What determines interest rates and how lower private sector profitability, changes in the institutional infrastructure governing our economies, major geopolitical conflicts, and climate change, could usher in a ‘sea change’ of higher interest rates[i].
The simplest possible explanation of what drives interest rates is the demand and supply of capital and its mirror image debt. I find this to be also the most relevant one.
There are many other variables that matter, which fall under the broad umbrella of economic activity. These factors determine the ability to pay/probability of default and may impose a certain ‘hurdle rate’ (inflation), but it is important to understand that they are a consideration of mostly the supply side of capital.
So, what is a ‘normal’ interest rate? Obviously, when capital is ‘scarce’ (relative to the demand for debt), as indeed for the majority of time of human existence and ‘capital markets’, creditors are ‘in charge’, nominal interest are high and real interest rates are positive. So, that is the norm. But in times of peace and prosperity, as during the time of Pax Britannica (most of the 19th century), and Pax Americana (since the 1980s, and particularly since the end of the Cold war) surplus capital accumulates which gradually pushes interest rates lower as the debtors are ‘in charge’. The norm then could be zero and even negative nominal interest rates.
While indeed the norm is for interest rates to be positive, there is no denying that if one were to fit a trend line of global interest rates in the last 5,000 years[ii], the line would be downward sloping. That should be highly intuitive as human society evolution brings longer lasting periods of peace and prosperity (the spikes higher in interest rates throughout the ages are characterised with times of calamities, like wars or natural disasters, which destroy capital).
What is the function which determines that outcome? The surplus capital inevitably creates a huge amount of debt. This stock of debt eventually rises to a point which makes the addition of more debt an ‘impossibility’. It is important to understand that this happens on the demand side, not on the supply side – it is current debt holders who find it prohibitive to add to their current stock of debt, in some cases, at any positive interest rates.
Richard Koo called this phenomenon a balance sheet recession when he analysed the behaviour of the private corporate sector in Japan after the 1990s collapse. We further saw this after the mortgage crisis in the US in 2008 when US households started deleveraging. Not surprisingly interest rates during that time gravitated towards 0%.
The importance of 0% and particularly negative interest rates is not only that this is where the demand of debt and supply of capital clears, but, more importantly from a ‘fundamental’ point of view, this is the point where the current stock of debt either stops growing (0%) or even starts to decrease (negative interest rates). Positive interest rates, ceteris paribus, on the other hand, have an almost in-built automated function which increases the stock of debt (in the case of refinancing, which happens all the time – rarely is debt repaid).
Because our monetary system is credit based, i.e., money creation is a function of debt origination and intermediation, this balance sheet recession, when the demand for credit from the private sector is low or non-existent, naturally pushes down economic activity, which, ceteris paribus, results in a low, and sometimes negative, rate of inflation.
So, you see, it is low interest rates which, in this case, determine the inflation rate. This comes against all mainstream economic thinking. I am sure, a lot of people, would find this crazy, moreover, because this is also what Turkish President Erdogan has claimed, and it is plain to see that he is ‘wrong’.
However, there is a reason ‘wrong’ above is in quotation marks. You see, this theory of low interest rates determining the rate of inflation, and not the other way around, holds under two very important conditions. First, and I already mentioned this, the monetary mechanism must be credit-based. This ensures that money creation is not interfered by an arbitrary centrally governed institution, like … the government, and is market-based, i.e., there is no excess money creation over and above economic activity.
In light of a long history of money waste, this sounds like a very reasonable set-up, except in the extreme cases when the stock of debt eventually piles up, pushing down the demand for more credit, slowing down money creation and thus economic activity. In times like these, it is the rate of money creation which determines and guides economic activity rather than the other way around (as it should be). Unless there is an artificial mechanism of debt reduction, like a debt jubilee, the market finds its own solution of zero or negative interest rates to resolve the issue.
And the second condition for the above theory to hold is the supply side of the economy must be stable. Don’t forget that inflation is also independently determined by what happens on the supply side: a sudden negative supply shock would push inflation higher. That the balance sheet recessions in Japan, and later on in the rest of the developed world, coincided with a positive supply shock accentuated its disinflationary impact.
To go back to Turkey, Erdogan’s monetary experiment is not working because 1) Turkey’s economy is not in a balance sheet recession (private sector debt is not big, and there is plenty of demand for credit), and 2) Turkey’s economy was hit by a large negative supply shock in the aftermath of the breakdown of global supply chains on the back of Covid/China tariffs, and, more particularly for Turkey being a large energy importer, in the aftermath of the Russian sanctions on global oil prices. A related third reason why low interest rates in Turkey have failed to push inflation lower is the fact that institutional trust is low. In other words, the low interest rates are not market-based, but government-based (market-based interest rates are in fact much higher).
What has happened in the developed world, on the other hand, is, since Covid not only the economies have experienced a massive negative supply shock, but also monetary creation, for a while (well, most of 2020-21) became central-government-based (in the form of huge household transfers). In other words, even though private debt levels remain excessive, their negative effect on economic activity has been offset by other forms of money creation. This not only managed to reverse the disinflationary trend from before, but, when combined with the negative supply shock, it provoked a powerful inflationary trend.
Going forward, unless there is a repeat of the central-government-based money creation experiment under Covid, the demand for credit, and thus the growth of money creation, will remain low, as private sector debt levels remain too high. This does not bide well for economic growth and is disinflationary by default. At the same time, however, the effects of the negative supply shock are likely to be longer lasting given that the reorganization of the global supply chains is still an ongoing process. This is inflationary by default – if that means also lower private sector profits, thus lower capital surpluses, then interest rates should continue to be elevated.
When it comes to the developed world the black swan here is an eventual outright debt reduction (debt jubilee) – the will have a corresponding effect of an artificial capital surplus reduction as well. Maybe this is counterintuitive, but if you have followed my reasoning up to here, that would mean higher interest rates going forward.
An alternative black swan is a direct capital surplus reduction, caused by either lower corporate profitability, lower asset prices, or indeed an artificial or natural calamity, like war or a natural disaster, which have the unfortunate ability to destroy capital. In that sense, it is uncanny that our present circumstances are characterised by a war in Europe, a potential war in Asia and the looming threat of climate change[iii].
Howard Marks certainly did not mean literal ‘sea change’ in his latest missive, but this might ironically be one of the main determinants of higher interest rates in the future.
For more on this topic you might also find these posts interesting:
[iii] We live by the sea, literally. When we bought the house in 2007, the sea was about 100 meters from the fence of our garden, in normal times. This has now been reduced at least by half. In the last three years, the sea has often come into our garden, which has prompted us to spend money on reinforcing the fence etc., which has naturally reduced our capital surplus.
After reading John Authers’ piece this morning, I was not really planning to write a note on yesterday’s FOMC meeting. I think he summed up the Fed’s actions very well and correctly analysed the market’s reactions. And I would say that indeed the mantra “Don’t fight the Fed” should be valid in general. But that holds true only if we understand what the Fed is trying to achieve. Here is a more nuanced view on the matter.
If the Fed had only raised the dot plot in the face of slowing down inflation since the last SEP (and obviously reiterated that there would be no cuts next year, etc.), I would have concluded that the Fed intends to keep hiking, regardless, bound not to repeat the ‘mistakes’ of the late 1970s. Don’t fight the Fed in this case would have been the right strategy.
