Monday, July 17, 2017

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

What the Central Banks will do in the next Recession

Financial markets are starting to get rattled by the winding down of unconventional monetary policies in many advanced economies. Soon enough, the Bank of Japan (BOJ) and the Swiss National Bank (SNB) will be the only central banks still maintaining unconventional monetary policies for the long term.

The US Federal Reserve started phasing out its asset-purchase program (quantitative easing, or QE) in 2014, and began normalizing interest rates in late 2015. And the European Central Bank is now pondering just how fast to taper its own QE policy in 2018, and when to start phasing out negative interest rates, too.

Similarly, the Bank of England (BoE) has finished its latest round of QE – which it launched after the Brexit referendum last June – and is considering hiking interest rates. And the Bank of Canada (BOC) and the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) have both signaled that interest-rate hikes will be forthcoming.

Still, all of these central banks will have to reintroduce unconventional monetary policies if another recession or financial crisis occurs. Consider the Fed, which is in a stronger position than any other central bank to depart from unconventional monetary policies. Even if its normalization policy is successful in bringing interest rates back to an equilibrium level, that level will be no higher than 3%.

It is worth remembering that in the Fed’s previous two tightening cycles, the equilibrium rate was 6.5% and 5.25%, respectively. When the global financial crisis and ensuing recession hit in 2007-2009, the Fed cut its policy rate from 5.25% to 0%. When that still did not boost the economy, the Fed began to pursue unconventional monetary policies, by launching QE for the first time.

As the last few monetary-policy cycles have shown, even if the Fed can get the equilibrium rate back to 3% before the next recession hits, it still will not have enough room to maneuver effectively. 

Interest-rate cuts will run into the zero lower bound before they can have a meaningful impact on the economy. And when that happens, the Fed and other major central banks will be left with just four options, each with its own costs and benefits.

First, central banks could restore quantitative- or credit-easing policies, by purchasing long-term government bonds or private assets to increase liquidity and encourage lending. But by vastly expanding central banks’ balance sheets, QE is hardly costless or risk-free.

Second, central banks could return to negative policy rates, as the ECB, BOJ, SNB, and some other central banks have done, in addition to quantitative and credit easing, in recent years. But negative interest rates impose costs on savers and banks, which are then passed on to customers.

Third, central banks could change their target rate of inflation from 2% to, say, 4%. The Fed and other central banks are informally exploring this option now, because it could increase the equilibrium interest rate to 5-6%, and reduce the risk of hitting the zero lower bound in another recession.

Yet this option is controversial for a few reasons. Central banks are already struggling to achieve a 2% inflation rate. To reach a target of 4% inflation, they might have to implement even more unconventional monetary policies over an even longer period of time. Moreover, central banks should not assume that revising inflation expectations from 2% to 4% would go smoothly. When inflation was allowed to drift from 2% to 4% in the 1970s, inflation expectations became unanchored altogether, and price growth far exceeded 4%.

The last option for central banks is to lower the inflation target from 2% to, say, 0%, as the Bank for International Settlements has advised. A lower inflation target would alleviate the need for unconventional policies when rates are close to 0% and inflation is still below 2%.

But most central banks have their reasons for not pursuing such a strategy. For starters, zero inflation and persistent periods of deflation – when the target is 0% and inflation is below target – may lead to debt deflation. If the real (inflation-adjusted) value of nominal debts increases, more debtors could fall into bankruptcy. Moreover, in small, open economies, a 0% target could strengthen the currency, and raise production and wage costs for domestic exporters and import-competing sectors.

Ultimately, when the next recession strikes, central banks in advanced economies will have no choice but to plumb the zero lower bound once again while they choose among four unappealing options. The choices they make will depend on how they weigh the risks of bloating their balance sheets, imposing costs on banks and consumers, pursuing possibly unattainable inflation targets, and hurting debtors and producers at home.

In other words, central banks will have to confront the same policy dilemmas that attended the global financial crisis, including the “choice” of whether to pursue unconventional monetary policies. Given that financial push is bound to come to economic shove once again, unconventional monetary policies, it would seem, are here to stay.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Could Jeff Sessions be on the FBI ?

With purge of Comey the cover-up of Russia investigation will be complete as they will choose a stooge like Sessions for FBI job. Stinks!

