Recent “U-turns” in Central Banks’ Forward Guidance Were Avoidable

          The Federal Reserve and the Bank of England have each recently backed away from “forward guidance” that they had given earlier in the form of thresholds for the unemployment rate.   As a result of their changes in emphasis, they are both being accused of confusing the financial markets.

The Fed at the end of 2012 had said that it planned on keeping monetary policy easy at least until the unemployment rate had fallen below 6 ½ %.     The Bank of England in mid-2013 had made a similar statement, with a threshold figure for UK unemployment of 7%.   

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Is the US Economy Really About to Go Boom?

Politico asked 8 of us for a prognosis on US growth in the new year. This was my response –

Something important will get better in 2014: Fiscal policy will stop hurting the economy. The results should show up as expansion in such service sectors as health, education and construction.

The biggest impediment to economic expansion over the last three years has been destructive budget policy coming out of the Congress: misguided fiscal drag in the short term (crude cuts in spending, especially under the sequester; the expiration a year ago of Obama’s payroll tax holiday); repeated unnecessary disruptive and uncertainty-maximizing political crises (debt ceiling showdowns and government shutdown); and little progress on the genuine longer-term fiscal problem, which is the 40-year prognosis for U.S. debt (a result of projected rapid growth in entitlement spending). These fiscal failures have together probably subtracted well over a percentage point from U.S. growth in each of the last three years.

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Stan Fischer, the Fed, and Sub-par US Growth

      Now that Janet Yellen is to be Chair of the US Federal Reserve Board, attention has turned to the candidate to succeed her as Vice Chair.  Stanley Fischer would be the perfect choice.   He has an ideal combination of all the desirable qualities, unique in the literal sense that nobody else has them.  During his academic career, Fischer was one of the most accomplished scholars of monetary economics.  Subsequently he served as Chief Economist of the World Bank, number two at the International Monetary Fund, and most recently Governor of the central bank of Israel.   He was a star performer in each of these positions.   I thought in 2000 he should have been made Managing Director of the IMF.  

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The Latest on the Dollar’s International Currency Status

 