However, raising the dot plot in the face of slowing inflation but also alluding to a smaller hike than priced in the next FOMC meeting (see Authers’ note above) introduces a decent amount of confusion as to exactly what the Fed’s intentions are. It could be that most Fed members had made up their mind about the dot plot before the surprise slowdown in inflation this week and didn’t bother/didn’t have the time to adjust their view thereafter. The intention for a smaller hike next allows Fed officials to change their mind. So, in this case the market’s reaction (nothing really changed post the meeting[i]) might be justified.
It could also be that Fed officials took the lower-than-expected CPI in stride and concluded that it alone does not warrant a change in view. That also signifies that during the previous SEP, the Fed made a mistake in its projections of the terminal Fed rate (it should have been ‘much’ higher). Does that mean “Don’t fight the Fed” holds in this instance? It appears so, but then again, if the Fed made a mistake in the past and was quick to acknowledge it, then it is also possible that the Fed is again making a mistake. The market’s reaction is thus dubious, neither ‘wrong’, nor ‘right’.
The final possibility is that the Fed has literally and figuratively lost the plot (pun intended) and is planning to stay hawkish (not necessarily continue to hike, but certainly not cut) until the inflation rate crosses back below 2%, regardless of what happens to the economy. It must be clear that in this case “Don’t fight the Fed” firmly holds.
I have no idea what most of the other FOMC members’ intentions are but listening to Fed Chairman Powell’s press conference, I am pretty sure what his are: I think he is firmly in the last camp above. Here is why.
In his opening statement, Powell made several references to the fact that the “labor market remains extremely tight with the unemployment rate near a 50-year low, job vacancies still very high, and wage growth elevated”. In the Q&A session, similar, “I’ve made it clear that right now, the labor market is very, very strong. You’re near a 50 year low: you’re at or above maximum unemployment in 50 years.” I’ve written on this before, i.e., why not only I disagree that the labour market is so tight but that it is actually slowing down.
However here is some additional color, which shows that it is not that straightforward, and we have to give at least some credit to Chairman Powell. So, when it comes to the US labor market statistics the table below provides the basics. Bear these in mind as we go along.
Strictly speaking, Chairman Powell is right that “the labor market continues to be out of balance, with demand substantially exceeding the supply of available workers” (in his opening statement; he goes in more detail on this in the Q&A session particularly in a question from Market Watch). Look at the ratio of Working Population to Civilian Population which is at nearly 50yr low
And within the Working Population the actual Labor Force Size only managed to get just above its pre-Covid level this August and has started to decline again since then, so that the ratio between the two is still below the pre-Covid level (and as a matter of fact still below the high reached at the onset of the 2000 recession).
And here is the now more familiar labor force participation rate (LFPR), still way below the pre-Covid high and substantially below the pre-2000 recession high.
So, when Powell refers to the “labor market is 3.5m people smaller than it should have been based on pre-pandemic levels” this is what he has in mind: strictly speaking, if we adjust the LFPR to its pre-Covid high, the labor force would have been about 3.021m people more. But that is on the supply side, and we are going to go through this more later on.
But let’s look at the demand side as well. As per Powell, again in the answer to the journalist from Market Watch, “you can look at vacancies”. Here they are.
Powell is right to an extent: there are still more that 10m job openings. This is down from nearly 12m from the highs in March, and job openings are never zero, but even the current number puts job openings at about 5.8m additional vacancies over the pre-Covid average.
So, the question really is to square the demand and the supply side of labor. Obviously, it is not that straightforward. It is normal to have people unemployed at the same time as vacancies unfilled, but the state of the labor market post Covid is more unusual, also because the unfilled vacancies are not pushing real wages up. Which is why some people have suggested that rather than a wage issue it is really a skill mismatch issue (plenty of studies done on this post the 2008 recession), or indeed Covid-related issue (even Powell referred to this as a cause in his Q&A).
Chairman Powell lamented yesterday that the LFPR is not going up, “contrary to what we thought”. But if it does go up, does it mean the headline statistics will indicate the labor market is tightening or loosening? I ran some hypothetical numbers regarding this below.
The second column in the table above indicates a hypothetical LFPR per the time period in column one. The third column is the actual labor force as a result (in thousands). The fourth column indicates the additional people coming into the labor market. The fifth column indicates the number of unemployed if all these additional people entered the labor force; the sixth column is the resulting unemployment rate. The seventh column shows the number of unemployed if 50% of the additional labor force actually found jobs; the eight column is the resulting unemployment rate. Finally, the ninth column shows the number of unemployed if all the additional labor force fills the job openings (see Chart above) over and above the average pre-Covid; the tenth column shows the resulting unemployment rate.
There are myriad such scenarios. In the example above, using averages and simple assumptions about additional employment vs unemployment, the unemployment rate is higher than the current one in all but the last three examples (column 10 – the last three entries). Bottom line is that the drop in the labor force participation rate makes relative comparisons about how tight the labor market is (i.e., looking only at the unemployment rate) pretty irrelevant.
It also makes all of the above analysis almost useless (or at best very theoretical) as far as investing is concerned. It really does not matter at the end what the ‘real’ employment situation is. Powell was very clear yesterday. “The largest amount of pain” would not come from people losing their jobs. “The worst pain would come from a failure to raise rates high enough and from us allowing inflation to become entrenched in the economy;the ultimate cost of getting it out of the economy would be very high in terms of unemployment, meaning very high unemployment for extended periods of time.”
That’s it. Inflation is all that matters. And if there was any hint at all that the Fed might increase its 2% inflation target, Powell was very adamant that it is not happening: “…changing our inflation goal is just something we’re not, we’re not thinking about. It’s not something we’re not going to think about it. We have a 2% inflation goal and we’ll use our tools to get inflation back to 2%. I think this isn’t the time to be thinking about that. I mean there may be a longer run project at some point. But that is not where we are at all at the committee, we’re not considering that. We’re not going to consider that under any circumstances we’re gonna we’re gonna keep our inflation target at 2%.”
This turned out to be a long note just to conclude that indeed, it is pointless to fight the Fed, assuming that Powell’s view is shared by the majority of Fed voters, or if not, that the majority would still fall under the guidance of the Chairman. However, leaving the possibility of only 25bps hike at the next FOMC meeting is perhaps a sign that there may be some disagreement at the Fed.
[i] During New York hours; the market has subsequently weakened during the European morning session.
Is US employment data hot, ‘goldilocks’, or ‘cold’?
Have you been inundated by calls and messages with the question, “But have you seen the details of the Household Survey?”
Is the Fed right to keep aggressively hiking?
Summary: The US labour market is slowing down despite headline grabbing low unemployment rate and high wage growth rate. The recent details underlying this data show the total number of people employed growing below trend, fewer hours worked and lower quits rate. As a result, the growth rate of total earnings is also going down, the effect being a lower share of national income going to labour and total consumption as a share of GDP stagnating. All this should make the Fed further re-evaluate its aggressively hawkish interest rate policy.
The Household Employment Survey makes the headlines
After a couple of weeks of ‘SBF’ trending, I, for one, was happy to take my mind off to something much more prescient and important as far as my investments are concerned – the US employment situation. At first glance, the November NFP report came much hotter than expected but because the market did not really react the way one would have expected from such a strong report, we started looking for reasons why that was the case.
Which bought us to the US Household Employment Survey. ‘Us’ here does not mean us literally (for those of you who had followed my writings at 1859, there was plenty of discussion on this topic as soon as I spotted the divergence between the two employment reports in September). And this note is not on why the Household Survey is showing different things from the Establishment Survey.
If you want to, you can read zerohedge on this topic here (I know, think what you want but the folks there were one of the first to spot the issue way back in the summer). If you can’t bear some of the conspiracy language at zerohedge, you can read an inferior version (but still good!) of the same at the more balanced Macro Compass. Finally, there are quite a few respected people on Twitter who have talked about it (see here, here, here).
