Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Central Banks need to get real (not nominal)

While the ECB and Bank of Japan are exploring negative interest rates, the US Federal Reserve is preparing us for a slow and cautious increase in short-term interest rates. Long-term rates remain at very low levels and inflation expectations have come under pressure and also remain below what they were a few months or years ago. And as this is going on markets are trying to figure out if they like low or high interest rates. And even if they decide that they like low rates, are negative rates too low?

In all these debates there seems to be an unusual amount of what economists call money illusion or lack of understanding of the difference between nominal and real interest rates. This confusion, in my view, is partly motivated by the communication strategy of central banks that seem to obsess with the asymmetric nature of their inflation targets (for both the ECB and US Fed, inflation targets are defined as close but below 2%) and are not clear enough on their final goal and its timing.

How do we want interest rates to react to aggressive monetary policy? The common answer is that we want interest rates to go down. This is correct if we think in real terms: given inflation expectations (or actual inflation), we want interest rates to move down relative to those inflation levels. But in some cases, in particular when inflation expectations are lower than what central banks would like them to be, the central bank by being aggressive is targeting higher inflation expectations and this can possibly lead to higher nominal (long-term) interest rates.

This is what happened in the three rounds of quantitative easing by the US Federal Reserve. 10-Year interest rates went up which was a signal of increasing inflation expectations (and even higher expectations of future real interest rates). This was seen as a success.

But the behavior of long-term interest rates or inflation expectations in response to recent communications by central banks has gone in the opposite direction. Long-term rates have come down (in particular in the Euro area). But don't we want lower interest rates? Isn't this the objective of massive purchases of long-term assets by central banks? Yes if we talk about real interest rates but not obvious if we talk about nominal ones. What we really want is inflation expectations (and inflation) to increase and this is likely to keep long-term interest rates from falling so much. 

And here is where I feel the central banks are not helping themselves. There are two mistakes they are doing: in their messages about interest rates they do not distinguish clearly between nominal and real interest rates. What I want to do is to send a message that real interest rates will remain low for an extended period of time to ensure higher inflation ahead and to ensure that nominal interest rates increase in the future so that we can escape the zero lower bound. By talking only about nominal interest rates central banks are sending a signal that we will be stuck at the zero lower bound for a long time, a message that seems to be an admission of defeat. They cannot get out of this trap.

And this leads me to the second mistake of central banks: their asymmetric view of their inflation target. In the US, inflation and core inflation is slowly moving towards the 2% target. This is seen by some as a proof that the zero lower bound or the deflation trap has been defeated. But this is the wrong reading. The fact that the federal funds rate remains so close to 0% means that we are still at the zero lower bound or close enough to it and we should not be complacent with what we achieved. The US Federal Reserve should only call it a success when the federal funds rate is back to 3% or higher, safe away from 0%. But to get there we need to shoot for higher inflation, at least temporarily. The same message or even stronger applies to the ECB. 

In summary, success in escaping the zero lower bound should be judged by how central bank interest rates manage to move away from 0% not by how long they stay at 0%. Central banks are not communicating this clearly because of the fear that this would be interpreted as a message of future tightening of monetary policy. But by doing so they are hurting their ability to escape the deflation/lowflation trap.

Antonio Fatás

Thursday, March 10, 2016

ECB: I cannot do whatever it takes

The ECB just announced a further reduction in interest rates, extended its QE program by increasing the rate at which buys assets, beefed up the TLTRO program and extended its horizon. It all sounds like good news and many of these actions had been expected in the last meeting of 2015 and they did not happen. Markets reacted very positively on announcement but later, after the press conference, they went down to levels that were significantly below where they were before the announcement.

It is always hard to comment on why markets react in a certain way to monetary policy announcements but I must say that watching the press conference I learned about the state of desperation and possibly confusion of the ECB, which was not very reassuring. It might not be their fault, this is life when central banks hit the zero lower bound on interest rates and there is very little they can do. And the available tools are not easy to communicate to markets and the general public. An extra 20 billion for QE, including corporate bonds, loans to banks that have an interest rate contingent on the amount of net lending are all policies that are much harder to understand and calibrate (even for economists) than a reduction in interest rates.

So what did we learn yesterday? That the ECB wants to do more but that there is no magical tool that will get the Euro area out of where it is. That the ECB is willing to do more, despite some of the internal resistance, is good news. But the message (explicit and implicit) that they have clearly reached their limit is bad news. From the press conference it was clear that interest rates cannot go down any further. And when it comes to QE there is always room for enlarging the set of assets that are included in the program but the Bank of Japan has tried that for a while without great success.

In summary, the zero lower bound trap is a real one. In the absence of aggressive fiscal policy or a sudden and large improvement in the world economy, the ECB is going to have a hard time reaching its inflation target or helping the Euro zone economy return to normal growth rates.

Whatever it takes to fix this does not seem part of the tools that the ECB has at its disposal. And I do not want to think about what future ECB press conferences are going to look like.

Antonio Fatás