No end in sight for Fed stimulus as inflation sags

Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank Ben Bernanke attends the Treasury Department's Financial Stability Oversight Council in Washington April 25, 2013. REUTERS/Gary Cameron
By Pedro Nicolaci da Costa
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Federal Reserve's debate over monetary policy could begin to shift away from the prospect of reducing stimulus toward a discussion about doing more, given the signs of economic weakness and slowing inflation.

But policymakers are not there yet.

At a two-day meeting that wraps up on Wednesday, the Fed is widely expected to maintain its monthly purchases of $85 billion in bonds to support an economic recovery that is nearly four years old but still too weak for the job market to truly heal.

With the central bank's favored inflation gauge slipping and employment growth faltering, Fed officials could again find themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to shift from talk of curbing stimulus to the possibility of doing more.

Currently, analysts see the Fed buying a total $1 trillion in Treasury and mortgage-backed securities during the ongoing third round of quantitative easing, known as QE3. Until recently, analysts had believed the Fed would start taking the foot off the accelerator in the second half of the year.

Now, things are looking a bit more shaky.

The housing market continues to show signs of strength, with home prices posting their biggest yearly gain since 2006, the year the market began a historic slide that snowballed into a global financial crisis.

However, the industrial sector is not quite as perky. Durable goods orders posted their largest drop in seven months in March, while an index of Midwest manufacturing showed an unexpected contraction in the sector for April.

Economic growth did rebound in the first quarter after a dismal end to 2012, but the 2.5 percent annual rate of expansion fell short of economists' estimates, and economists are already penciling in a weaker second quarter.

At the same time, inflation has steadily been coming down. The Fed's preferred measure of core inflation, which excludes more volatile food and energy costs, rose just 1.1 percent in the year to March. Overall inflation was up just 1 percent, the smallest gain in 3-1/2 years.

The Fed targets inflation of 2 percent.


Despite the economy's softer tone, a wait-and-see attitude seems the most likely approach for now. The Fed is expected to nod to the economy's disappointing performance when it announces its decision at 2 p.m. (1800 GMT), even as it maintains its course.

But if the economy's fortunes do not improve, the central bank may well look for fresh ways to boost its support to the economy -- increasing the amount of assets it is buying is just one option.

The Fed could announce an intent to hold the bonds it has bought until maturity instead of selling them when the time comes to tighten monetary policy. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has already raised this as a possibility.

Central bankers could also set a lower unemployment threshold to signal when the time might be ripe to finally raise overnight interest rates, which they have held near zero since December 2008. Currently, the threshold stands at 6.5 percent, provided inflation does not threaten to breach 2.5 percent.

Research suggests such "forward guidance" about the future path of interest rates can have a strong impact on current borrowing costs, and one Fed official -- Narayana Kocherlakota, president of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank -- has already suggested lowering the threshold to give the economy a boost.

"Forward guidance would be perceived as having lower costs (than bond purchases) by most, I think, and for that reason I think it could be the preferred avenue, especially if more stimulus was projected to be needed for a long period of time," said Roberto Perli, a partner at Cornerstone Macro in Washington and a former Fed economist.

Analysts generally agree that is a debate for the future, if the Fed even gets there at all.

Victor Li, a former regional Fed economist who teaches at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, said employment growth would have to be consistently below the 100,000 jobs per month pace in combination with core inflation of around 1 percent for the Fed to consider a greater easing of monetary policy.

"There is just no evidence that this is going to happen."

Others are less sanguine. Justin Wolfers, an economics professor at the University of Michigan's Gerald Ford School of Public Policy, said the risk that prices will drop persistently, causing further economic damage, cannot be ruled out.

"What's more relevant than the current inflation trend is what this means for forecast inflation," Wolfers said. "And I think even more relevant than the Fed's official point estimate for inflation is the probability that deflation looms as a real threat. Inflation rates lower than 1 percent certainly raise a greater risk of deflation."