To give you the full disclosure, there are some legitimate reasons why the Household Survey produces different results to the Establishment Survey – and they have to do with a methodology issue, see here. BLS is actually well aware of that issue and calculates a time series which reconciles the two surveys and which can be found here (also with a very, very extensive comparison analysis between the methodology of the two). This adjusted data does not look that bad as the stand-alone Household Survey data (the November data was actually very good). But over the last 6 months it still points to a weakening employment market, not a stable or even hot one as per the Establishment Survey.
OK, that’s more than I wanted to write regarding the Household Survey. The rest of the note will show why the US employment situation is actually weakening even taking the Establishment Survey as a base.
The three variables of employment
There are three aspects of employment in general as far as assuaging how hot the economy is doing: wages, people employed, and hours worked, i.e., we need to follow this sequence, purchasing power->consumption->GDP) Basically, one needs to know the full product of Wages X Total Employment X Hours Worked (assuming, of course, that wages are per hour worked; not all jobs pay per hour, but those that do have actually increased at the expense of the others – see some of the links above which discuss the prevalence of part-time jobs and multiple job holders).
The economy can be hot even when wages are flat, or even declining, but there are more people entering the workforce or there are more hours worked – there are multiple combinations among the three variables producing various results. The point is to consider all three variables.
Total number of employed is growing below trend
Let’s take the period in the last three years or so after the Covid crisis. Yes, wage growth has picked up, but more people have exited the labour force and there are fewer hours work.
The labour force participation rate is still below the pre-Covid levels, and close to a 50-year low:
The total number of people employed has risen but, depending on whether one uses the Establishment Survey or the Household Survey, the number is either just above the pre-Covid levels or indeed below. In any case, regardless of which survey one uses, the number is still below trend (and has not been above trend since the 2008 financial crisis).
Higher wages but lower hours worked
Finally, here are wages and hours worked. I have included below a time series chart for only the last 3 years to be able to see better the divergence between the two: while wages continue to rise, hours worked peaked in January 2021 and have now reversed the spike in 2020.
Let’s focus more on the latest NFP report. Here are the relevant tables below.
Generally higher-wage industries, like goods producing, tend to exhibit a smaller increase in hourly wages than lower-wage ones, like services.
In some cases, like the Utilities sector, which has the second highest wage per hour but also the highest average weekly earnings (courtesy of more hours worked, more on this later), wages have actually declined.
Transportation and warehousing sector has an unusual jump in wages, about 5x the average rise in wages – is there something specific going on there?
The growth rate of total earnings is declining
It is important to look at the last columns in Table B-3 above, ‘Average weekly earnings’, which gives a much better picture of take-home pay as it combines wages with hours worked. So, while indeed the trend of declining 12m-growth rate of weekly wages was reversed with this latest report (back above 5%), which some commentators have warned the Fed should be worried about, the trend of declining total weekly earnings continues to be intact.
Note, average hourly earnings are still elevated, hovering at previous peaks but this is hardly a reason for the Fed to get more worried about, especially after already delivering the fastest interest rate hiking cycle in recent memory.
In fact, quite on the contrary. Despite all the excitement about the rise in wages, the share of national income going to workers has been on a decline, with the post-Covid spike now quickly reversed. We are back to the familiar territory of the low range post the 2008 financial crisis which is also the lows since the mid-1960s. If you were worried about a wage-price spiral issue, ala the late-1970s (I actually do not think there was one even back then as real wage growth even then was negative), you really shouldn’t be. It is a very different dynamic, at least for the moment.
Consumer demand as a share of GDP has been stagnant for more than a decade
And if you are really worried that consumer demand will push inflation higher, again, you shouldn’t be, necessarily: consumption as a share of GDP is elevated relative to historical records but it is not even above the highs reached more than a decade ago. In fact, it seems that consumption has not been an issue for inflation for at least the last two decades.
The quits rate is declining
One final observation, there is another labour data series which has been often cited as an example of a tight labour market: the quits rate. I would though argue two things: 1) labour tightness explains only part of the elevated quits rate, and 2) the quits rate has already started declining.
A higher quits rate is quite consistent with an increasing share of lower paid jobs and with multiple job holders both of which have been trends seen post the 2008 financial crisis, and especially during and after the Covid crisis. It is possible to decompose the quits rates by industry and sector. For example, retail trade, accommodation, and food services, all of which are lower paid/temp jobs by multiple job holders, have much higher quits rates than the average across all industries. This is corroborated by a Pew Research report according to which most workers who quit their jobs cited low pay.
Finally, the quits rate actually peaked at the end of last year (notice the Household/ Establishment Employment Survey discrepancy started shortly after) at about 3%. This is the highest in the series, but the data officially goes back to only 2000. BLS has actually related quits rate data (but only for the manufacturing sector) prior to 2000 which shows that the quits rate has been above 3% in the past, and yes at above 3%, the quits rate is associated with the peak in economic expansion. You can see the full data set and BLS perspective on it here.
Bottom line: you do not need to believe in conspiracy theories about Household Survey vs Establishment Survey labour data inconsistency to conclude that the US labour market is far from tight. If anything, it has already started to slow down. Do not be confused by headline numbers of high wage growth rate and low unemployment rate, look at the overall employment picture taking into account trends in overall total compensation.
Either the peak in the Fed Funds rate is much higher, or the UST yield curve, 2×10, is too inverted. Whatever the case is, it’s extremely unlikely that the Fed eventually ends up cutting just the 150bps priced in at the moment.
Or to be more precise, unless there is a modern debt jubilee (a central bank/Treasury debt moratorium) or a drastic capital destruction caused by a total collapse in the global supply chains, continuation of war in Europe/Asia or a natural disaster (climate change, etc.), the Fed is more likely to pause the hikes next year, wait, and eventually cut by more than the 150bps priced in the market but less than in the past.
In other words, the shape of the current Eurodollar curve is totally ‘wrong’, just like it had been wrong in the previous three interest rate cycles but for different reasons.
The current UST 2×10 curve inversion is pretty extreme for the absolute level of the Fed Funds rate. At -70bps, it is the largest inversion since October 1981 but back then the Fed Funds rate was around 15%. The maximum inversion of the UST 2×10 curve was -200bps in March 1980 when the Fed Funds rate was around 17%. The Fed Funds rate reached an absolute high of almost 20% in early 1981.
Back then the Fed was targeting the money supply, not interest rates, so you can see the curve was all over the place and thus comparisons are not exactly applicable. But still there were plenty of instances thereafter when the Fed moved to targeting the Fed Funds, and the Fed Funds rate was much higher than now, but the curve was much less inverted before the cycle turned.
Take 1989 when the 2×10 UST curve was around -45bps but the Fed Funds rate at the peak was around 10% (almost double the projected peak for the current cycle). The Fed ended up cutting rates to almost 3% in the following 3 years. Or take the peak in Fed Funds rate in 2000 at 6.5% and a UST 2×10 yield curve inversion of also around 45bps. The Fed proceeded to cut rates to 1% in the following 4 years.
Finally, take the peak in Fed Funds rate at 5.25% in 2006-7 and a UST 2×10 yield curve inversion of around -15bps. The Fed ended cutting rates to pretty much 0% in the following 2 years. In the 2016-18 rate hiking cycle, when the Fed Funds rate peaked at 2.5%, the UST 2×10 yield curve never inverted.
