Financial markets strongly value the possibility of a trade agreement between the United States and China. Such a situation would make it possible to reduce the constraints on global trade and to order them according to the framework defined by the agreement. Nothing would then stand in the way of the return of larger trade flows likely to bring global growth once again.
This idea is attractive because it would leave the area of concern that marks the global economy since last fall and for which we do not spontaneously see a way out.
Yet this possibility of an agreement seems to me to be totally illusory. Tensions between the US and China mainly reflect a problem of technological leadership. Which of these two countries will set the standard for developments like 5G or artificial intelligence or other technologies. Both countries are in fierce competition. I can’t imagine an agreement in which one of the two countries would agree to be subject to the developments of the other. Tensions between the two countries will remain strong even if minor agreements could be signed.
This will generate tension and volatility in the overall dynamics.
The end of the reduction of the Fed’s balance sheet is what we have to keep in mind after the publication of the minutes of the last FOMC meeting. It will take place during the second half of this year.
The US Central Bank does not want to be too constrained in the management of its monetary policy. The pace that was taken and the level targeted until then could add to the difficulty of the good calibrage of the monetary policy.
The Fed clearly does not want to be constrained in its choices because the global environment which is now more uncertain.
The way Yellen initiated the downsizing movement of the balance sheet was possibly compatible with a stable and predictable international environment. The arrival of Trump has created noise and spillover effects because of its policies. Now the Fed must take into account these noises and the risk of contagion which are attached to them.
The Fed does not yield to Trump by not raising rates, but it does not raise them in order to be able to intervene quickly to contain the negative effects of the policy pursued at the White House. She wants to be agile to limit risks. It’s well thought out.
The latest FOMC meeting on
January 29 and 30 saw confirmation of the halt to monetary normalization, with
the end to the Fed funds hike cycle and an easing in the Fed’s balance sheet
management (reduction) policy, although the exact terms of this remain to be seen.
The most surprising part about this decision is that it was dictated by the
threat of shocks from external factors (Brexit, China, etc.) rather than the
desire to tackle any domestic problem, marking the first time that the Fed has
taken this kind of decision to normalize monetary policy without making a
direct reference to its domestic economic situation.
Yet the shift in monetary policy direction could have been based on purely
internal considerations rather than referring to potential external shocks, so
this move raises a number of questions.
The US Federal Reserve decided to bring its monetary policy normalization to an end during its meetings on January 29 and 30, 2019. The interest rate hike cycle had kicked off slowly in December 2015 and stepped up a pace a year later, as nine interest rate hikes pushed the Fed Funds rate up from 0.25% (upper end of range) to 2.5% in December 2018. During last week’s press conference, the Fed Chair indicated that Fed Funds are now in the range of neutral, in response to the first question from journalists: there is no longer an accommodative or a tightening slant. Powell’s confidence in the strength of the US economy suggests that the end to normalization should not just be seen as hitting the pause button for a while.
The rate hike cycle has been long and slow-moving if we compare to the Fed’s previous series of tightening moves from 2004 for example. A comparison with this period also reveals that real interest rates on Fed funds were much higher then than they are now. The figure is currently marginally above the level witnessed at the start of the normalization process in December 2015, unlike the situation after 2004, when the economy was much more restricted, while this is not the case in the current economic situation.
A comparison of current real interest rates with previous phases of monetary tightening shows that today’s situation is completely different to these episodes. Real interest rates in November 2018 stood at around 0.4% (inflation figures for December are not yet available on the PCE index), which is much lower than figures in 2006, 1999 or 1990. Does this mean that the US economy is too weak to be able to deal with a real rate above 1%? This would be extremely worrying and would undermine Jerome Powell’s comments that the US economy is in a good place.
It is difficult to understand why
US normalization is coming to an end when we look at the economy, as unemployment
is near its low, so the central bank should be tightening the reins. The Fed’s
projections for 2019 and 2020 are for figures above the country’s potential
growth rate and this also fits with the economists’ consensus, at least for 2019.
Against this backdrop, monetary policy needs to be tighter to ensure that
growth does not create imbalances that then have to be addressed, and this was the
message from Powell in 2018, when he suggested that fiscal policy (too
aggressive for an economy running on full employment) would need to be offset
by tighter monetary policy to rebalance the policy mix. During the press conference
on Wednesday January 30, he did not raise this question: the issue was side-stepped,
but yet the analysis still remains the same. There are only two possible
economic explanations for the halt to normalization: either there are
expectations of a severe downgrade to projections when they are updated in
March, but this would not be consistent with Powell’s comments; or the Fed is
doing whatever it takes to extend the economic cycle at any cost, with the end
to the rate hike cycle aimed at cutting back mortgage rates and taking the
pressure off the real estate market. However, with the overall economy
remaining robust, the risk of this type of move is that it could lead to imbalances
that would be difficult to eliminate. This is the opposite approach to the Fed’s
strategy right throughout 2018, so it would be a strange tactic.
ISM index dropped: a healthy adjustment. In the USA, the fall of the ISM may reflect a return to a more normal situation? For many months, this indicator for the manufacturing sector was well above the CFNAI index which is a measure of 85 indicators of the economic activity (prepared by the Chicago Fed). This situation, which has been a regular occurrence since 2004, always ends with a sharp and brutal adjustment of the ISM to the CFNAI. The adjustment always takes place in this direction. Finally, the overly optimistic expectations contained in the ISM index adjust to the “real economy” which does not present excessive optimism. This adjustment is rather healthy.
US growth is expected at 2.9% on average in 2018. This corresponds to a growth rate of 0.7/0.8% in Q4 (non-annualized figures). This view is consensual, as is the consensual perceived robustness of the economy and the slowdown to an average growth of 2.5% in 2019. Making all of these elements compatible is interesting. If the 2.9% of 2018 is ok (with 0.8% in Q4), it is necessary to think about 2019. The average quarterly growth rate needed to converge to 2.5% is 0.5% (non annualized) The slowdown in the US economy is strong from the very beginning of the year. This figure must be compared to 0.8% which is the average quarterly growth in 2018. The assumption of maintaining robust growth in the first half of 2019 (0.8% per quarter) implies a rapid decline from the summer. Convergence to 2.5% implies a contraction of -0.2% per quarter from the summer. If growth is robust at the beginning of 2019, then to be compatible with the consensus forecasts, it will take a break from the summer
The Fed raised its benchmark rate by 25 basis points. The fed funds rate will thus evolve in the 2.25 – 2.5% corridor. This rate level is close to the corridor, 2.5-3.0%, considered by the Fed as a long-term target. This is the 4th rise this year.
The central bank does not appear worried about the pace of the economy in the coming months. Growth will slow down somewhat in 2019, but the unemployment rate will remain close to its current level, beyond full employment. Inflation will be close to 2%. It is a little weaker than at the September meeting because of the drop in the price of oil.
The Fed said it could raise its benchmark rate twice in 2019. In September, at the previous meeting, it was considering 3 rises. The pace of oil prices and its effect on the inflation rate probably explain this lessening.
Why two further hikes: the economy still operates on a trend beyond full employment. This imbalance must be offset by a monetary policy that must become a little restrictive to avoid possible imbalances, currently not very visible but that could develop in the not too distant future. The economy has changed, but not so much that it can function too long beyond full employment without having consequences that are difficult to manage in the long run. In addition, the White House policy that fuels domestic demand is resulting in a rapid rise in imports (see here). Through a somewhat restrictive monetary policy the Fed must weigh on the demand and limit the external imbalance.