(Reporting by Pedro Nicolaci da Costa; Editing by Tim Ahmann and Leslie Adler)

Debt, Growth, and the Austerity Debate

John Mauldin

Apr 30, 2013

Two weeks ago I wrote about the current debate over the 2010 paper by Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart (hereinafter referred to as RR) on the correlation between debt and GDP growth. I said that the most important part of their work, which is the construction of an enormous database on debt and financial crises over the last few hundred years, was to be found in their book This Time Is Different and elsewhere. And their fundamental conclusion: debt is not a problem until it becomes one. And then it reaches a critical mass and you have what they called the Bang! moment.

They did make an unfortunate error in a few cells of a massive Excel spreadsheet, which subsequent analysis has shown to not be a huge deal, though some have made it out to be. And the more I read of the issue, the more I believe that the bulk of the negative response has political overtones. There are those who wish to find reasons to abandon any move toward balanced budgets and reasonable fiscal policies. They see austerity as a punishment, some type of masochistic conservative Calvinist plot foisted on poor unsuspecting citizens who should not be held responsible for the governments they elect.

As I wrote two weeks ago, austerity is a consequence, not a punishment.

Last Thursday RR published an op-ed in the New York Times. Some were uncharitably dismissive of it, but if you take a careful look at the detailed online version, which is this week’s Outside the Box, I think you'll find their counterarguments thorough and reasonable.

An essay on Bloomberg notes:

The biggest howler is the least consequential. By highlighting the wrong cells in an Excel spreadsheet, Reinhart and Rogoff actually took an average over 15 countries, rather than the full sample of 20. Embarrassing? Yes. Important? No. Of the five missing countries, only oneBelgium – had ever experienced very high debt. Adding it barely changed the findings because Belgium’s economic growth during its high-debt episode was roughly similar to that in other highly indebted nations.

While the media loves to focus on the simple (and regrettable) coding error (which RR acknowledge), the main body of their analysis still points strongly in the same direction, and that direction has been noted by other, independent researchers:

Researchers at the Bank of International Settlements and the International Monetary Fund have weighed in with their own independent work. The World Economic Outlook published last October by the International Monetary Fund devoted an entire chapter to debt and growth. The most recent update to that outlook, released in April, states: "Much of the empirical work on debt overhangs seeks to identify the 'overhang threshold' beyond which the correlation between debt and growth becomes negative. The results are broadly similar: above a threshold of about 95 percent of G.D.P., a 10 percent increase in the ratio of debt to G.D.P. is identified with a decline in annual growth of about 0.15 to 0.20 percent per year.” (NYT)

In fact, when you examine the paper and underlying research of the University of Massachusetts trio who discovered and wrote about the error, you find that there is not all that much difference in outcomes if you use their assumptions. The best analysis I have read is in this piece by F. F. Wiley (even if he misspells my name in his links ). For those wanting even more detail on this issue, I suggest you read the Wiley piece after you read RR’s response below.

Economics, at least in its predictive and prescriptive forms, is not a physical science, notwithstanding the physics envy of many economists. To try and suggest that major policy differences should be formed on the basis of numbers to the right of the decimal point is folly. It is enough at times to get the direction right. North rather than south. With regard to the present debate, it is clear that a point can be reached at which too much debt is a problem. Is there a bright, unchanging line? This far and no farther? There is not.
Water transmutes from solid to liquid to gas. In physics and mathematics, limits, and indeed singularities, occur; and we can measure and even predict them. With debt-to-GDP ratios, all we know for now is that the Bang! moment exists, but the precise point for any one given country is not something we can calculate. But wherever that line happens to fall, once it is crossed, Bang! Everything changes. And dear gods, that is a fate to be avoided.
This is far more than an academic tempest in a teapot. Understanding the relationship between debt and systemic financial problems is critical to how you construct your long-term portfolio positions. If there is not a relationship between debt and growth, then quantitative easing will have an entirely different effect on markets than if there is. It is really that simple. Can we point to exact figures and immutable relationships? Of course not. Nothing in life is that simple, and RR don’t even attempt to do so, although some of their critics (and to be fair, some of their supporters) try to see bright red lines around the 90% debt-to-GDP number.

