rate of receipts of the federal government. Not only have we surpassed the pre-crisis highs in terms of revenues but also corporate income taxes are looking very healthy. And no, they are below the 2007 highs not because Apple is avoiding taxes or something but because there is a lot of tax credits originating from the crisis to work through.
  • The investor then looks at emerging markets (Mexico, Poland, Malaysia and South Africa are representing EMs in the WGBI index) and thinks that there is no way these are going to withstand the UST sell-off. Anyone who thinks otherwise is in a dreamworld in my opinion. There’s also the argument of positioning, which is very heavy.
  • Then the investor looks at her global growth/inflation forecasts and sees this big black hole between the Urals and the Atlantic Ocean, which is at a brink of deflation and already in a recession. As much as such a scenario for Europe would’ve been considered a disaster 2-3 years ago, it is now a fact of life. Please see my post Systemic ain’t what it used to be for a more detailed explanation. Suffice to say that if you have reasons to believe Bernanke when he says he will “taper” then you also should believe Mario Draghi when he says that he is prepared to do whatever it takes.
  • Meanwhile, there is a significant risk of a currency war breaking out in Asia. Yesterday the Japanese told their Korean colleagues to go and… do something about the won rather than whine over the yen depreciation. Not exactly a fantastic environment for investing in bonds over there, either.
  • So if you are a fixed-income dedicated investor then there’s really pretty much one place to be – European debt markets. To be sure, trends change and it can be reversed but if you believe in the global growth/reflation trade then probably shorting BTPs or SPGBs is not the first thing to do. In fact, under such a scenario I can very much imagine peripheral spreads tightening massively, particularly in Italy, which has now officially ceased to be a fiscal troublemaker.
  • In such a scenario EUR rallies, EGBs outperform and emerging markets closely tied to the EU (Poland, Hungary etc.) perform better than those linked to the US (Mexico). All that has indeed taken place.

I would like to spend a second on the EUR here. In one of my recent discussions with long-term investors an interesting theme started taking shape – what if Europe is about to experience what Japan had experienced in the last two decades but in a very short period of time, say 1-2 years? The current account is very positive, the appetite for debt is relatively strong and domestic demand will stay very sluggish but at the same the ECB won’t go “full monty” on printing. Unless it is forced to do so, of course, like it recently happened in Japan. What if the balance of payments forces coupled by the fact that virtually every major trading partner of the Eurozone is printing money push EUR to some ridiculously high levels before the pressure on the ECB is so strong that it can’t resist it anymore? So yes, the EUR would eventually crash but there would be a lot of stop losses beforehand.

I will be very honest – I am really struggling to get a good feel on the market at the moment. There are bond markets that I still like a lot, e.g. Italy, CEE or Russia but I think one needs to have something to offset the long rates exposure (my suggestion – Turkey). I generally think emerging markets in the EU should outperform Latam and Asia due to proximity to the deflationary vortex but moves have been quite brutal there, too. On the FX, if what I wrote is correct then the theme from the beginning of the year, i.e. being long EUR/MXN, EUR/RUB or EUR/MYR should work out really nicely.

And yes, I know this post would’ve been nice to have two weeks ago but this is what I make of it all anyway.

What the central bank giveth, only the central bank taketh away

When I first started working at a bank they told me to do liquidity forecasts for the money market desk. It was a relatively simple, yet educational exercise. I would look at a given month and put together a table of cash inflows to and outflows from the system. For example, when there would be a bond redemption or a coupon payment, it would mean an increase in liquidity. Conversely, if the finance ministry were to issue bonds, it would drain some money from the system. These were just daily moves in liquidity but they were absolutely key for the money market rates. Believe me, you don’t want to make a mistake when doing that…

But the thing is that this was just forecasting of changes in maturity of money in the system. After all, the mere fact that the finance ministry pays out a coupon doesn’t mean that there is more money in the system. The finance ministry cannot print money so they would simply move it from their account to the accounts of bond holders. On that day overnight rates would normally drop but the system would balance itself quite quickly.