So, today we have a peak in the Fed Funds rate of around 5%, so comparable to the 2007 and 2000 cycles, but a much deeper curve inversion, more comparable to the 1980s. If we go by the 2000 and 2007 scenarios, the Fed cut rates by around 500bps; in the 1980s the Fed cut much more, obviously, from a higher base. In this cycle, if the peak is indeed around 5%, 500bps is the maximum anyway the Fed can cut. That is also the minimum which is “priced in” by the current curve inversion. But the actual market currently and literally prices only 150bps of cuts.
Again, neither of the past interest rate cycles are exactly the same as the current, so straight comparisons are misleading, but somehow, it seems that the peak Fed Funds rate today plus the current pricing of cuts in the forward curve do not quite match the current UST 2×10 curve inversion – either the peak is too low, or the curve is too inverted.
What I think is more likely to happen is the Fed hikes to more or less the peak which is priced in currently around 5% but it does not end up cutting rates immediately. The market is currently pricing peak in May-June next year and cuts to start pretty much immediately after; by the end of 2023 there are 50bps of cuts priced in.
In the last three rate cycles (2000, 2008, 2019) there was quite a bit of time after rates peaked and before the Fed started cutting. The longest was in 2007 – 13 months, then in 2019 it was 8 months and in 2000 it was 6 months. Before 2000 the Fed started cutting rates pretty much immediately after the end of each rate hiking cycle, so very different dynamics.
Here are how the Eurodollar curves looked about six months before the peak in rates in each of these cycles. The curve today somewhat resembles the curve in 2006, in a sense that the market correctly priced the peak in rates in 2007 followed by a cut and then a resumption of hikes. But unlike today, the market priced pretty much only one cut and then a resumption of hikes thereafter. In the interest rate cycles in either 2000 or 2018 the market continued to price hikes, no cuts at all, and a peak in the Fed Funds rate not determined.
Source: Bloomberg Finance, L.P.
And here are how the curves looked after the first cut in each of these cycles (the colours do not correspond – please refer to the legend in the top left corner, but the sequence is the same – sorry about that). The market didn’t expect at all the size of cuts that happened in either of these cycles. Notice that the curve in the current cycle still does not look at all like any of the curves in the previous cycles (noted that in six months’ time, the current Eurodollar curve is also likely to look different from now, but nevertheless, there are much more cuts priced now than in any of the other three cycles).
Source: Bloomberg Finance, L.P.
The point is that the market has been pretty lousy in the past in predicting the trajectory of the Fed Funds rate.
It is strange that the market never priced the pause in any of the actual past three interest rate cycles, and it is even stranger that it is not pricing it now either, given that there has been consistently a pause in the past.
In none of the past three cycles did the market price any substantial cuts; in fact, we had to wait for the first actual cut for any subsequent cuts to be priced – that is also weird given that the Fed ended up cutting a lot.
This time around, the market is pricing more cuts and well in advance but not even as close to that many as in the previous cycles.
However, I do not think we go back to the zero low bound as in the past three cycles. To summarize, the current UST 2×10 yield curve is too much inverted and the Fed would eventually cut rates more than what is currently priced in, but much less than in other interest rate cycles and after taking a more prolonged pause.
The prevailing sentiment among the people I speak to (predominantly hedge fund managers) is to sell this rally. The reasons given are (also see below for a complete list): 1) One CPI is unlikely to change the Fed’s interest rate trajectory (basically we are data dependent), 2) China has not changed its zero-Covid strategy in earnest, 3) There is still a risk of a winter energy crisis in Europe, 4) JPY weakness will not reverse before YCC is over.
All these are valid, but I will stick with a risk-on attitude a bit longer. In any case, what caused this drastic change in sentiment?
Positioning was really lopsided. See this article citing research from GS which believes CTAs were forced to buy $150Bn in equities and $75Bn in bonds. Real money is also very light risk after being forced to reduce exposures throughout the year. But what were the main drivers which changed sentiment to begin with?
It was weird to see markets actually not really selling off after Powell’s hawkish FOMC press conference. Perhaps the fact that we had a bunch of FOMC members (see here and here, for example), calling for a slowing down of the pace of Fed Fund Rate (FFR) increases, may explain to some extent the positive reaction at the time. And of course, the catalyst came when the US CPI was released lower than expected.
FFR actually does not give anymore a precise indication of the stance of US monetary policy – this is the conclusion of a new paper by FRBSF. If all data such as forward guidance and central bank balances sheet effect are taken into account, the FFR is more likely already above 6% vs the current target of 3.75-4% (the paper puts the FFR at 5.25% for September and I add the 75 bps of hikes since then).
This means monetary policy today is even more restrictive than at the peak before the 2008 financial crisis and approaching levels last seen during the tech bust in 2000. The findings in the paper make intuitive sense. Quoting from the paper:
“[W]hen only one tool was being used before the 200s, the stance of monetary policy was directly related to the federal funds rate. However, the use of additional tools and increased policy transparency by FOMC participants has made it more complicated to measure the stance of policy.”
The new tools the authors refer to are mainly forward guidance, which started to be actively used after 2003, and central bank balance sheet management, which started after 2008. The proxy FFR (see chart above) actually includes a lot more, a total of 12 market variables, including UST yields, mortgage rates, borrowing spreads, etc. It is perhaps intuitively easier to see that monetary policy was much looser at times when the FFR was at the zero-low bound and QE was in full use than it is a lot tighter today when FFR is firmly in positive territory and QT is in order, but the logic is the same.
So, I think somehow or other, the market now believes that we have seen the peak in FFR (forward) – that provided the foundation of the risk bounce.
The third pillar of support came from Europe. First, European energy prices (see a chart of TTF) have come a long way down from their peak in the summer (almost full inventories and mild weather helped). Second, the UK pension crisis was short-lived after the change in government and did not have any spill-over effects on other markets. And third, there is genuine hope of a negotiated solution of the war in Ukraine after the Ukrainian army made some sizable advances in reclaiming back lost territory, with both the US and Russia urging now for possible talks. My personal view is that the quick withdrawal of Russia from these territories is a deliberate act to incentivize Ukraine to come to the negotiating table – even though the latter does not seem eager too . Yesterday’s missile incident, and Ukraine’s quick claim that it is Russia’s fault, which is contrary to what preliminary investigation has led to so far, might be a testament to that.
Finally, and that falls under positioning, there is the unwind of USDJPY longs spurred by heavy intervention by Japanese authorities. If there is any proof that policy makers are taking the plunge in the Yen seriously it is in the details of Japan’s Q3 GDP which shrunk unexpectedly by 1.2% (consensus was for a 1.2% increase). The bad news came almost entirely from the negative contribution of net trade. Net trade has been a drag on GDP for the last four quarters primarily from the rise in imports, i.e., the weakness in the Yen. The good news is that the economy otherwise is doing fine: private demand had a big bounce from the previous quarter and has been a net positive overall (all data can be found here): in other words, the problem is the Yen, and YCC makes that worse.
Another piece of data, released last week, which caught our attention, is Japan FX Reserves. The decline from the high in July 2020 is $241Bn, about 18% – that is a substantial amount. The interesting thing, and we kind of know this from the TIC data is that the decline is coming entirely from the sale of foreign securities; deposits actually went up marginally (some of the decline is also valuation). But we know now that when Japan was intervening in USDJPY in September/October, it was selling securities, not depos – most analysts thought Japan would first reduce depos, while intervening, before selling their security portfolio. All data is here.
In summary, CTAs’ sizable wrong way bets long USD and short equities and bonds and real money light risk exposure overall coincided with dovish economic data, reopening China and improving geopolitics (all of these happening on the margin).