It is about time to get to that next meeting. I hope your week is going well.
Your about as excited as I can get when I think about this week analyst,
John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box

Debt, Growth, and the Austerity Debate


The New York Times, April 25, 2013

In May 2010, we published an academic paper, “Growth in a Time of Debt.” Its main finding, drawing on data from 44 countries over 200 years, was that in both rich and developing countries, high levels of government debt – specifically, gross public debt equaling 90 percent or more of the nation’s annual economic output – was associated with notably lower rates of growth.

Given debates occurring across the industrialized world, from Washington to London to Brussels to Tokyo, about the best way to recover from the Great Recession, that paper, along with other research we have published, has frequently been cited – and, often, exaggerated or misrepresented – by politicians, commentators and activists across the political spectrum.

Last week, three economists at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, released a paper criticizing our findings. They correctly identified a spreadsheet coding error that led us to miscalculate the growth rates of highly indebted countries since World War II. But they also accused us of “serious errorsstemming from “selective exclusion” of relevant data and “unconventional weighting” of statisticscharges that we vehemently dispute. (In an online-only appendix accompanying this essay, we explain the methodological and technical issues that are in dispute.)

Our research, and even our credentials and integrity, have been furiously attacked in newspapers and on televisión. Each of us has received hate-filled, even threatening, e-mail messages, some of them blaming us for layoffs of public employees, cutbacks in government services and tax increases. As career academic economists (our only senior public service has been in the research department at the International Monetary Fund) we find these attacks a sad commentary on the politicization of social science research. But our feelings are not what’s important here.

The authors of the paper released last weekThomas Herndon, Michael Ash and Robert Pollin – say our “findings have served as an intellectual bulwark in support of austerity politics” and urge policy makers to “reassess the austerity agenda itself in both Europe and the United States.”

A sober reassessment of austerity is the responsible course for policy makers, but not for the reasons these authors suggest. Their conclusions are less dramatic than they would have you believe. Our 2010 paper found that, over the long term, growth is about 1 percentage point lower when debt is 90 percent or more of gross domestic product. The University of Massachusetts researchers do not overturn this fundamental finding, which several researchers have elaborated upon.

The academic literature on debt and growth has for some time been focused on identifying causality. Does high debt merely reflect weaker tax revenues and slower growth? Or does high debt undermine growth?

Our view has always been that causality runs in both directions, and that there is no rule that applies across all times and places. In a paper published last year with Vincent R. Reinhart, we looked at virtually all episodes of sustained high debt in the advanced economies since 1800. Nowhere did we assert that 90 percent was a magic threshold that transforms outcomes, as conservative politicians have suggested.
We did find that episodes of high debt (90 percent or more) were rare, long and costly. There were just 26 cases where the ratio of debt to G.D.P. exceeded 90 percent for five years or more; the average high-debt spell was 23 years. In 23 of the 26 cases, average growth was slower during the high-debt period than in periods of lower debt levels.

Indeed, economies grew at an average annual rate of roughly 3.5 percent, when the ratio was under 90 percent, but at only a 2.3 percent rate, on average, at higher relative debt levels.
(In 2012, the ratio of debt to gross domestic product was 106 percent in the United States, 82 percent in Germany and 90 percent in Britain – in Japan, the figure is 238 percent, but Japan is somewhat exceptional because its debt is held almost entirely by domestic residents and it is a creditor to the rest of the world.)

The fact that high-debt episodes last so long suggests that they are not, as some liberal economists contend, simply a matter of downturns in the business cycle.

In “This Time Is Different,” our 2009 history of financial crises over eight centuries, we found that when sovereign debt reached unsustainable levels, so did the cost of borrowing, if it was even possible at all. The current situation confronting Italy and Greece, whose debts date from the early 1990s, long before the 2007-8 global financial crisis, support this view.

The politically charged discussion, especially sharp in the past week or so, has falsely equated our finding of a negative association between debt and growth with an unambiguous call for austerity.

