April 16 – Bloomberg (Rich Miller and Craig Torres): “Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell and his colleagues have made an important shift in their strategy for dealing with inflation in a prelude to what could be a more radical change next year. The central bank has backed off the interest-rate hikes it had been delivering to avoid a potentially dangerous rise in inflation that economic theory says could result from the hot jobs market. Instead, Powell & Co. have put policy on hold until sub-par inflation rises convincingly.”
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April 15 – CNBC (Thomas Franck): “Chicago Federal Reserve President Charles Evans said on Monday that he’d be comfortable leaving interest rates alone until autumn 2020 to help ensure sustained inflation in the U.S. ‘I can see the funds rate being flat and unchanged into the fall of 2020. For me, that’s to help support the inflation outlook and make sure it’s sustainable,’ Evans told CNBC’s Steve Liesman.”
April 15 – Reuters (Trevor Hunnicutt): “The U.S. Federal Reserve should embrace inflation above its target half the time and consider cutting rates if prices do not rise as fast as expected, a top policymaker at the central bank said… ‘While policy has been successful in achieving our maximum employment mandate, it has been less successful with regard to our inflation objective,’ Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago President Charles Evans said… ‘To fix this problem, I think the Fed must be willing to embrace inflation modestly above 2% 50% of the time. Indeed, I would communicate comfort with core inflation rates of 2-1/2%, as long as there is no obvious upward momentum and the path back toward 2% can be well managed.”
It’s stunning how dramatically the Fed’s perspective has shifted since the fourth quarter. There’s now a chorus of Fed governors and Federal Reserve Bank Presidents calling for the central bank to accommodate higher inflation. Watching the inflation data (March CPI up 1.9% y-o-y), it’s not readily apparent what has them in such a tizzy. And with crude prices surging 40% to start 2019, it takes some imagining to see deflationary pressures in the pipeline.
The Fed’s (and global central banks’) dovish U-turn was clearly in response to December’s global market instability. Quickly, the global system was lurching toward the precipice. Acute fragility revealed – and central bankers were left shaken. And witnessing the speculative fervor that has accompanied central bankers change of heart, the backdrop is increasingly reminiscent of Bubble Dynamics following the 1998 LTCM bailout. A Bloomberg headline from earlier in the week caught my attention: “Evans Sees Lessons From 1998 Rate Cuts for Fed Policy This Year.” It said, “For the Chicago Fed president Charles Evans the situation recalls the Asian financial crisis of 1998. According to Evans, ‘The risk-management approach taken by the Fed is not unusual. It served us well in similar situations in the past.’”
Historical revisionism. For starters, the Asian crisis was in 1997. The Fed aggressively reduced rates from 5.50% to 4.75% in the Autumn of 1998 in response to the simultaneous Russia and Long-Term Capital Management (LTCM) collapses.
From Evans’ April 15, 2019 speech, “Risk Management and the Credibility of Monetary Policy:”
“Later, in the autumn of 1998, the fallout on domestic financial conditions from the Russian default led to a downgrading of the economic outlook and an aggressive 75 basis point easing in the funds rate over a two-month period. When making the first of those cuts, the FOMC noted that easing would ‘provide added insurance against the risk of a further worsening in financial conditions and a related curtailment in the availability of credit to many borrowers.’”
Clearly many borrowers – and the system more generally – should have faced much tighter Credit Availability by late-1998 – certainly including those aggressively partaking in leveraged speculation (equities, fixed-income and derivatives) and debt gluttons in the real economy – including the highly levered telecom companies (i.e. WorldCom, Global Crossing, XO Communications and a long list) and others (i.e. Enron, Conseco, PG&E, etc.).
Evans, not surprisingly, skips over LTCM. That the Fed orchestrated a bailout of this renowned hedge fund sent a very clear message that the Federal Reserve and global central banks were there to backstop the new financial infrastructure that was taking control of global finance (Wall Street firms, derivatives, the leveraged speculating community, Wall Street structured finance and securitizations). If the Fed had allowed the system take the harsh medicine in 1998 the world would be a much safer place today.
Evans: “How did this risk-management strategy turn out? In the end, the economy weathered the situation well. Productivity accelerated sharply, and by early 1999 growth was on a firm footing. Subsequently, the FOMC raised rates by a cumulative 175 basis points by May of 2000.”