Yield Curve Control (YCC) or Yield Curve Targeting (YCT) – going forward, unless quoted, I will use YCC – is the latest unconventional tool in the modern central bank monetary arsenal. It was first used in 1942 by the Fed, and more recently, by BOJ in 2016, and RBA this year. YCC was first considered in the USA after the 2008 financial crisis, and again after the Covid crisis this year.
There is very little reason for the Fed to adopt YCC in the current environment given no pressure on the yield curve and government finances. On the other hand, there are other, better, tools to stimulate the economy and allow inflation to stay high. If it were eventually to adopt YCC, it is the long-end of the yield curve which will benefit the most from it.
In a 2010 memo, the Fed discussed “strategies for targeting intermediate- and long-term interest rates when short-term interest rates are at the zero bound”. The memo breaks down the choice of YCC into two possibilities:
targeting horizon: which yields along the curve should be capped; and
“hard” vs. “soft” targets: the former would require the Fed to keep yields at a specific level all the time, while under the latter, yields would be adjusted on a periodic basis.
In addition, the memo lists three different implementation methods:
policy signaling approach: keep all short-term yields, in the time frame during which the Fed plans not to raise rates, at the same level as the Fed’s target rate (Fed funds, IOER, etc.);
incremental approach: start with capping the very short-end rate and progressively move forward as needed; and
long-term approach: cap immediately the long-end of the curve.
During the Covid crisis in 2020, there was a very extensive discussion on YCC at the June FOMC meeting, according to the minutes. In fact, there was a whole section on it, going though the other current and past experiences of YCC and listing the pros and cons. While the 2010 memo had zero effect on market sentiment, investors took this most recent development very positively. However, the market was ostensibly disappointed after the release of the July minutes, where the Fed hinted that YCC might not be happening after all, at least for now:
“…many participants judged that yield caps and targets were not warranted in the current environment but should remain an option that the Committee could reassess in the future if circumstances changed markedly.”
Reality, however, is that the July 2020 minutes did not say anything that different from the June 2020 minutes. Here is the relevant quote from the latter:
“…many participants remarked that, as long as the Committee’s forward guidance remained credible on its own, it was not clear that there would be a need for the Committee to reinforce its forward guidance with the adoption of a YCT policy.”
Compare to this quote from the July FOMC minutes:
“Of those participants who discussed this option, most judged that yield caps and targets would likely provide only modest benefits in the current environment, as the Committee’s forward guidance regarding the path of the federal funds rate already appeared highly credible and longer-term interest rates were already low.”
Despite these mentions of YCC by the Fed in its latest FOMC meetings, unlike 2010, we know very little this time about the Fed’s intentions how to structure and implement YCC, if needed. The Jackson Hole meeting revealed some of the main conclusions of the FOMC’s review of monetary policy strategy, tools, and communications practices, especially on average inflation targeting (AIT) but there was no light shed on what the Fed is thinking about YCC.
Taking the example of Japan, YCC is a natural extension of BOJ monetary policy: QE (quantitative easing: start in 1997, but officially only in 2001), QQE (quantitative and qualitative easing: stat 2013), QQE+NIRP (negative interest rate policy: start January, 2016), QQE+YCC (start September, 2016). In effect, BOJ moved from targeting the 0/N rate (QE) to targeting quantity of money (monetary base in QQE), to a mixture of quantity and O/N (QQE+NIRP) to a mixture of quantity and short and medium-term rates (QQE+YYC, in reality, even though the quantity is still there, the focus is more on the rates)
RBA took a short cut, skipped QQE+NIRP and went straight to QQE+YCC, targeting only the 3yr rate. According to the June FOMC minutes, see above, it looks like the Fed might also skip, at least, NIRP:
“…survey respondents attached very little probability to the possibility of negative policy rates.”
In addition, it seems the Fed is more inclined to look at capping short-term yields:
“A couple of participants remarked that an appropriately designed YCT policy that focused on the short-to-medium part of the yield curve could serve as a powerful commitment device for the Committee.”
While capping long-term yields could result in some negative externalities:
“Some of these participants also noted that longer-term yields are importantly influenced by factors such as longer-run inflation expectations and the longer-run neutral real interest rate and that changes in these factors or difficulties in estimating them could result in the central bank inadvertently setting yield caps or targets at inappropriate levels.”
YCC can be implemented in different formats and its goals can also differ.
The original YCC in the 1940s USA was all about helping the Treasury fund its large war budget deficit. Frankly, this ‘should’ be the main reason YCC is implemented. Indeed, it was exactly in this light that Bernanke suggested YCC is an option in our more modern times in his famous speech in 2001, “Deflation: make sure it does not happen here”:
“…a pledge by the Fed to keep the Treasury’s borrowing costs low, as would be the case under my preferred alternative of fixing portions of the Treasury yield curve, might increase the willingness of the fiscal authorities to cut taxes.”
The point is, if the goal was to stimulate the economy, push the inflation rate up and the unemployment rate down, forward guidance (which is what QQE is) and possibly NIRP (not applicable for every country though) are better options (see quotes above from the June/July FOMC minutes).
YCC is the option to use only once the economy has picked up and inflation is on the way up but years of QE has left the government debt stock elevated to the point that even a marginal rise in interest rates would be deflationary and push the economy back to where it started. In other words, YCC is giving the chance for the Treasury to work out its heavy debt load. Most likely, this would be happening at the expense of a short-term rise in inflation over and beyond what is originally considered prudent but on a long-enough time frame, average inflation would still be within those ‘normal’ limits, as long as the central bank remains credible, of course. Again, the post WW2 YCC should be a good reference point for such a scenario.
The Original YCC
The initial proposal to peg the US Treasury yield curve was first presented at the June 1941 FOMC meeting by Emanuel Goldenweiser, director of the Division of Research and Studies.
“That a definite rate be established for long term Treasury offerings, with the understanding that it is the policy of the Government not to advance this rate during the emergency. The rate suggested is 2 1/2 per cent. When the public is assured that the rate will not rise, prospective investors will realize that there is nothing to gain by waiting, and a flow into Government securities of funds that have been and will become available for investment may be confidently expected.”
The emergency hereby mentioned was, of course, WW2. The war started in September 1939 and by late 1940, Britain was running out of money to pay for equipment. In a speech on October 30, 1940, President Roosevelt first promised Britain every possible assistance even though Britain lacked the financial resources to pay. The Lend-Lease Act, passed by Congress in March 1941, eventually signalled that it would finance whatever Britain required. US direct involvement in WW2 after the bombing of Pearl Harbour ensured the country, itself, would have to spend heavily in the war effort.
That was the context of the YCC which followed in 1942. In addition, US economic circumstances leading to the decision to peg the US Treasury curve were actually not that different to today. The US banking system was flush with liquidity on the back of large gold inflows, inflation was around 2% and the shape of the yield curve (the very front end) was not that dissimilar: the front end was around 0%, the 5yr around 65bps, and the long bond at 2.5%. With the start of the war, inflation picked up but there were price controls put in place which limited its rise. Government debt to GDP, however, was actually much lower than today and it got to present levels only by the end of the war.
By the time the actual peg went in place, the curve had steepened, especially the 10yr had gone to 2% as inflation really accelerated. Inflation eventually reached a staggering 12.5% in 1942 at which point even more price controls were imposed.