We agree that growth is an elusive goal at times of high debt. We know that cutting spending and raising taxes is tough in a slow-growth economy with persistent unemployment. Austerity seldom Works without structural reforms – for example, changes in taxes, regulations and labor market policies – and if poorly designed, can disproportionately hit the poor and middle class. Our consistent advice has been to avoid withdrawing fiscal stimulus too quickly, a position identical to that of most mainstream economists.

In some cases, we have favored more radical proposals, including debt restructuring (a polite term for partial default) of public and private debts. Such restructurings helped deal with the debt buildup during World War I and the Depression. We have long favored write-downs of sovereign debt and senior bank debt in the European periphery (Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain) to unlock growth.

In the United States, we support reducing mortgage principal on homes that are underwater (where the mortgage is higher than the value of the home). We have also written about plausible solutions that involve moderately higher inflation and “financial repression” – pushing down inflation-adjusted interest rates, which effectively amounts to a tax on bondholders. This strategy contributed to the significant debt reductions that followed World War II.

In short: many countries around the world have extraordinarily high public debts by historical standards, especially when medical and old-age support programs are taken into account. Resolving these debt burdens usually involves a transfer, often painful, from savers to borrowers. This time is no different, and the latest academic kerfuffle should not divert our attention from that fact.

Carmen M. Reinhart is a professor of the international financial system, and Kenneth S. Rogoff is a professor of public policy and economics, both at Harvard.
In an appendix to this op-ed essay, the authors further defend their findings that high public debt is associated with lower economic growth.

Neil Macdonald: The 'monarchs of money' and the war on savers

Power Shift: First in a series on the rise of the central bankers and the global imposition of cheap credit

Posted: Apr 29, 2013 5:03 AM ET

Last Updated: Apr 29, 2013 10:40 PM ET    

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The Monarchs of Money20:46
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They are the world's central bankers. Every six weeks or so, they gather in Basel, Switzerland, for secret discussions and, to an extent at least, they act in concert.
The decisions that emerge from those meetings affect the entire world. And yet the broad public has a dim understanding, if any, of the job they do.
In fact, these individuals now wield at least as much influence over the lives of ordinary citizens as prime ministers and presidents.
The tool they have used to change the world so profoundly is one they alone possess: creating money out of thin air.

There is an economic term for this: quantitative easing. More colloquially, it's called printing money.

Since the great economic meltdown in 2008, these central bankers have probably saved the world's economy from collapse, and dragged it into the unknown at the same time.

The amounts they have created are so vast as to be almost incomprehensibletrillions of dollars in pounds and euros, among other currencies.

At the end of 2012, the balance sheets of the world's largest central banks, those of the G20 nations and the eurozone, including Sweden and Switzerland, totalled $17.4 trillion US, according to Bank of Canada calculations from publicly available data.

That is nearly a quarter of global GDP, and slightly more than double the $8.5 trillion these same institutions were holding at the end of 2007, before the financial crisis hit.
Stock markets have risen on this tide of cheap money. So has real estate. So, arguably, has everything else.
But there are two big concerns with what this new central banker elite has done.
One is that no one really understands the consequences of pumping such vast amounts of money into the world economy. It's already distorted the prices of certain assets, and some fear hyperinflation or market crashes are inevitable (the subject of tomorrow's column).
The other is that it's caused a massive shift in wealth, from savers to borrowers, and is taking money out of the pockets of almost everyone approaching or at retirement age.

A war on savings

Probably the most painful of the consequences of quantitative easing has been borne by the elderly.

Most of that generation grew up believing that if you save and exercise prudence that you will earn at least a modest return on your hard-earned money to keep you comfortable in your old age, perhaps along with a pension.

But the money-printing orgy of the last five years looks to have shot that notion to smithereens. Very deliberately, the central bankers have punished savers, pushing interest rates so low that any truly safe investment — and older people are always advised to play it safeyields a negative return when inflation is factored in.

The policy has savaged pension and savings returns worldwide, but particularly in Britain, a nation of savers and pensioners.

There is more money in British pension funds than in the rest of Europe combined, and now that money is just sitting, "dead," as some call it, not working for its owners.

Ask Judy White, a retiree in her late 60s who lives in Teddington, south of London, with her husband, Alan.