Evans leaves out the near doubling of Nasdaq in 1999, along with what I refer to as “terminal phase” Bubble excess. The bottom line is the Fed aggressively loosened policy while the system was in the late-stage of a significant Bubble, and then failed to remove this accommodation until mid-November 1999.
And let’s not forget that the subsequent bursting of the so-called “tech bubble” led to what was, at the time, unprecedented monetary stimulus – including Dr. Bernanke’s speeches extolling the virtues of the “government printing press” and “helicopter money.” These measures were instrumental in fueling the mortgage finance bubble that burst in 2008. That collapse then led to a decade-long – and ongoing – global experiment in zero rates, open-ended money-printing and yield curve manipulation.
This whole fixation on deflation risk and CPI running (slightly) below target gets tiring – after a few decades. Clearly, the evolution to globalized market-based finance has profoundly altered the nature of inflation. CPI is no longer a paramount issue – especially with the proliferation of new technologies, the digitization of so much “output,” the move to services-based economies and, of course, globalization. There is today a virtual endless supply of goods and services – certainly including digital downloads, electronic devices and pharmaceuticals – that exert downward pressure on aggregate consumer prices. Importantly, consumer price indices are no longer a reliable indicator of price stability, general monetary stability or the appropriateness of central bank policies.
Central bank officials today lack credibility when they direct so much attention to consumer price inflation while disregarding the overarching risks associated with unrelenting global debt growth, highly speculative and leveraged global financial markets, and deep global economic structural maladjustment. In the grand scheme of things, consumer prices running just below target seems rather trivial. What’s not trivial are central bankers that now appear to have accepted that they will accommodate financial excess and worsening structural impairment. At this point, it appears Full Capitulation.
In the same vein (and same day) as Evans’ speech, former President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Narayana Kocherlakota, posted a Bloomberg editorial: “The Fed Needs to Fight the Next Recession Now. Its tools are limited, so the central bank must compensate by being aggressive.”
“Almost 10 years after the Great Recession ended, the growing threat of a new economic slowdown raises a troubling question: When the next recession strikes, what can the world’s central banks do? With interest rates low and their balance sheets still loaded with assets bought to fight the 2008 crisis, do they have the tools to respond? ‘What, then, can the Fed do?’ In my view, it needs to be much more aggressive in using the limited tools that it has. For one, if your medicine chest is nearly empty, you want to keep your patient as healthy as possible. That means cutting interest rates now to lower the unemployment rate even further. Doing so could also boost demand during any recession: If people come to expect stronger recoveries, they will be more likely to keep spending even in downturns. A pre-commitment to strong growth could also help. In the last recession and ensuing slow recovery, the Fed treated its low-interest-rate policy largely as an emergency step that would be removed within the next year or two. Instead, the Fed should publicly commit now to maintain maximum stimulus after a recession until the unemployment rate falls below 3%, as long as the year-over-year core inflation rate remains below 2.5%. Such a promise, much stronger than any used or even suggested during the last recovery, would help minimize the damage and speed up the rebound.”
It’s simply difficult to believe such analysis resonates – yet it sure does. These are strange and dangerous times. Kocherlakota: “If your medicine chest is nearly empty, you want to keep your patient as healthy as possible.” Noland: If you’re running short of medicine, you better not encourage your patient to live a reckless lifestyle. You certainly don’t want to convince the foolhardy that you possess an elixir that will cure whatever ails them. These central bankers have really lost their minds: What they administer is anything but medicine.
Such central bank crazy talk should have longer-term bonds beginning to sweat. But, then again, bond markets are confident that central bankers from across the globe will be buying plenty of bonds over the coming months and years. When central bankers talk about accommodating higher inflation, bonds hear “more QE”. And while safe haven bonds may not be overjoyed at the thought of CPI creeping higher, they remain more than fine with bubbling risk markets – prospective bursting Bubbles ensuring only more expansive QE programs. The so-called U-turn marked an inflection point from a meek attempt to return central banking to sounder principles – to a decisive breakdown in any semblance of responsible monetary management.
I was convinced in ‘98 the Fed was committing a major policy error. Like today, the Fed and global central bankers were afraid of global fragilities. Yet markets and economies do turn progressively fragile after years of excess. These days, I worry about what central bankers have unleashed with their ultra-dovishness in the face of historic late-stage global Bubble “terminal excess.”
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