Some FOMC members at that time regarded such a steep yield curve as inconsistent with the policy objectives (keeping inflation under control in the context of the US Treasury issuance program) and insisted on a horizontal structure of managing the curve. And that is in spite of the fact that the decision to peg interest rates was never officially announced. In fact, US Treasury Secretary, Henry Morgenthau’s preference was for a continuation of what today we regard as quantitative easing (QE), i.e. Fed using a quantity rather than rates target.
Under the peg, the Fed, instead, had to buy whatever the private sector sells as long as yields were above the stipulated levels. Naturally, investors were riding the positively sloped yield curve, selling the front end and buying the long end. The Fed was forced to accumulate a lot of T-Bills as a result.
However, its holdings of coupons were never that large.
With the end of the war, inflation started picking up again and the Fed eventually took off the yield peg in the front end in July 1947. The peg in the long end stayed until the March 1951 US Treasury Accord. By that time, US public debt to GDP had shrunk back to 73% from more than 100% at the end WW2.
The 1951 Fed-Treasury Accord did not completely end Fed’s management of the yield curve, however. Fed’s new chairman, Willian Martin, wanted to confine market operations in the front end of the curve only, insisting that this will eventually also affect the long end. This ‘bills only’ policy lasted until 1961 and it provided a turn in how the Fed views its involvement in the US Treasury market: from helping the Treasury finance the government’s debt to a more traditional approach to monetary policy focusing on price stability and employment.
Even that was not the end of Fed’s direct involvement. From 1961 till 1975, the Fed engaged in the so called, ‘even keel’ operations. Under these, the Fed supplied reserves and refrained from any policy decisions just before US Treasury auctions and even immediately after (until the time primary dealers were able to sell their inventory to the private sector).
The set-up for YCC in the 1940s has many similarities not only with present day USA but also with Japan, where public debt to GDP at 250% is even higher that US at its peak. However, as discussed below, the rationale for YCC in Japan, is nevertheless different.
YCC in Japan
With QQE starting in April 2013, BOJ indicated it would be buying 60-70Tn Yen of assets per year. On JGBs, the plan was to slowly lengthen the duration to flatten the curve until inflation surpassed 2%. This was an upgrade from the previous inflation target range of 1-2%. BOJ also added an estimated time target of when it expected that to occur (initially 2015). For all intends and purposes, this was QE plus forward guidance, plus average inflation targeting in one.
A substantial reduction in the price of oil and a consumption tax hike in April 2014 exacerbated the dis-inflationary environment and forced BOJ to increase the annual purchases to 80Tn Yen later that year, extend duration (up to 40 years, average duration moved from 3 years to 7 years) and initiate ETFs and J-REITs purchases. In the meantime, the monetary base and the balance sheet were exploding, latter reaching almost 100% GDP. In effect, through QQE, BOJ moved from targeting the uncollateralized O/N rate to targeting the monetary base.
By 2015, these efforts by BOJ seemed to have worked. Inflation rose from -0.6% in 2013 to 1.2%, unemployment went down. However, subsequent decline in inflation to 0.5% in 2016 threw some doubt over the efficacy of these monetary policy efforts. By then, BOJ holdings of JGBs were approaching 50% of the overall market, contributing to declining market liquidity. 10yr JGB had gone from 75bps to almost 0%. They eventually broke the zero-bound after the BOJ initiated QQE+NIRP by lowering the marginal rate on excess reserves to -0.1% from 0.1%.
The practical consequences of QE+NIRP was a push up of the duration and risk curve (into sub-debt, credit card loans, equities, etc.) and out of the country into international assets. As banks’ JGB holdings gradually dwindled, banks had trouble finding assets for collateral purposes, a fact which, together with the flat yield curve interfered with the monetary transmission mechanism. Eventually, BOJ was buying more and more JGBs from pension funds and insurance companies. As these financial entities don’t have an account at the BOJ, it was banks’ deposits which were increasing. MMFs funds decision to stop taking in more deposits after NIRP, moved even more money into the banking system which further lowered their profitability.
Unlike US, where a large majority of financial assets are owned by other entities, Japan has a bank-based financial system. Even though NIRP did trigger the “loss reversal rate” (loss of bank profits below a certain level of interest rates, causes tighter lending conditions), reality was that only a very small portion of the banks’ deposits, about 4%, i.e. the so-called policy rate balance, were charged the negative rate. Majority were still charged at the 0.1%, about 80%, or so-called basic balances at the BOJ. The rest were charged 0%.
But the effect on the banks was highly uneven. Regional banks suffered more as big banks could find higher yields abroad, for example. So, despite best efforts by BOJ to help the banks with the tiering system, overall bank profitability still fell.
This was the context for YCC which Japan launched in September 2016. The economy was still in need for more stimulus but the way BOJ was providing it, didn’t work, and, if anything, worsened matters as the flat yield curve hindered the monetary transmission mechanism, and the negative interest rate worsened Japanese banks’ profitability. BOJ need to slow down its purchases of JGBs, and thus lower balance sheet growth. The way it was planning to do this was to move away from a quantity target back to an interest rate target with the novelty of adding a long-end one.
In addition to YCC, BOJ provided more clarity to its inflation targeting framework: it added an inflation overshooting commitment. This meant that inflation had to surpass 2% for some time so that average inflation rises to 2%. This brought it even closer to how AIT in the US is supposed to work.
YCC also resulted in a de facto BOJ balance sheet tapering – annual purchases went from 80Tn Yen in 2014 to eventually 16Tn Yen in 2019 – as BOJ didn’t have to interfere as much to keep interest rates within their targets. This was despite the fact that BOJ never actually changed its quantity target, which actually did create a lot of confusion – in March this year, the central bank even scrapped the upper limit on annual purchases. But there was no practical doubt that BOJ had moved on from a quantity to a rates target.
Despite the fact that YCC was initiated to steepen the yield curve, BOJ never really had to do anything in that regard. BOJ interventions were done through two tools: 1) fixed rate purchase operations and 2) fixed rate funds supply operations. The former was used only to bring 10yr JGBs below 10bps.
Benefits and Disadvantages of YCC
Historical analysis shows that a credible central bank can indeed control nominal interest rates. However, by default, it is fully in charge, strictly speaking, only of interest rates ceilings (bond vigilantes are indeed only a gold standard phenomenon; they are redundant in a free floating, irredeemable money monetary system). That is notwithstanding side effects such as higher inflation – which indeed might be one of the goals – or weaker currency.
Interest rate floors are a lot more difficult to control, as to do that, the central bank must be in possession of fixed income assets for sale. Central bank balance sheets may not have a higher bound, but they do have a lower band. When BoJ set on the steepen the yield curve, it indeed opened itself to such a risk, but it did have a very large balance sheet at the time (luckily it never had to go through selling JGBs). In theory a central bank can get around that problem by enlisting the help of the Treasury which can issue more bonds as the yield target breaks that lower bound limit. But then again, there might be negative side effects, such as deflation and a higher debt burden, which this time would be going against said goals.
When it comes to real yields, things get more complicated as inflation is added to the variables that need to be controlled. Historical experience suggests that structural shifts in inflation expectations are more likely to follow rather than lead spot inflation. Very generally speaking, it is a lot easier for a credible central bank to control an inflation ceiling than an inflation floor for somewhat similar reasons (see above). It seems that for a central bank to be able to control the floors of either real or nominal yields, it has to become ‘incredible’ (pun intended)!
Using these conclusions above, it seems to me that there is little upside to resort to YCC, if the goal was just to push inflation up. YCC is very much a complementary tool in that respect. However, YCC can be very effective in allowing inflation to go up alongside helping the Treasury fund. It is very much the main tool here.
