Monday, March 18, 2019

The US Fed's change in policy

The US Federal Reserve surprised markets recently with a large and unexpected policy change. When the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) met in December 2018, it hiked the Fed’s policy rate to 2.25-2.5%, and signaled that it would raise the benchmark rate another three times, to 3%-3.25%, before stopping. It also signaled that it would continue to unwind its balance sheet of Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities indefinitely, by up to $50 billion per month.

But just six weeks later, at the FOMC meeting in late January, the Fed indicated that it would pause its rate hikes for the foreseeable future and suspend its balance-sheet unwinding sometime this year.

Several factors drove the Fed’s volte-face. First and foremost, policymakers were rattled by the sharp tightening in financial conditions after the FOMC’s December meeting, which hastened a rout in global equity markets that had begun in October 2018. And these fears were exacerbated by an appreciating US dollar and the possibility of an effective shutdown of certain credit markets, particularly those for high-yield and leveraged loans.

Second, in the latter half of 2018, US core inflation unexpectedly stopped rising toward the Fed’s 2% target, and even started falling toward 1.8%. With inflation expectations weakening, the Fed was forced to reconsider its rate-hike plan, which was based on the belief that structurally low unemployment would drive inflation above 2%.

Third, US President Donald Trump’s trade wars and slowing growth in Europe, China, Japan, and emerging markets have raised concerns about the United States’ own growth prospects, particularly after the protracted federal government shutdown with which the US met the New Year.

Fourth, the Fed has had to demonstrate its independence in the face of political pressures. In December, when it signaled further rate hikes, Trump had been calling for a pause. But since then, the Fed has had to worry about being blamed in the event of an economic stall.

Fifth, Richard Clarida, a well-respected economist and market expert, joined the Fed Board as vice chair in the fall of 2018, tipping the balance of the FOMC in a more dovish direction. Before then, Fed Chair Jerome Powell’s own dovish tendencies had been kept in check by a slightly less dovish staff and the third member of the Fed’s leadership troika, New York Fed President John Williams, who expected inflation to rise gradually above target as the labor market tightened.

The addition of Clarida amid stalling inflation and tightening financial conditions no doubt proved decisive in the Fed’s decision to hit the pause button. But Clarida also seems to have pushed the Fed toward renewed dovishness in more subtle ways. For starters, his presence lends support to Powell’s view that the flattening of the Phillips curve (which asserts an inverse relationship between inflation and unemployment) may be more structural than temporary. Some Fed researchers disagree, and have published a paper arguing that uncertainty with respect to the Phillips curve should not stop the Fed from normalizing US monetary policy. But with Clarida’s input, the Fed will be more inclined to focus on actual inflation trends, rather than on the official unemployment rate and its implications under traditional models.

Moreover, while Fed staff members tend to believe that the US economy’s rate of potential growth is very low (around 1.75-2%), Clarida, like Powell, seems open to the idea that Trump’s tax cuts and deregulatory policies, combined with the next wave of technological innovation, will allow for somewhat stronger non-inflationary growth.

Finally, Clarida is spearheading an internal strategy review to determine whether the Fed should start making up for below-target inflation during recessions and slow recoveries by allowing for above-target inflation during expansionary periods. And though the review is still in its early stages, the Fed already seems to have embraced the idea that inflation should be allowed to exceed 2% without immediately triggering a tightening.

Taken together, these factors suggest that the Fed could remain in pause mode for the rest of 2019. After all, even a recent modest acceleration of wage growth does not seem to have produced higher inflation, implying that the Phillips curve may stay flatter for longer. And, given the Fed’s new de facto policy of targeting average inflation over the course of the business cycle, a modest, temporary increase in core inflation above 2% would not necessarily be met with policy action.

But while the Fed is most likely to remain in a holding pattern for the bulk of 2019, another rate hike toward the end of the year or in 2020 cannot be ruled out. China’s growth slowdown seems to be bottoming out, and recovery there could start to strengthen in the coming months, especially if the current Sino-American negotiations lead to a de-escalation of trade tensions. Likewise, a deal to avert an economically disastrous “hard Brexit” could still be in the offing, and it is possible that the eurozone’s slowdown – especially Germany’s – will prove temporary.