      Most people know that the general trend in the dollar’s role as an international currency has been slowly downward since 1976.   International use of the dollar as a currency in which to hold foreign exchange reserves, to denominate financial transactions, to invoice trade, and to serve as a vehicle for foreign exchange transactions is below where it was during the heyday of the Bretton Woods era (1945-1971).  But few are aware of what the most recent numbers show.         It is not hard to think of explanations for the downward trend.   Since the time of the Vietnam War, US budget deficits, money creation, and current account deficits have often been high.  Presumably as a result, the dollar has lost value in terms of other major currencies or in terms of purchasing power over goods.   Meanwhile, the US share of global output has declined.  Most recently, the disturbing willingness of some American congressmen in October to pursue a strategy that would have the Treasury default on legal obligations has led some observers to ask the natural question whether the dollar’s international currency status is now imperiled. Moreover some EM currencies are joining the list of international currencies for the first time.  Indeed, some analysts have suggested that the Chinese yuan may rival the dollar as the leading international currency by the end of the decade!  (Eichengreen, 2011; and Subramanian, 2011a, 2011b.)          The trend in the dollar as an international currency has not been uniformly downward, however.  Interestingly, the periods when the public is most concerned about the issue do not coincide well with the periods when the dollar’s share is in fact falling.  By the criteria of international use as a reserve currency among central banks and as vehicle currency in foreign exchange markets, the most rapid declines took place during the intervals 1978-1991 and 2001-2010. (The yen and deutschemark were the rising currencies during the first period, and the euro during the second.)  In between these two intervals, during the years 1992-2000, there was a clear reversal of the trend, notwithstanding a popular orgy of dollar declinism around the middle of that decade.  Central banks held only an estimated 46% of their foreign exchange reserves in the form of dollars in 1992, but had returned to almost 70% by 2000.  Subsequently, the long-term downward trend resumed.  According to one estimate, the share in reserves declined from about 70% in 2001 to barely 60% in 2010 (Menzie Chinn).   During the same decade, the dollar’s share in the foreign exchange market also declined:  The currency constituted one side or the other in 90% of foreign exchange trading in 2001, but only 85% in 2010.       The most recent statistics unexpectedly suggest that the dollar’s standing has again taken apause from its long-term decline.  The International Monetary Fund reports that its share in foreign exchange reserves stopped declining in 2010 and has been flat since then.  If anything, the share is up very slightly thus far in 2013 (COFER, IMF, Sept. 30, 2013).   Similarly, the Bank for International Settlements reported in its recent triennial surveythat the dollar’s share in the world’s foreign exchange markets rose from 85% in 2010 to 87% in 2013 (preliminary global results). That the dollar has been holding up so well comes as a surprise, in light of dysfunctional US fiscal policy.   Or maybe we should no longer be surprised.  After all, when the global financial crisis erupted out of the American sub-prime mortgage mess in 2008, the reaction of global investors was to flee into the United States, not out.  They clearly still regard the US Treasury bill market as the safe haven and the dollar as the top international currency.  The explanation must be the one that is so often noted: the absence of good alternatives.  In particular, the euro has its own all-to-obvious problems.  Indeed the euro’s share of reserve holdings and its share of foreign exchange transactions have  both fallen by several percentage points over the last three years (reserves from 28% of allocated reserves in 2009 and 26% in 2010, to 24% in the most recent 2013 figures; forex trading from 39% of transactions in 2010 to 33% in 2013).        What about the vaunted yuan?  According to the IMF statistics, it hasn’t yet broken into the ranks of the top seven currencies in terms of central bank reserve holdings.  The top six are the US dollar and euro, followed by the yen and pound (the latter quietly reclaimed the number three position in 2006 and has been running neck-and-neck with the yen recently), and the Canadian dollar and Australian dollar (also running neck-and-neck). According to the BIS statistics, China’s currency has finally broken into the top ten in forex trading; but its share is only 2.2% of transactions. This is behind the Mexican peso at 2.5%, and still farther behind the Canadian dollar, Australian dollar and Swiss franc.  (See Table 1 and Figures 2 & 3).   Since 2.2% is much less than China’s share of world trade, it would be more accurate to say that the renminbi is becoming a normal currency than to say that it is becoming an international currency, let alone the top international currency.Despite recent moves by the Chinese government, the yuan  still has a long way to go.  Of the three kinds of attributes that a currency needs to become widely used internationally the yuan  has two – size of the home economy and the ability to hold its value – but still lacks the third:  deep, liquid, open financial markets.        What might account for the recent stabilization of the dollar’s status?  What do the last three years have in common with the preceding period of temporary reversal, 1992-2000?   Both intervals saw striking improvements in the US budget deficit, both structural and overall.   The federal deficit is now less than half what it was in 2009 or 2010; and the record deficits of the 1980s were converted into record surpluses by the end of the 1990s. Perhaps the fiscal observation is a coincidence.   It would be foolish to read too much into two historical data points.  It would be even more foolish to believe, just because American politicians have failed to dislodge the US dollar from its number one status over the last forty years, that they could not accomplish the job with another few decades of effort.  Pound sterling had the top spot in the nineteenth century, only to be surpassed by the dollar in the first half of the twentieth century. It is not an eternal law of nature that the US currency shall always be number one.   The day may come when the dollar too succumbs in its turn.  But that day is not this day.    

 

 

Figure 1: The share of the dollar in central banks’ foreign exchange reserves stopped its downward trend in 2010-2013

Reserves

source: Menzie Chinn (2013), based on IMF’s COFER.

 
 
 

 

Table 1: The share of the dollar in global foreign exchange trading reversed its downward trend in 2010-2013

 

Table 1

 

Source: Bank of International Settlements’ Triennial Central Bank Survey, Sept.2013.

 

Figures 2 and 3: The share of China’s yuan in foreign exchange trading is rising, but still ranks behind many other currencies

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The Ibrahim Prize for Excellence among African Leaders

     On October 14, the Mo Ibrahim Prize Committee announced, for the second year in a row, that it had not found anyone to whom to award its Prize for Achievement in African Leadership.