Fast forward to more interesting (aka post-Lehman) times. The central banks around the world have been printing money at a spectacular pace and many agree (myself included) that quite a few of developed economies are in the liquidity trap. Naturally, the increase in central banks’ balance sheets has led to a significant build up in excess liquidity, which – as we know all too well – usually ends up back at the central bank’s deposit facility. This is beginning to raise concerns in both developed and emerging economies. Let me give you three examples from recent weeks in the European Union (in order of appearance):

  • Hungary’s central bank is planning to limit banks’ access to the two-week NBH bills (open market operations). More details can be found here. NBH Governor Matolcsy is quite angry that the central bank needs to pay banks for the liquidity they park in this facility. He is pointing in the direction of foreign banks (I explained the mechanism in the post entitled The Invisible Carry), but we can assume this will eventually be extended.
  • Last week, Mario Draghi said the central bank was open to negative rates on the deposit facility.
  • This week, Nationa Bank of Poland’s Governor Marek Belka said that banks had too easy lives because they were parking PLN140bn using weekly open market operations and earning the repo rate without any problems.

Many commentators and indeed the central bankers themselves have been mentioning that the idea behind those measures is to make the banks lend more. It is often claimed that the liquidity in the banking system should be helping the economy recover, instead of making banks money. But this is a very simplistic approach to how banks operate.

Let’s say that a banking system has excess liquidity of 1,000bn (never mind how it got to that state). This money is kept at the central bank in weekly open market operations and earns 0.05%. Let’s then assume that the central bank slashes this rate to -1%. What happens?

Some banks may conclude that using the central bank is not a very smart thing to do anymore and will go and buy, say, 3-month TBills. But who will they buy them from? Finance ministry? Ok, but then what will the finance ministry do with the money it gets from the bank? It will pay teachers’ salaries (among others, of course). What will the teachers do? They will keep it on their bank accounts, which means the money will have returned to the system and we’re back at square one, but with one happy finance minister who just sold some TBills.

Other banks will conclude that maybe they will take the money they’d normally put at the central bank, swap it into another currency, eg the USD and buy some USD-denominated assets with it. The price of USD in the swap market will increase (and the price of the local currency will decline) but ultimately the money won’t disappear and will return to the central bank. The process will, however, lower fx swap rates.

Perhaps there will be one bank whose CEO will feel patriotic and will want to lend money to “hard-working entrepreneurs up and down the country”. Why the decline of deposit rate by 105bp would persuade her to do that is beyond me, but we can make such an assumption. So if this bank lends some money for the new investment project, then the company in question will spend the money and the money will… come back to the system! At the end of the day, there will still be 1,000bn sitting with the central bank. Just at a different price.

I don’t question the fact that such a move will persuade banks to search for higher-yielding assets, ie loans but what I’m trying to explain is that the liquidity in the banking system is like a hot potato. The central bank controls how much money there is in the system (using various ways, eg printing money, changing the reserve requirement etc) and the market only needs to decide the price of this money. The only way that lowering rates to the negative territory impacts the amount of cash in the system is because the central bank will be returning 99% of the money placed in it back to banks. But then which of the major central banks could even contemplate shrinking its balance sheet at the time when the global economy remains exceptionally fragile?

What I think discussions like the ones taking place in Europe will lead to is significant re-pricing of interbank rates (BOR-OIS spreads could decline massively as banks start passing on the potato) and an increased demand for government or quasi-government bonds by banks’ assets and liabilities management desks (ALMs). Perhaps this is the point of the whole exercise. Then again, isn’t it yet another version of crowding out and actually forcing banks to play the carry in government bond markets? Hard to see how that should please politicians but perhaps this is the only path to rejuvenate the credit action. I really don’t like growth implications of such a process. Unless of course the ultimate beneficiaries, ie the governments, use the extra demand for their papers to increase public spending… But I will spare you, Dear Reader, yet another discussion about consequences of austerity. There’s this chap in the US who does that several times a day.