Moreover, global financial conditions are easing as a result of the Fed and other central banks’ renewed dovishness, and this could translate into stronger US domestic growth. Much will depend on whether Trump abstains from launching a separate trade war against the European auto industry, which would rattle equity markets again. Yet, barring more fights over the US federal budget and the debt ceiling – not to mention possible impeachment proceedings against Trump – the US could be spared serious domestic political and policy shocks in the months ahead.

If US GDP growth does remain resilient this year, some acceleration of wage growth and price inflation could follow, and core inflation may even rise above target in the second half of the year or 2020. And while the Fed seems willing to tolerate a period of temporary above-target inflation, it cannot allow that to become the new status quo. Should this scenario arise later in the year, or next year, the Fed could hike its baseline rate by another 25 basis points before settling into a protracted pause. Either way, the new normal will be a US policy rate close to or just below 3%.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Economic conditions may slow down in the coming months

Slowdown but no recession

After the synchronized global economic expansion of 2017 came the asynchronous growth of 2018, when most countries other than the United States started to experience slowdowns. Worries about US inflation, the US Federal Reserve’s policy trajectory, ongoing trade wars, Italian budget and debt woes, China’s slowdown, and emerging-market fragilities led to a sharp fall in global equity markets toward the end of the year.

The good news at the start of 2019 is that the risk of an outright global recession is low. The bad news is that we are heading into a year of synchronized global deceleration; growth will fall toward – and, in some cases, below – potential in most regions.  

To be sure, the year started with a rally in risky assets (US and global equities) after the bloodbath of the last quarter of 2018, when worries about Fed interest-rate hikes and about Chinese and US growth tanked many markets. Since then, the Fed has pivoted toward renewed dovishness, the US has maintained solid growth, and China’s macroeconomic easing has shown some promise of containing the slowdown there.

Whether these relatively positive conditions last will depend on many factors.

1. The first thing to consider is the Fed. Markets are now pricing in the Fed’s monetary-policy pause for the entire year, but the US labor market remains robust. Were wages to accelerate and produce even moderate inflation above 2%, fears of at least two more rate hikes this year would return, possibly shocking markets and leading to a tightening of financial conditions. That, in turn, will revive concerns about US growth.

2. Second, as the slowdown in China continues, the government’s current mix of modest monetary, credit, and fiscal stimulus could prove inadequate, given the lack of private-sector confidence and high levels of overcapacity and leverage. If worries about a Chinese slowdown resurface, markets could be severely affected. On the other hand, a stabilization of growth would duly renew market confidence.

3. A related factor is trade. While an escalation of the Sino-American conflict would hamper global growth, a continuation of the current truce via a deal on trade would reassure markets, even as the two countries’ geopolitical and technology rivalry continues to build over time. 

4. Fourth, the eurozone is slowing down, and it remains to be seen whether it is heading toward lower potential growth or something worse. The outcome will be determined both by national-level variables – such as political developments in France, Italy, and Germany – and broader regional and global factors. Obviously, a “hard” Brexit would negatively affect business and investor confidence in the United Kingdom and the European Union alike.

US President Donald Trump extending his trade war to the European automotive sector would severely undercut growth across the EU, not just in Germany.

Finally, much will depend on how Eurosceptic parties fare in the European Parliament elections this May. And that, in turn, will add to the uncertainties surrounding European Central Bank President Mario Draghi’s successor and the future of eurozone monetary policy.

5. America’s dysfunctional domestic politics could add to uncertainties globally. The recent government shutdown suggests that every upcoming negotiation over the budget and the debt ceiling will turn into a partisan war of attrition. An expected report from the special counsel, Robert Mueller, may or may not lead to impeachment proceedings against Trump. And by the end of the year, the fiscal stimulus from the Republican tax cuts will become a fiscal drag, possibly weakening growth.

6. Sixth, equity markets in the US and elsewhere are still overvalued, even after the recent correction. As wage costs rise, weaker US earnings and profit margins in the coming months could be an unwelcome surprise. With highly indebted firms facing the possibility of rising short- and long-term borrowing costs, and with many tech stocks in need of further corrections, the danger of another risk-off episode and market correction can’t be ruled out.

