Yves here. Ilargi at Automatic Earth provided a good rant of something that I had similarly seen as astonishingly cheeky, which was the Fed complaining that volatility is too low. Gee, did how did such clever central bankers manage to miss that they’ve done a superb job of conditioning investors via the Greenspan, Bernanke and now expected Yellen puts? We’ll turn to that shortly.
But I also wanted to highlight an important piece by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard on the idea that QE, which was intended to combat deflation, is actually producing it. This is a pressing concern because the ECB is about to cut its discount rate to below zero in an effort to drive down the euro. Wolfgang Munchau argued back when the Troika was stumbling from crisis to criss that the Eurozone would either need to restructure debts in a serious way or drive the euro to 80 cents on the dollar or lower. So even if a lower euro provides some relief, it’s not clear that can provide enough relief. Major trading partners aren’t going to stand pat if the euro takes a big move.
Evans-Pritchard makes clear that he’s not convinced that QE is deflationary, but regards this as such a high-stakes question as to be worth considering. One thing you’ll notice if you read the article in full (which I strongly encourage) is that the notion that QE might do the opposite of what it is intended to do comes from a range of perspectives, and their ideas don’t converge. Of course, only one argument has to be correct for this to be a major problem, that the world’s major central banks are all-in on a counterproductive strategy. Here are the arguments I found most intriguing:
Stephen Williamson, from the St Louis Fed, picked up the refrain last November in a paper entitled “Liquidity Premia and the Monetary Policy Trap”, arguing that that the Fed’s actions are pulling down the “liquidity premium” on government bonds (by buying so many). This in turn is pulling down inflation. The more the policy fails – he argues – the more the Fed doubles down, thinking it must do more. That too caused a storm.
The theme refuses to go away. India’s central bank chief, Raghuram Rajan, says QE is a beggar-thy-neighbour devaluation policy in thin disguise. The West’s QE caused a flood of hot capital into emerging markets hunting for yield, stoking destructive booms that these countries could not easily control. The result was an interest rate regime that was too lax for the world as a whole, leaving even more economies in a mess than before as they too have to cope with post-bubble hangovers.
The West ignored pleas for restraint at the time, then left these countries to fend for themselves. The lesson they have drawn is to tighten policy, hoard demand, hold down their currencies and keep building up foreign reserves as a safety buffer. The net effect is to perpetuate the “global savings glut” that has starved the world of demand, and that some say is the underlying of the cause of the long slump. “I fear that in a world with weak aggregate demand, we may be engaged in a futile competition for a greater share of it,” he said.
Now to Ilargi on the Fed’s intellectual incoherence.
By Raúl Ilargi Meijer, editor-in-chief of The Automatic Earth. Originally published at Automatic Earth
he Fed itself has stated many times over the past years that it intends to keep interest rates low. And now it starts complaining about low volatility. It looks like Yellen et al want to have their cake and eat it too. Perhaps they should have paid a little more attention to Hyman Minsky. Who long ago wrote – paraphrased – that if and when markets are perceived as being stable, it’s that very perception will make them unstable, because stability, i.e. low volatility, will drive investors into riskier asset purchases. The Fed’s manipulation-induced ultra-low rates have achieved just that, and now they’re surprised?
They are the ones who pushed down rates and threw trillions in QE on top of those low rates, and they had no idea that could create asset bubbles and increase risk-taking? Some of this stuff is simply wanting in credibility. But then, any and all manipulations of markets are poised to end badly, and certainly when the manipulators claim to represent, and function in, a free market.
Now they want more volatility, something that could be achieved by raising rates, especially if it’s done without all the forward guidance, but that would put the housing sector – or the housing bubble really – at risk, as well the “recovery” no-one is yet prepared to let go of. So all the Eccles occupants have left is words. They can try forward misguidance, leave the option open of surprise moves in oder to catch investors off guard. Sort of like a poker game.
The problem with that is no-one would believe that Yellen is a better poker player than even the average investor. Another problem is such intentional insecurity would hit the housing market, and stocks, anyway. You can coerce the most gullible American into buying a property if (s)he thinks rates will remain low, but not if you take away that belief.
The essence of what Minsky said is deceptively simple, and perhaps that’s why it’s so poorly understood: it’s not possible to “create” a stable market, because the very moment you try, you create its opposite, instability. Minsky’s financial instability hypothesis is quite clear, and frankly, if you don’t believe him you should first prove him wrong before trying to do what he says can’t be done anyway. If you feel you need to provide forward guidance because markets are weak and you think they’ll strengthen if you say you’ll keep rates at a certain level, you need to realize that the stability you’ve trying to convey will of necessity be self destructive.
Markets need uncertainty to be able to function properly. That’s what Minsky said. And trying to take away that uncertainty with forward guidance and trillions of dollars is a move that cannot end well. Markets are populated with people, and if you take uncertainty out of people’s individual lives, there’s no telling what they’ll do either, other than it’s certain they’ll increase the risks they take. And why not, if they think nothing can happen to them? If you’re young and feel invincible, why not down 20 shots of tequila in an hour or jump off a cliff? It’s a matter of risk assessment.
But we don’t need to get into psychology here, it’s very easy to see why Minsky was dead on. And it’s equally easy to understand why what follows from that is that the Fed, or any central bank or government, should stay away from manipulating the free markets they so favor but which are no longer free the moment the manipulation starts. If and when investors, be they pension fund managers or just people looking to buy their first home, are barred though central bank manipulation from discovering what an asset, any asset, is actually worth, and that’s where we find ourselves at the moment, a world of uncertainty is waiting for us. There is no other option.
We live in a control economy today, and we have no reasons to do that other than the Fed seeking to protect their banker friends from revealing their losses and their balance sheets. Because that’s what at stake here: if Yellen takes her fingers of the keyboard, and so does the Treasury, we’ll see a truth finding process that will wipe out some of the big players, and lots of small ones, like recent mortgage borrowers who‘ve bought in on artificially elevated price levels.
That will be hurtful, but we should understand that it’s inevitable that one day the truth shall be told. Maybe not about who shot JFK, but certainly about what your home is truly worth. The longer we postpone that day, the poorer our poor will be and the more of us will be among the poor. And that in turn will tear our societies apart, which won’t benefit anyone, not even those who escaped with the loot. Tell me again, what other purpose does the Fed serve but manipulating markets?
I don’t see any, and if I’m right, and so is Minsky – and he is – , we have ourselves a situation on our hands. I am certain there are people inside the Fed who have read, and understood, Minsky’s financial instability hypothesis. What kind of light does that shine on them, as they continue to be accessories to current policies?