The Prize is given to a recently-retired Executive Head of State or Government in Africa who satisfies the criteria of having been democratically elected, having left at the end of his or her constitutionally mandated term, and having demonstrated exceptional leadership.  The winner receives $5 million paid over ten years, followed by $200,000 annually for life, which makes it the world’s most valuable annually awarded prize

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Will Financial Markets Crash Before October 17, or After?

October 4 is the first Friday of the month, the day when the Bureau of Labor Statistics routinely reports the jobs numbers for the preceding month.   Is the havoc created by our current political deadlock over fiscal policy showing up as job losses?   We have no way of knowing.  On October 1 the BLS closed for business, like many other “non-essential” parts of the government.  There will be no more employment numbers until the shutdown ends.

Last week, Wall Street economic analysts responded to the usual surveys as to what they thought the upcoming employment numbers would be.   (These surveys are what the media refers to each month when they tell you that employment rose or fell “more than economists expected.”)    The median forecast in last week’s  Bloomberg survey, for example, was a prediction that the BLS would report that “Payrolls increased by 175,000,” the biggest gain in four months.   But there was no word on how many of the respondents recognized that there would in fact probably be no number at all on October 4, because the Labor Department would have been closed by the government shutdown.

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Japan’s Consumption Tax: Take it Slow and Steady

Japan’s consumption tax rate is scheduled to increase substantially in April (from 5% to 8%).  The motive is to address the long-term problem of very high debt.  (Takatoshi Ito has stated the case in favor of the tax increase.)  Prime Minister Shinzō Abe has apparently decided to go ahead with it.   Many observers, however, are worried that the loss in purchasing power resulting from the sharp increase in the sales tax rate will send the Japanese economy back into recession.

It is very reminiscent of April 1997.   I remember Larry Summers, who was then Undersecretary of the US Treasury, repeatedly warning the Japanese government that if it went ahead with the consumption tax hike that was scheduled for that date, Japan’s economy would go back into recession.  I was in the US government then too.  As the date drew near, I asked Summers why he persisted in offering Tokyo this unwanted advice, given that the prime minister of the day was clearly locked into the policy politically.    Summers told me that he knew he was unlikely to change their minds, but that he wanted to be sure the Japanese would realize their mistake when they went ahead with the tax increase and his prediction subsequently came true – as it did.

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Protectionist Clouds Darken Sunny Forecast for Solar Power

 
On July 27 negotiators reached a compromise settlement in the world’s largest anti-dumping dispute, regarding Chinese exports of solar panels to the European Union.   China agreed to constrain its exports to a minimum price and a maximum quantity.   The solution is restrictive relative to the six-year trend of rapidly rising Chinese market share (which had reached 80% in Europe), and plummeting prices.  But it is less severe than what had been the imminent alternative:  EU tariffs on Chinese solar panels had been set to rise sharply on August 6, to 47.6%, as the result of a “finding” by the EU Trade Commissioner that China had been “dumping.”   The threat of likely retaliation by China helped persuade the Europeans to back off from their determination to impose such high protective walls around their own solar panel industry. 

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Recent Jobs & Growth Numbers: Good or Bad?

This morning’s US employment report shows that July was the 34th consecutive month of job increases.   Earlier in the week, the Commerce Department report showed that the 2nd quarter was the 16th consecutive quarter of positive GDP growth.   Of course, the growth rates in employment and income have not been anywhere near as strong as we would like, nor as strong as they could be if we had a more intelligent fiscal policy in Washington.  But the US economy is doing much better than what most other industrialized countries have been experiencing.   Many European countries haven’t even recovered from the Great Recession, with GDPs currently still below their peaks of six years ago.

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One Recession or Many? Double-Dip Downturns in Europe

 
The recent release of a revised set of GDP statistics by Britain’s Office for National Statistics showed that growth had not quite, as previously thought, been negative for two consecutive quarters in the winter of 2011-12.  The point, as it was reported, was that a UK recession (a second dip after the Great Recession of 2008-09) was now erased from the history books — and that the Conservative government would take a bit of satisfaction from this fact.    But it should not.    

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