Eddie Vedder and the Japanese carry

Just like everyone else in the financial markets over the last week or so I have become the world-famous specialist on Japanese flows (!)*. I have heard a lot of more or less plausible stories and when I was trying to digest all the noise, I couldn’t help but think about “Nothing As It Seems” by Pearl Jam:

Occupations overthrown, a whisper through a megaphone
It’s nothing as it seems, the little that he needs, it’s home
The little that he sees, is nothing he concedes, it’s home
And all that he frees, a little bittersweet, it’s home
It’s nothing as it seems, the little that you see, it’s home…

Jeff Ament, Pearl Jam

I am not certain what is going to happen with the wall of money that is seemingly coming from Japan, but I know that there’s a remarkable amount of superficial analysis, which I would like to comment on.

1. The Japanese carry trade will continue as the BoJ prints more.

According to estimates by Daiwa net issuance of JGBs after stripping BoJ purchases will be -26trn yen. This is around 5% of GDP, which is a pretty monstrous amount. This naturally makes people’s imagination go into overdrive, particularly as we’re talking about the country with decent carry-trading history. But there is one problem with such an approach. Carry trade was Japan’s response to the lack of returns in the local market. Bond yields have been ridiculously low and the stock exchange was still suffering as zombie-banks kept dragging it (and the economy) lower. Now, do you think this situation has not changed even a bit? We may be agreeing or disagreeing with what the BoJ is doing but investors (particularly retail) could be excused for e.g. thinking that the Nikkei will double this year. This is particularly the case as what the BoJ seems to have orchestrated is a fantastic opportunity for the Japanese banks to cash in on their available-for-sale JGB portfolios. So answer yourself this question – is it so entirely obvious that Mrs Watanabe continues buying AUDJPY (annual yield of 3.2%), ZARJPY (annual yield 5.4%) or MXNJPY (annual yield 4%)? Granted, these and many other currencies will continue to constitute a very important part of the Japanese investment portfolio but pretending that the investment backdrop in Japan has not changed is naive in my opinion.

2. The big yen move has only just begun.

Currently various forecasters are trying to come up with the most bearish view for the yen. I have already seen 120/USD but admittedly I do not pay much attention to that stuff. But try to think who has so far made money on the yen debasement? If you don’t know then try to get a hold of the HSBC hedge fund report to see that the vast majority of macro funds have caught at least a part of this move. And because selling the yen is seemingly such a no-brainer**, not being in the trade is a big career-risk for many. In some sense, macro hedge funds cannot afford to miss another leg in the yen move (if there is one). But in the greater scheme of things this is just noise. Don’t forget that the Japanese economy has just become at least 30% cheaper. And we are talking about a bunch of historically deadly innovative companies who have managed to keep their place in the global market place against all odds.

Goldman has recently produced a study showing that the country with the most similar exports composition to Japan’s is… Germany. It is already very much visible it the underperformance of the DAX, in my opinion. Personally I prefer Mercedes over Toyota but at a 25% discount I know I would change my mind.

My thinking is as follows: if this yen depreciation and the crowding out of the Japanese banks from the JGB market is persistent then Japan has every chance to become the champion of the global trade again. And if so, why on earth would I be buying GBPJPY or AUDJPY?

Let me give you another example: If you have been selling the yen and buying the South African rand consistently in the last five years then only last week did you break even on your average spot level. Sure, you got some coupons in between but it cannot be ruled out that investors who have been buying the ZAR against the JPY will just take this as an opportunity to close the position after being bailed out by the BoJ.

3. Banks will invest abroad.

This bit I find preposterous. I have mentioned above that banks may have just been given a lifeline by the BoJ and they will be able to off-load their available for-sale portfolios at a significant profit. What they do with the cash next is anyone’s guess but banks are not really in the business of punting on currency markets with their balance sheets. Believe it or not but even when GS recommends buying EURUSD, it’s not like Goldman’s treasury shifts all its money to Europe. Banks operate in the “LIBOR+” world. They are happy to take exposure to foreign bonds but it is usually done on an asset swap basis. Below are a few bonds that I just looked up on Bloomberg and how they compare when swapped to JPY.