Monday, May 8, 2017

Some risks are hard to calculate

With Emmanuel Macron’s defeat of the right-wing populist Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election, the European Union and the euro have dodged a bullet. But geopolitical risks are continuing to proliferate. The populist backlash against globalization in the West will not be stilled by Macron’s victory, and could still lead to protectionism, trade wars, and sharp restrictions to migration. If the forces of disintegration take hold, the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU could eventually lead to a breakup of the EU – Macron or no Macron.

At the same time, Russia has maintained its aggressive behavior in the Baltics, the Balkans, Ukraine, and Syria. The Middle East still contains multiple near-failed states, such as Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Lebanon. And the Sunni-Shia proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran show no sign of ending.

In Asia, US or North Korean brinkmanship could precipitate a military conflict on the Korean Peninsula. And China is continuing to engage in – and in some cases escalating – its territorial disputes with regional neighbors.

Despite these geopolitical risks, global financial markets have reached new heights. So it is worth asking if investors are underestimating the potential for one or more of these conflicts to trigger a more serious crisis, and what it would take to shock them out of their complacency if they are.

There are many explanations for why markets may be ignoring geopolitical risks. For starters, even with much of the Middle East burning, there have been no oil-supply shocks or embargos, and the shale-gas revolution in the United States has increased the supply of low-cost energy. During previous Middle East conflicts – such as the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 – oil-supply shocks caused global stagflation and sharp stock-market corrections.

A second explanation is that investors are extrapolating from previous shocks, such as the attacks of September 11, 2001, when policymakers saved the day by backstopping the economy and financial markets with strong monetary and fiscal policy easing. These policies turned post-shock market corrections into buying opportunities, because the fall in asset prices was reversed in a matter of days or weeks.

Third, the countries that actually have experienced localized asset-market shocks – such as Russia and Ukraine after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and incursion into Eastern Ukraine in 2014 – are not large enough economically to affect US or global financial markets. Similarly, even as the UK pursues a “hard Brexit,” it still only accounts for around 2% of global GDP.

A fourth explanation is that the world has so far been spared from the tail risks associated with today’s geopolitical conflagrations. There has not yet been a direct military conflict between any major powers, nor have the EU or eurozone collapsed. US President Donald Trump’s more radical, populist policies have been partly contained. And China’s economy has not yet suffered from a hard landing, which would create sociopolitical instability.

Moreover, markets have trouble pricing such “black swan” events: “unknown unknowns” that are unlikely, but extremely costly. For example, the market couldn’t have predicted 9/11. And even if investors think that another major terrorist attack will come, they cannot know when.

A confrontation between the US and North Korea could also turn into a black swan event, but this is a possibility that markets have happily ignored. One reason is that, notwithstanding Trump’s bluster, the US has very few realistic military options: North Korea could use conventional weapons to wipe out Seoul and its surroundings, where almost half of South Korea’s population lives, were the US to strike. Investors may be assuming that even if a limited military exchange occurred, it would not escalate into a full-fledged war, and policy loosening could soften the blow on the economy and financial markets. In this scenario, as with 9/11, the initial market correction would end up being a buying opportunity.

But there are other possible scenarios, some of which could turn out to be black swans. Given the risks associated with direct military action, the US is now alleged to be using cyber weapons to eliminate the North Korean nuclear threat against the US mainland. This may explain why so many of North Korea’s missile tests have failed in recent months. But how will North Korea react to being militarily decapitated?

One answer is that it could launch a cyber attack of its own. North Korea’s cyber-warfare capabilities are considered to be just a notch below those of Russia and China, and the world got an early glimpse of them in 2014 when it hacked into Sony Pictures. A major North Korean cyber attack could disable or destroy parts of the US’s critical infrastructure, and cause massive economic and financial damage. That remains a risk even if the US can sabotage North Korea’s entire industrial system and infrastructure.

Or, faced with disruption of its missile program and regime, North Korea could go low-tech, by sending a ship with a dirty bomb into the ports of Los Angeles or New York. An attack of this kind would most likely be very hard to monitor or stop.

So, while investors may be right to discount the risk of a conventional military conflict between the US and North Korea, they also may be underestimating the threat of a true black swan event, such as a disruptive cyberwar between the two countries or a dirty bomb attack against the US.

Would an escalation on the Korean Peninsula be an opportunity to “buy the dip,” or would it mark the beginning of a massive market meltdown? It is well known that markets can price the “risks” associated with a normal distribution of events that can be statistically estimated and measured. But they have more trouble grappling with “Knightian uncertainty”: risk that cannot be calculated in probabilistic terms. 

via projectsyndicate