7. Seventh, oil prices may be driven down by a coming supply glut, owing to shale production in the US, a potential regime change in Venezuela (leading to expectations of greater production over time), and failures by OPEC countries to cooperate with one another to constrain output. While low oil prices are good for consumers, they tend to weaken US stocks and markets in oil-exporting economies, raising concerns about corporate defaults in the energy and related sectors (as happened in early 2016).

8. Finally, the outlook for many emerging-market economies will depend on the aforementioned global uncertainties. The chief risks include slowdowns in the US or China, higher US inflation and a subsequent tightening by the Fed, trade wars, a stronger dollar, and falling oil and commodity prices.


Silver lining

Though there is a cloud over the global economy, the silver lining is that it has made the major central banks more dovish, starting with the Fed and the People’s Bank of China, and quickly followed by the European Central Bank, the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan, and others. Still, the fact that most central banks are in a highly accommodative position means that there is little room for additional monetary easing. And even if fiscal policy wasn’t constrained in most regions of the world, stimulus tends to come only after a growth stall is already underway, and usually with a significant lag.

There may be enough positive factors to make this a relatively decent, if mediocre, year for the global economy. But if some of the negative scenarios outlined above materialize, the synchronized slowdown of 2019 could lead to a global growth stall and sharp market downturn in 2020.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Roubini thinks Trump policies may have increased likelihood of a crisis and global recession

Financial markets have finally awoken to the fact that Donald Trump is US president. Given that the world has endured two years of reckless tweets and public statements by the world’s most powerful man, the obvious question is, What took so long?

For one thing, until now, investors had bought into the argument that Trump is all bark and no bite. They were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt as long as he pursued tax cuts, deregulation, and other policies beneficial to the corporate sector and shareholders. And many trusted that, at the end of the day, the “adults in the room” would restrain Trump and ensure that the administration’s policies didn’t jump the guardrails of orthodoxy.

These assumptions were more or less vindicated during Trump’s first year in office, when economic growth and an expected increase in corporate profits – owing to forthcoming tax cuts and deregulation – resulted in strong stock-market performance. In 2017, US stock indices rose more than 20%.

But things changed radically in 2018, and especially in the last few months. Despite corporate earnings growing by over 20% (thanks to the tax cuts), US equity markets moved sideways for most of the year, and have now taken a sharp turn south. At this point, broad indices are in correction territory (meaning a 10% drop from the recent peak), and indices of tech stocks, such as the Nasdaq, are in bear-market territory (a drop of 20% or more).

Though financial markets’ higher volatility reflects concerns about China, Italy and other eurozone economies, and key emerging economies, most of the recent turmoil is due to Trump. The year started with the enactment of a reckless tax cut that pushed up long-term interest rates and created a sugar high in an economy already close to full employment. As early as February, growing concerns about inflation rising above the US Federal Reserve’s 2% target led to the year’s first risk-off.

Then came Trump’s trade wars with China and other key US trade partners. Market worries about the administration’s protectionist policies have waxed and waned throughout the year, but they are now reaching a new peak. The latest US actions against China seem to augur a broader trade, economic, and geopolitical cold war.

An additional worry is that Trump’s other policies will have stagflationary effects (reduced growth alongside higher inflation). After all, Trump is planning to limit inward foreign direct investment, and has already implemented broad restrictions on immigration, which will reduce labor-supply growth at a time when workforce aging and skills mismatches are already a growing problem.

Moreover, the administration has yet to propose an infrastructure plan to spur private-sector productivity or hasten the transition to a green economy. And on Twitter and elsewhere, Trump has continued to bash corporations for their hiring, production, investment, and pricing practices, singling out tech firms just when they are already facing a wider backlash and increased competition from their Chinese counterparts.

Emerging markets have also been shaken by US policies. Fiscal stimulus and monetary-policy tightening have pushed up short- and long-term interest rates and strengthened the US dollar. As a result, emerging economies have experienced capital flight and rising dollar-denominated debt. Those that rely heavily on exports have suffered the effects of lower commodity prices, and all that trade even indirectly with China have felt the effects of the trade war.