  • T 2 02/15/23                                     78bp
  • SAGB6.75 03/31/21 #R208       68bp
  • MBONO6.5 06/09/22                    68bp
  • POLGB 4 10/25/23                          10bp
  • TURKGB8.5 09/14/22                   36bp

As you can see those differences are not huge and definitely not big enough to make emerging markets irresistible. Additionally, there’s a perverse effect of what’s been going on in the JGB market lately. The chart below shows a crude calculation of VaR for 10y JGB futures since 2000.


A chart of the yield volatility is looking even scarier, which – paradoxically – could bring the Japanese banks into a risk-reduction mode as no one can bear such wild swings of the profit and loss account. And adding Brazilian assets to the portfolio doesn’t help much.

4. Asset managers, insurance companies and pension funds will invest abroad.

Yes they will. The same way as they have in the past. Well, maybe with a bit bigger size but it’s far from being certain at the moment. If it’s the yen weakness they’re after then I suppose buying the USD will do (without adding an extra layer of volatility between the USD and some other currency). And if they don’t think the yen weakens much from here then why would they accelerate foreign buying in the first place?

This brings us to the last point I would like to make. As much as in previous years the Japanese investments abroad were driven by expectations of superior returns outside of the country, we are now talking about the expected yen weakness. In my opinion this changes the structure of investors taking advantage of the move and I believe that it will be the foreigners shorting the yen, rather than the locals. This, at least in the near term, makes it a tactical, rather than a structural trade.

So these were my views on the whole situation. I don’t have any concrete recommendations this time but I just don’t like how one-sided the discussion has become. And if I’m wrong then… well… listening to Eddie Vedder while writing this post definitely made it worth my while.

* not sure how to stress that I am being ironic, but I have noticed that subtitled movies on Sky have (!) at the end of sarcastic sentences.

** I have always thought that no-brainers are for people without brains but somehow this definition hasn’t become mainstream.

Dude, where’s my potential?

Last week was pretty eventful in terms of central banking. Obviously, the folk from the ECB grabbed a lot of headlines with their relative optimism but they are not the only ones trying to “whisper the reality”.

Meanwhile, two important emerging markets central banks decided to cut rates last week. And dramatically so. First, the National Bank of Poland decided to reconcile the market split between a 25bp cut and a no-change decision by… slashing rates by 50bp*. Two days later, the Banxico decided to do a similar thing, also exceeding the market expectations. Now how is that possible? Two central banks, which historically have been quite hawkish and have kept rates generally high have suddenly decided to get adventurous?

Let’s start with the NBP. Today the central bank revealed the details of its latest macroeconomic projections (a neat presentation can be accessed here). I found this chart quite interesting:


It shows two things. Firstly, according to the NBP models, potential growth rate has declined to below 3% from close to 6% before the crisis. Secondly, the lost output is so huge that the central bank expects the output gap to remain wide open at least until the end of 2015. In theory, that means at least two more years of zero underlying inflation pressures (caveat: see the Intermission section that follows). This is bold.

Intermission: Here I need to remind you of a significant distinction between potential output and potential growth rate. Have a look at the chart again – expected growth will exceed potential growth rate already at the beginning of 2015 (which by the way is pretty far off!). Only since then will the negative green bars start becoming smaller, reflecting the catching up with the lost potential. I don’t have a definitive answer to that but it is not entirely obvious that underlying inflation can start going up with green bars in the negative territory.

Now let’s move to Banxico. In the statement following the last meeting the central bank enumerated “structural advances” which have been made in recent years (translation here). They include:

  1. the reduction in the level, volatility and inflation persistence (ok, ok, that’s just an “idem per idem” argument)
  2. the fact that the various episodes of price adjustments have not resulted in second round effects
  3. the anchoring of expectations inflation, and
  4. the significant decline in inflation risk premium.