One of the challenges of YCC is to keep the central bank balance sheet from expanding too much. Unlike limited QE, there is indeed a risk of it having to purchase large quantities of bonds to keep the interest rate ceilings. There is also the question of exit. Unlike QE which simply smoothed the yield curve, YCC provides a hard ceiling and thus the possibility of a large break higher in yields once the controls are lifted.
What Should the Fed Do?
The fact there was no specific feature on YCC at the Jackson Hole meeting this year (going by the first day of the meeting at this point), makes me think that this is not a monetary policy tool which is high on Fed’s agenda at the moment. Fed is more inclined to first try AIT and more direct forward guidance, as indeed Japan did pre-YCC. However, judging from the June 2020 FOMC minutes, if YCC were to be implemented, it would be on the short-end of the US treasury market, following the Australian model:
“Among the three episodes discussed in the staff presentation, participants generally saw the Australian experience as most relevant for current circumstances in the United States.”
The Australian model though combines YCC with a calendar-based forward guidance. It is not clear how that will work if the Fed adopts an outcome-based forward guidance first, as this is what is favored currently by most FOMC participants.
Also, the Fed must be careful as to exactly what shape yield curve it wants to eventually have. The 1940s YCC flattened the curve, while both Japan and Australia YCC steepened it. The US yield curve is currently flatter than the 1940s US curve but steeper than either Japanese or Australian one at the time YCC was announced. Going for the Australian example of pegging the front end, it will most likely steepen the curve as it did in Australia.
Prior to Jackson Hole, the OIS curve was indicating that there would be no rate hikes in the next 5 years. Post, market is not 100% sure, which means chairman Powel communication was not so clear. The 5y5y forward, which is probably the best proxy of the Fed’s terminal rate is still around 65bps: the curve is well anchored all the way to 10yr which is a great outcome given the massive supply of US Treasuries.
How much benefit would the curve get from pegging any yields up to 10 year? I don’t think a lot. It is the 30 year that the Fed might consider pegging eventually; below 1.5% today, it is still relatively low. The 30-year Treasury is where really proper market demand and supply meet and it thus becomes the focal point for the monetary – fiscal interplay.
If the Fed is planning to do YCC, it should peg the 30-year US Treasury, just like it did in the 1940s. For everything else, the Fed has better tools at its disposal.
“For example, it is habitually assumed that whenever there is a greater amount of money in the country, or in existence, a rise of prices must necessarily follow. But this is by no means an inevitable consequence. In no commodity is it the quantity in existence, but the quantity offered for sale, that determines the value. Whatever may be the quantity of money in the country, only that part of it will affect prices, which goes into the market commodities, and is there actually exchanged against goods. Whatever increases the amount of this portion of the money in the country, tends to raise prices. But money hoarded does not act on prices. Money kept in reserve by individuals to meet contingencies which do not occur, does not act on prices. The money in the coffers of the Bank, or retained as a reserve by private bankers, does not act on prices until drawn out, nor even then unless drawn out to be expended in commodities.”
John Stuart Mill, Book III, Chapter VIII, Par.17, p.20
In his latest Global Strategy Weekly, Albert Edwards explains why he thinks the surge in the money supply is deflationary. As usual he is going against the consensus here even though he gives credit to people like Russell Napier who correctly identifies the changing nature of US money supply but concludes that this is highly inflationary. I think Albert is right for the wrong reasons, and Russell is wrong for the right reasons.
Albert Edwards is right when he says that ‘despite massive stimulus, deflation will nimble on for a while yet until capacity constraints become binding further down the road’ (emphasis mine). Yet in his view, deflation will persist because of keeping zombie companies alive by cheap credit. While, I have no doubt that this is invariably true, its effect on the deflation-inflation dynamics is weak because credit creation is now a much smaller part of the money supply than in the past.
Which is where Russell Napier comes in. He is right in his view that ‘politicians have gained control of money supply’ but wrong to believe that this will inevitably cause a rapid rise in inflation unless, indeed, capacity does become binding.
Reality is that money supply is now turned around on its head. While in the past, pre-2008, the delta of money supply consisted mostly of loans, after 2008 and during QE 1,2,3, it moved to loans plus QE-generated deposits. During the Covid crisis, it shifted further away from loans by adding even Government-generated deposits to the QE-time mix.
It is ironic that we had to go through QE, when the power of loan creation on money supply started to wane, for us to truly acknowledge their significance in the process of money creation in the first place. Loans create deposits – yes. But under QE, if Fed buys from a non-bank, the proceeds go in a deposit at a bank without the corresponding increase in loans. If it buys from a bank, reserves at the Fed go up.
Things get more complicated when the government hands out free cash as it also goes on a deposit (Government-generated deposits) with no corresponding loan creation.
Of those bank credits, actually, only about half are loans, the other half are securities. So, in fact loans have created only about 1/6 of the money supply YTD (would be even less if measured after the Fed/Treasury initiated their programs in March).
What about inflation? Difficult to see how this massive rise of money supply can produce any meaningful push in inflation given that the majority of that cash is simply being saved/invested in the market rather than consumed.
Moreover, this crisis is hitting the service sector much more than any other crisis in the past. And unlike the manufacturing sector, which tends to be more cyclical, this decline in services may be structural as the virus changes our consumer preferences in general, but also in light of the new social distancing requirements. Some of these services are never coming back. This is deflationary, or at minimum it is dis-inflationary overall for the economy.
Services price inflation tends to be much higher than manufacturing price inflation. This paper from the ECB has documented that this is a feature for both EU and US economy and has been prevalent for the past 20 years.
However, as the paper demonstrates, the gap between the services and good price inflation has been narrowing recently, starting with the 2008 crisis. I believe that after the Covid crisis, the gap may even disappear completely.
For a sustained rise in inflation, we need a ‘permanent’ rise in free government handouts as that would increase the chance of some of it eventually hitting the real economy. Reality is that, even if this happens, the output gap is so big that inflation may take a lot longer to materialize than people expect. However, anything that shrinks the supply side of the economy (supply chains breakdown, regulations, natural disasters, social disorder, etc.) would have a much bigger and direct effect on inflation.
Bottom line is, as the speed of technological advances accelerates, and with no barriers to that, inflation in the 21st century becomes much more a supply-side than a demand-side (monetary) phenomenon.
At $3.2Tn, US Treasury (UST) net issuance YTD (end of June) is running at more than 3x the whole of 2019 and is more than 2x the largest annual UST issuance ever (2010). At $1.4Tn, US corporate bond issuance YTD is double the equivalent last year, and at this pace would easily surpass the largest annual issuance in 2017. According to Renaissance Capital, US IPO proceeds YTD are running at about 25% below last year’s equivalent. But taking into consideration share buybacks, which despite a decent Q1, are expected to fall by 90% going forward, according to Bank of America, net IPOs are still going to be negative this year but much less than in previous years.
Net issuance of financial assets this year is thus likely to reach record levels but so is net liquidity creation by the Fed. The two go together, hand by hand, it is almost as if, one is not possible without the other. In addition, the above trend of positive Fixed Income (FI) issuance (both rates and credit) and negative equity issuance has been a feature since the early 1980s.
For example, cumulative US equity issuance since 1946 is a ($0.5)Tn. Compare this to total liquidity added as well as issuance in USTs and corporate bonds.*
The equity issuance above includes also financial and foreign ADRs. If you strip these two out, the cumulative non-financial US equity issuance is a staggering ($7.4)Tn!