This year, the Bank of England shattered her retirement. Her pension benefit was effectively slashed by half.

"I don't understand what quantitative easing is, except that it's printing money," she says. "But I do understand that I now have 50 per cent less.

"What they have done is take money from people who have been really careful all their lives."

On the backs of the virtuous

Actually, by the Bank of England's own reckoning, the £375 billion of quantitative easing it has carried out since 2008 has cost British savers and pensioners about £70 billion, roughly $100 billion. (At the same time, the richest 10 per cent of British households saw the value of their assets increase over the same period, the bank reported.)

That cost to the elderly is largely because pension payouts in the U.K. are pegged to the yields on government bonds, and quantitative easing has forced those yields down to almost nothing.

Speaking for the Bank of England, Paul Fisher acknowledges that the bank has created a paradox: It does want people to save and be prudentjust not right now.

"We try," he says, "to get people to do things now to get out of this mess, which in the long run we prefer not to do."

In other words, might we please have some more of the wild consumer spending and borrowing that helped get us all into this situation, at least for a while?

The plain fact, though, is that central bank- and government-imposed solutions to disasters caused by irresponsible, greedy, foolish behaviour are almost always carried out on the backs of the virtuous.

So it was with the bank rescues in 2008, and so it is with quantitative easing.

As Ros Altmann, a longtime pension manager and director of the London School of Economics, puts it, quantitative easing has amounted to a "monumental social experiment" — a large-scale transfer of wealth from older people to younger people.

"Anybody who was a saver and has got some accumulated savings will have had a reduction in their income," she says.

While "anyone who had a big debt, particularly mortgage debts, would have had improvement in their income because their interest payments have gone down."

As stupid as it might sound, older people everywhere would probably be better off if they'd abandoned prudence and borrowed more.

That is obviously not what the central bankers or our political leaders want. But that's the situation they've created.

What's the alternative?

This transfer from savers to borrowers has also been taking place here in the U.S. and in Canada, to varying degrees.

Some U.S. pension funds are in danger of default, at least partially because of these artificially low interest rates, and Canadian pension funds that are heavily invested in safer debt have been injured, too.

In an interview in his Ottawa office, Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney defends quantitative easing elsewhere, and his own low-interest rate policy, though he does acknowledge that it has been hard on pensioners and savers.

Like all central bankers, he argues the (impossible to prove) negative: There have been consequences, yes, but if we hadn't done this, things would be far, far worse.

As for carrying out these solutions on the backs of the virtuous: "I don't see a world where the virtuous are rewarded if we suffered a second Depression," he says. "These are the stakes."

Carney would prefer not to talk about the enormous power central bankers have gained since 2008, saying only: "We have a tremendous responsibility … because of a series of mistakes that were made in the private sector and the public sector."

See the surge in central bank holdings, the printing of new money, beginning in the spring of 2008 with the bank bailouts and the acquistion of long-term securities to keep interest rates down.
See the surge in central bank holdings, the printing of new money, beginning in the spring of 2008 with the bank bailouts and the acquistion of long-term securities to keep interest rates down. (International Monetary Fund)

As Canada has performed better than most Western nations, Carney has not ordered any new money printing.

But he has kept interest rates down, and that has fed the real estate booms over the last few years in Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary and elsewhere.

He scoffs at the suggestion that "the party" will end at some point. "I am not sure we are having a party right now," he says. "It doesn't feel like a party."

And, in fact, he has repeatedly expressed concern at the huge debt levels Canadians are accruing, at least partly because of his low-rate policies.

But surely he understands the anger of an older person watching their savings being eroded, I ask him.

Carney smiles grimly. That question is clearly a sore point. He gets a lot of mail on the topic.

Canadians, he says, must understand that the alternative is massive unemployment and thousands of businesses going under, and "my experience with Canadians is that they tend to think about their neighbours and their children and more broadly … they care a little bit more than just about themselves."

Asked whether central bankers are not in fact enabling irresponsible behaviour by speculators enamoured of cheap money, not to mention politicians who can't curb their borrowing and spending, Carney merely remarks that voters in a democracy get the governments they choose.