Of course Banxico is trying to make a big success out of it by saying that it has fostered an environment with less economic uncertainty. And good for them but someone cynical could say that this simply means that the economy has lost a significant part of its potential growth rate. I am not questioning the decision itself – I actually think the Mexicans did the right thing – but wider ramifications of it could eventually lead to even lower rates than now. Same as in Poland.

As I was thinking of the whole concept of potential growth rates in emerging economies I came across this very good article from Valor via Brazilian Bubble: Brazil’s Central Bank is in search of lost credibility. I don’t necessarily agree with everything that’s been said there but have a look at this paragraph:
Now, Brazil is not in a crisis, despite the fact that GDP has been showing subpar growth over the last two years and is on its way to perhaps the third year of such a situation. Despite that, everything indicates that the Copom is preparing to raise the Selic rate, repeating the standard reaction of a past that everybody thought had been left behind.
I can see where the Copom is coming from. Inflation remains of paramount importance in Brazil, to the point that they publish data to second decimals, as if it had any macroeconomic implications. I am not sure whether hiking rates will be the correct decision but I wanted to point out what can happen to an emerging economy if potential growth rates decline. If the economy has been showing “subpar growth over the last two years” and inflation is surging then maybe it wasn’t “subpar growth” after all?
There are of course positive examples, too. Turkey is one of them (although not very recently). I have not been in agreement with their recent policies and I think they’re throwing their undisputed success in fighting inflation to the wind but if we go a bit further back, we will see at least two episodes of a durable decline in the inflation rate. Both occurred after periods of significant economic hardship – first at the beginning of the millennium and then after the 2006 crisis. Now, Turkey had a grand opportunity to durably lower inflation after the 2008/09 global crisis but the central bank instead decided to focus on micromanaging pretty much every element of the economy. The reason I mention that is all three episodes of a shock to let’s call it “normal” level of inflation were used by the central bank to slash rates dramatically. In this respect, the CBRT recognised that the economy has become less inflationary. However, it remains to be seen whether its most recent response to global events is correct. In other words, the risk the CBRT is running is that it assumes that potential growth rates is higher than it actually is. It worked in the first two instances but that may be because they were driven by local developments (rather than the global crisis like in 2008/09). If the CBRT is not lucky this time, events could necessitate a similar approach to the Copom.
How to trade this? There seem to have been two approaches to monetary policies in recent years in emerging markets. On the one hand, we have seen activist central banks such as BCB or CBRT which have actively engaged in currency wars etc. They seem to be operating under the assumption that they need to counter whatever it is that Fed/ECB/BoJ conjure. I would call that “externally driven monetary policy”. On the other side of the spectrum you have the likes of Poland or Mexico, which – while acknowledging the impact of external developments – have maintained their reaction functions roughly unchanged. The latter group is beginning to realise that their economies are developing considerably slower than they could and so chances are that last week’s rate decisions are not the last surprises they have for us. As such money market curves should steepen there. The former group is to some extent the opposite. They are either like Brazil coming to the conclusion that inflation is becoming an issue despite slow growth. Or, like Turkey, they keep playing with fire pretending that the economy is still not strong enough to push inflation higher. One should be very careful being long duration in those, in my opinion.

* Despite huge temptation, I will not dwell on how ridiculous the communications policy of the Poles is. After two months of becoming increasingly more hawkish and suggesting a pause, they decided to cut more than expected to show that they’re done. I did not lose money on that so it’s not my grief speaking but I really believe this is the worst Monetary Policy Council among the mainstream emerging countries.

Central banks, exit strategies and space travels

Sometimes the best analysis of current conditions can be found in research written at a time when such conditions seemed only theoretical. This is because people writing about them have no hidden agenda and usually do it out of sheer intellectual curiosity. I have recently come across one such example when I was trying to figure out what the nature of the Fed/BoE/BoJ/ECB exit strategy will be. Whenever it may come, that is.