And all of this happened after 1982. Can you guess why? SEC Rule 10b-18 providing ‘safe harbor’ for share buybacks. No net buybacks before that rule, lots of buybacks after-> share count massively down. Cumulative non-financial US equity issuance peaked in 1983 and collapsed after. Here is chart for 1946-1983.
Equity issuance still lower than debt issuance but nothing like what happened after SEC Rule10B-18, 1984-2019.
Buybacks have had an enormous effect on US equity prices on an index basis. It’s not as if all other factors (fundamentals et all) don’t matter, but when the supply of a financial asset massively decreases while the demand (overall liquidity – first chart) massively increases, the price of an asset will go up regardless of what anyone thinks ‘fundamentals’ might be. People will create a narrative to justify that price increase ex post. The only objective data is demand/supply balance.
*Liquidity is measured as Shadow Banking + Traditional Banking Deposits. Issuance does not include other debt instruments (loans, mortgages) + miscellaneous financial assets. Source: Z1 Flow of Funds
This is money which has already been accounted for. The Fed did a liquidity and duration swap – out of UST coupons and MBS (mostly, some corporate credit) into T-Bills/reserves/deposits. That’s all. Ok, maybe some of that money will eventually go into risky assets, but why should it? If it wanted to, it would have gone even before the Fed swap. Obviously, it is not moving at the moment. It would have declined naturally after tax payments go though, but that could possibly be delayed again.
The only thing we see, is a flattening of the growth rate. Total AUM is back to early May level, which is where bank reserves have declined to as well. Again, that’s not surprising.
Is there money on the sidelines?
Yes, the only way to create that is to increase private sector net financial assets. Normally, this is done when the private sector receives income in exchange for work. In the early 1980s, this mechanism, unfortunately stalled, and the majority of the private sector income was generated in exchange of debt, which is kind of like money on the sidelines (net cash ‘creation’ through leverage), but it is a doble-edged weapon as that debt has an expiration and a positive interest rate. We are working on both the former – debt forgiveness, and the latter – interest rates are close to 0% now.
The only entity that can create financial assets without the debt liability, ‘money on the sidelines’, is the government: the Fed only lends money into existence, the Treasury spends it. This is exactly what the US government has done with the CARES Act: the SBA PPP could provide for about $600Bn of loan forgiveness ($112Bn of which has gone through) while the Recovery Rebates provide for about $300Bn of direct family assistance, no strings attached. This is not permanent, but it is an important step towards UBI/Helicopter money. This could change everything.
Despite the fanfare in the markets, the Federal Reserve’s monetary stimulus, on its own, is rather underwhelming compared to the equivalent during the 2008 financial crisis. What makes a difference this time, is the fiscal stimulus. The 2020 one is bigger than the 2008 one; but more importantly, it actually creates net financial assets for the private sector.
Fed’s balance sheet has increased by 73% since the beginning of 2020. In comparison, it increased by 109% between August’08, the month before Lehman went bust and most major programs started, and March’09, the month when the stock market bottomed. Actually, by the time QE3 ended, in September 2014, Fed’s balance sheet had increased by 385% compared to since before the crisis.
Commercial bank reserves were at 9% of their total assets before the Covid crisis and are sitting at 15% now, a 94% increase. In the aftermath of the 2008 crisis, on the other hand, bank reserves tripled from August’08 to March’09 and increased 10x by September’14. Relative to banks’ total assets, reserves were just at 3% before the crisis but rose to 20% by the end of QE3.
Bank deposits were at 75% of their total assets in January’20 and are at 76% now, a 17% increase. Deposits were at 63% before the 2008 crisis, had declined to 60% by March’09, and eventually rose to 69% of banks total assets. Overall, for this full period, commercial bank deposits rose by 49%.
In percentage terms, Fed’s balance sheet rose less during the 2020 crisis than during the 2008 crisis and its aftermath.
Commercial bank reserves were a much smaller percentage of banks’ total assets before the 2008 crisis than before the 2020 crisis, but by the end of QE in 2014, they were bigger than today.
Banks started deleveraging post the 2008 financial crisis (deposits went up as a percentage of total assets) and continue to deleverage even now.
On the positive side, however, the Fed has introduced four new programs in 2020 that did not exist in 2008, Moreover, unlike 2008, they are directed at the non-financial corporate sector, i.e. much more targeted lending than during the financial crisis.
Nevertheless, very little overall has been used of the facilities currently, both in absolute terms (the new ones), and compared to 2008.
In fact, looking at the performance of financial assets, the market is not only telling us we are beyond the worst-case scenario, but, as equities and credit have hit all-time highs, it seems we are discounting a back-to-normal outcome already. It took the US equity market about four years after the 2008 crisis to reach its previous peak in 2007. In the 2020 crisis, it took two moths!
Following the 2020 Covid crisis, monetary policy so far is much less potent than following the 2008 financial crisis. Taking into account the full usage of Fed’s facilities announced in 2020, the growth rate in both Fed’s balance sheet and commercial bank reserves by the end of 2020 will likely match those for the period Auguts’08-March’09. But it has a long way to go to resemble the strength of monetary policy during QE1,2.3. Given that US equities only managed to bottom out by March’09, in an environment of much stronger monetary policy on the margin than today, means that their extraordinary recovery during the Covid crisis has probably borrowed a lot from the future.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act of 2020 is much bigger than the American Recovery and Reinvestment (ARR) Act of 2008, both in absolute terms and in percentage of GDP.
However, what really makes the difference, is the fact that the CARES Act has the provision to increase the private sector’s net assets. This is done through two of the programs. The SBA PPP allows for about $642Bn of loans to small businesses. If eligibility criteria are met, the loans can be forgiven. The Recovery Rebates Program allows for the disbursement of $1,200pp ($2,400 per joint filers plus $500 per dependent child). Nothing like this existed during the 2008 financial crisis.
Most of the loans through the SBA PPP have already been made, and about $112Bn are forgiven. So, there is another maximum of $532Bn which could still be forgiven (deadline is end of 2020). The Employment Rebate Programs is about $300Bn in size.
Just the size of these two programs can potentially be as big as the ARR Act was, in absolute terms. They create the possibility for the private sector to formally receive ‘income’, even though it is a one-off at the moment, without incurring a liability. Some of the other programs, like Tax Relief, are a version of that, but instead of acquiring an asset, the private sector receives a liability reduction – not exactly the same thing.
This is important. Until now, the private sector could receive income either in exchange for work, or, as it became increasingly more common starting in the late 1990s, with the promise of paying it back (in the form of debt). This now could be changing.
The Fed, for example, can not do that. Its mandate prevents it to ‘spend’ and only to ‘lend’. Until 2020, the Fed’s programs were essentially an exercise of liquidity transformation and a duration switch (the private sector reduced duration – mostly UST, MBS – and increased liquidity – T-Bills and bank reserves). There was no change in net assets on its balance sheet; the change was only in the composition of assets. The more recent programs introduced direct lending to the non-financial sector, still no net creation of financial assets, but a much broader access to the real economy.
In a sense, while the CARES Act comes closer to the concept of Helicopter Money or Universal Basic Income (UBI), the monetary stimulus of 2020 is moving closer to the concept of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT).
In that sense, while the reaction of financial markets to the monetary stimulus may not be deemed warranted, taking into account the innovative structure of the fiscal stimulus, asset prices overreaction becomes easier to understand. Still, I believe the market has discounted way too much into the future.
There is always a dichotomy between financial markets and the economy but, it seems that currently, the gap is quite stark between the two. It could be that the market is comfortable with the idea that, in a worst-case scenario, the authorities have plenty of ammunition to use, in the case of both the existing facilities as well as new stimulus.