Even Trump’s oil policies have created volatility. After the resumption of US sanctions against Iran pushed up oil prices, the administration’s efforts to carve out exemptions and bully Saudi Arabia into increasing its own production led to a sharp price drop. Though US consumers benefit from lower oil prices, US energy firms’ stock prices do not. Besides, excessive oil-price volatility is bad for producers and consumers alike, because it hinders sensible investment and consumption decisions.1

Making matters worse, it is now clear that the benefits of last year’s tax cuts have accrued almost entirely to the corporate sector, rather than to households in the form of higher real (inflation-adjusted) wages. That means household consumption could soon slow down, further undercutting the economy.

More than anything else, though, the sharp fall in US and global equities during the last quarter is a response to Trump’s own utterances and actions. Even worse than the heightened risk of a full-scale trade war with China (despite the recent “truce” agreed with Chinese President Xi Jinping) are Trump’s public attacks on the Fed, which began as early as the spring of 2018, when the US economy was growing at more than 4%.

Given these earlier attacks, markets were spooked this month when the Fed correctly decided to hike interest rates while also signaling a more gradual pace of rate increases in 2019. Most likely, the Fed’s relative hawkishness is a reaction to Trump’s threats against it. In the face of hostile presidential tweets, Fed Chair Jerome Powell needed to signal that the central bank remains politically independent.

But then came Trump’s decision to shut down large segments of the federal government over Congress’s refusal to fund his useless Mexican border wall. That sent markets into a near-panic, and the government shutdown was soon followed by reports that Trump wants to fire Powell – a move that could turn a correction into a crash. Just before the Christmas holiday, US Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin was forced to issue a public statement to placate the markets. He announced that Trump was not planning to fire Powell after all, and that US banks’ finances are sound, effectively highlighting the question of whether they really are.

Recent changes within the administration that do not necessarily affect economic policymaking are also rattling the markets. The impending departure of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Secretary of Defense James Mattis will leave the room devoid of adults. The coterie of economic nationalists and foreign-policy hawks who remain will cater to Trump’s every whim.

As matters stand, the risk of a full-scale geopolitical conflagration with China cannot be ruled out. A new cold war would effectively lead to de-globalization, disrupting supply chains everywhere, but particularly in the tech sector, as the recent ZTE and Huawei cases signal. At the same time, Trump seems to be hell-bent on undermining the cohesion of the European Union and NATO at a time when Europe is economically and politically fragile. And Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump’s 2016 election campaign’s ties to Russia hangs like a Sword of Damocles over his presidency.

Trump is now the Dr. Strangelove of financial markets. Like the paranoid madman in Stanley Kubrick’s classic film, he is flirting with mutually assured economic destruction. Now that markets see the danger, the risk of a financial crisis and global recession has grown.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Crypto Currencies could get wiped out if Central Banks jump into the action

Nouriel Roubini's latest article from Project Syndicate

The world’s central bankers have begun to discuss the idea of central bank digital currencies (CBDCs), and now even the International Monetary Fund and its managing director, Christine Lagarde, are talking openly about the pros and cons of the idea.

This conversation is past due. Cash is being used less and less, and has nearly disappeared in countries such as Sweden and China. At the same time, digital payment systems – PayPal, Venmo, and others in the West; Alipay and WeChat in China; M-Pesa in Kenya; Paytm in India – offer attractive alternatives to services once provided by traditional commercial banks.

Most of these fintech innovations are still connected to traditional banks, and none of them rely on cryptocurrencies or blockchain. Likewise, if CBDCs are ever issued, they will have nothing to do with these over-hyped blockchain technologies.

Nonetheless, starry-eyed crypto-fanatics have seized on policymakers’ consideration of CBDCs as proof that even central banks need blockchain or crypto to enter the digital-currency game. This is nonsense. If anything, CBDCs would likely replace all private digital payment systems, regardless of whether they are connected to traditional bank accounts or cryptocurrencies.