Here’s the link to the research entitled “The role of central bank capital revisited” published in September 2004 by the ECB. Interestingly, the paper was written by gentlemen with very German-sounding names (Ulrich Bindseil, Andres Manzanares and Benedict Weller). It reminds me of another ECB paper which in 2009 discussed “Withdrawal and expulsion from the EU and EMU” written by a Greek (Phoebus Athanassiou), but I digress.

I encourage you to take a minute and read at least the non-technical summary of this paper. Below are a few interesting quotes:

  • It is shown that a temporary shock creating negative capital and a loss-making situation is always reversed in the long run with the central bank returning to profitability and a positive level of capital.
  • However, a central bank with a loss-making balance sheet structure would in this context still able to conduct its monetary policy in a responsible way, even with a negative long-term profitability outlook.
  • Positive capital seems to remain a key tool to ensure that independent central bankers always concentrate on price stability in their monetary policy decisions.

The last one is a widely accepted notion but the former two can make you go “hmmmm”. Additionally, further in the paper the authors mention a key feature: “If there were no separation between the central bank and the government, the capital of the central bank is obviously irrelevant since one then has to consider only the aggregate capital of the State (including the central bank and the government).

The authors also mention that if a central bank has a negative capital then “The markets will have reasons to anticipate less stability-oriented behaviour of the central bank, which drives up inflationary expectations.” This catapults us straight to the current situation.

It would be remarkably difficult to argue that the BoE, BoJ or even the Fed are fully independent. Sure, they are not parts of their respective governments nor do they report to politicians (directly) but independence is illusion. This is particularly the case considering that they own the lion’s share of their local government bond markets, which many commentators perceive as a situation without an obvious exit. But let’s try and assume the unthinkable…

Imagine that efforts of the Federal Reserve eventually lead to some sort of stabilisation of growth, albeit at a low level. Assuming a fast growth rate is a bit too audacious even for me… Now surely this will raise the question of the Fed’s exit strategy. We can reasonably assume that the minute the market gets a sniff of selling of the Fed’s UST portfolio, things can get nasty. Granted, the Fed is wary of those risks and will try to minimise the impact but at the end of the day it will be a classical “more sellers than buyers” situation. As a side comment, it is entirely possible that the Fed starts with what one of my friends called Operation Untwist, i.e. selling the back end to buy short-maturity papers. This is bound to hit the central bank’s profitability. And so what?

Let’s say that the Fed adheres to the mark-to-market principles. Every bond that it sells makes the unsold portfolio look more and more under-water (all other things equal). Depending on how big the move in yields is, we can assume that the capital would be wiped out relatively quickly. The authors of the aforementioned article indicate that such a situation would “drive up inflationary expectations”. Now, hang on a minute – isn’t it what many central bankers are dreaming about? Wouldn’t that in the end increase velocity of money giving an additional boost to the economy?

The IMF analysed central banks’ losses too and concluded that if the central bank “goes bankrupt”, the risk of dollarisation of the economy increases sharply. I would agree with that when we talk about countries like Nicaragua or Egypt. But surely not in the US. It is remarkably difficult to imagine why would the Americans start preferring any other currency than the USD just because the Fed made some losses on its UST portfolio (and please don’t say “gold”). I admit that this is a slippery slope but a very important consideration at the moment is the liquidity trap and there are no easy ways out of it as many countries have painfully discovered lately (see my previous post “Has Britain finally cornered itself?“).

One of the models that the ECB study introduces spews out a nice chart:


This shows that a central bank’s capital does not have to turn negative to drive inflation a bit higher. Perhaps then we should not be too worried about what happens to the Fed when yields finally rise? Let me make an analogy to the momentum principle and space travels. When a rocket reaches outer space, a good way to boost velocity is to detach a part of the rocket which will essentially push the main chamber further and faster into space. This is pretty well explained here and can be summarised in the following diagram I have nicked:


Sometimes it is good to take a step back to achieve the required effect. Perhaps a central bank incurring some losses while selling its government bond portfolios is a way to go after all…