As matters currently stand, only commercial banks have access to central banks’ balance sheets; and central banks’ reserves are already held as digital currencies. That is why central banks are so efficient and cost-effective at mediating interbank payments and lending transactions. Because individuals, corporations, and non-bank financial institutions do not enjoy the same access, they must rely on licensed commercial banks to process their transactions. Bank deposits, then, are a form of private money that is used for transactions among non-bank private agents. As a result, not even fully digital systems such as Alipay or Venmo can operate apart from the banking system.

By allowing any individual to make transactions through the central bank, CBDCs would upend this arrangement, alleviating the need for cash, traditional bank accounts, and even digital payment services. Better yet, CBDCs would not have to rely on public “permission-less,” “trustless” distributed ledgers like those underpinning cryptocurrencies. After all, central banks already have a centralized permissioned private non-distributed ledger that allows for payments and transactions to be facilitated safely and seamlessly. No central banker in his or her right mind would ever swap out that sound system for one based on blockchain.

If a CBDC were to be issued, it would immediately displace cryptocurrencies, which are not scalable, cheap, secure, or actually decentralized. Enthusiasts will argue that cryptocurrencies would remain attractive to those who wish to remain anonymous. But, like private bank deposits today, CBDC transactions could also be made anonymous, with access to account-holder information available, when necessary, only to law-enforcement authorities or regulators, as already happens with private banks. Besides, cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are not actually anonymous, given that individuals and organizations using crypto-wallets still leave a digital footprint. And authorities that legitimately want to track criminals and terrorists will soon crack down on attempts to create crypto-currencies with complete privacy.

Insofar as CBDCs would crowd out worthless cryptocurrencies, they should be welcomed. Moreover, by transferring payments from private to central banks, a CBDC-based system would be a boon for financial inclusion. Millions of unbanked people would have access to a near-free, efficient payment system through their cell phones.

The main problem with CBDCs is that they would disrupt the current fractional-reserve system through which commercial banks create money by lending out more than they hold in liquid deposits. Banks need deposits in order to make loans and investment decisions. If all private bank deposits were to be moved into CBDCs, then traditional banks would need to become “loanable funds intermediaries,” borrowing long-term funds to finance long-term loans such as mortgages.

In other words, the fractional-reserve banking system would be replaced by a narrow-banking system administered mostly by the central bank. That would amount to a financial revolution – and one that would yield many benefits. Central banks would be in a much better position to control credit bubbles, stop bank runs, prevent maturity mismatches, and regulate risky credit/lending decisions by private banks.

So far, no country has decided to go this route, perhaps because it would entail a radical disintermediation of the private banking sector. One alternative would be for central banks to lend back to private banks the deposits that moved into CBDCs. But if the government was effectively banks’ only depositor and provider of funds, the risk of state interference in their lending decisions would be obvious.

Lagarde, for her part, has advocated a third solution: private-public partnerships between central banks and private banks. “Individuals could hold regular deposits with financial firms, but transactions would ultimately get settled in digital currency between firms,” she explained recently at the Singapore Fintech Festival. “Similar to what happens today, but in a split second.” The advantage of this arrangement is that payments “would be immediate, safe, cheap, and potentially semi-anonymous.” Moreover, “central banks would retain a sure footing in payments.”

This is a clever compromise, but some purists will argue that it would not solve the problems of the current fractional-reserve banking system. There would still be a risk of bank runs, maturity mismatches, and credit bubbles fueled by private-bank-created money. And there would still be a need for deposit insurance and lender-of-last-resort support, which itself creates a moral hazard. Such issues would need to be managed through regulation and bank supervision, and that wouldn’t necessarily be enough to prevent future banking crises.

In due time, CBDC-based narrow banking and loanable-funds intermediaries could ensure a better and more stable financial system. If the alternatives are a crisis-prone fractional-reserve system and a crypto-dystopia, then we should remain open to the idea.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Doctor Roubini is not a fan of Bitcoin or crypto currencies

"Most Bitcoin/shitcoin investors are retail suckers who are clueless/financially illiterate.  That's why we have laws that leave risky investments only for accredited investors who have a certain level of income/wealth. But millions of BagHolders were illegally suckered into crap."

"It is like crypto trading: a self-referential system where one shitcoin is traded for another shitcoin. And one that no one in the world cares about as billions of people worldwide make billions of transactions daily using non-blockchain based low cost digital payment systems."