by Christopher Joye
With US employment growth again surprising forecasters and the jobless rate declining to a boom-time 4.7 per cent, below "full-employment", the question is whether central banks, and the Federal Reserve in particular, are "behind the curve".
In research this week Goldman Sachs assessed this using a framework previously advocated by Fed chair Janet Yellen. Goldman found "the Fed's current policy stance is about 1 percentage point easier than prescribed by a Taylor rule that uses a depressed neutral rate" and about 3 percentage points easier when adopting a more normal neutral cash rate of about 4 per cent. The latter assumption "implies that the current policy stance represents the largest dovish policy deviation since the 1970s", which coincided with an inflation break-out.
"The implication that current policy is somewhat 'too easy' is consistent with the fact the [US] financial conditions index remains easier than average and is still delivering a positive growth impulse at a time when the Fed is trying to impose deceleration," Goldmans said.
The investment bank warns "history counsels caution about falling behind" with the experience of the mid 1960s suggesting that inflation increases much more quickly at very low unemployment rates. Back then, years of benign inflation gave way to a sudden spike as the Fed wilted under political pressure not to aggressively tighten rates. A mistake was cutting rates after the Fed's initial rate hikes "led to a sharp downturn in the housing market in 1966".
Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen: The third rate hike since the 2007-2009 recession was well telegraphed. Andrew Harnik
Could history repeat itself? Much hinges on policymakers' humility. Central bankers are not fond of acknowledging errors, often rationalising ex post facto via the meme that "this time is different", which can be exacerbated by the desire to propagate an image of infallibility. Remember the once-lionised monetary maven Alan Greenspan?
These risks have certainly spooked interest rate investors, although the adjustment process has a way to run. After the second biggest fall in fixed-rate (as opposed to floating-rate) bond prices in modern history in the December quarter, the spectre of a Fed hike in March - duly delivered this week - has lifted long-term rates further.
Will RBA ever lift again?
In Australia the 10-year government bond yield is nearing 3 per cent, significantly higher than the sub-2 per cent level traders—gripped by "cheap money forever" fever—priced in September 2016. Current 10-year yields are, however, still miles below the 5.5 per cent average since the Reserve Bank of Australia started targeting inflation in 1993.
Some of the best interest rate traders I know, almost all of whom have never experienced a proper inflation cycle, genuinely believe the RBA "will never hike again".
The problem with a supercilious central bank is the ensuing risk insouciance increases the probability of mistakes. A classic example was a speech given by the RBA's new head of financial stability this week.
According to this revisionist narrative the global financial crisis (GFC) "hasn't fundamentally changed the way we think about financial system stability". The RBA is evidently so sensitive to allegations it has failed to heed the lessons of the GFC—by blowing the mother of all bubbles with excessively cheap money—that it felt compelled to repeat the mantra the crisis had not altered its approach on five separate occasions in the speech. There are demonstrable flaws in this fiction.
First, the RBA never came close to anticipating the GFC. Its financial stability guru, Luci Ellis, published a paper in 2006 arguing"the most important lesson to draw from recent international experience is that a run-up in housing prices and debt need not be dangerous for the macroeconomy, was probably inevitable, and might even be desirable".
Ellis maintained that "the experience of Australia and the UK seems to suggest booms in housing price growth can subside without themselves bringing about a macroeconomic downturn". Two years later the 33 per cent drop in US house prices would trigger the deepest global recession since the great depression.
Second, the GFC necessitated a raft of policy responses that had never been seriously contemplated before, which have transformed the way we think about dealing with shocks and the unanticipated consequences. Contrary to the recommendations of the 1997 financial system inquiry, the Commonwealth guaranteed bank deposits and bank bonds for the first time. The RBA agreed to buy securitised mortgage-backed portfolios via its liquidity facilities, which it had never done, and Treasury independently acquired $16 billion of these loans in the first case of local "quantitative easing".
Banks borrowed more money on longer terms from the RBA than anyone previously envisioned, which led the RBA to create a new bail-out program called the committed liquidity facility. In emergencies banks can now tap over $200 billion of cash instantly at a cost of just 1.9 per cent that makes trading while insolvent an impossibility.
A central tenet of pre-GFC regulation--attributable to the 1997 Wallis Inquiry—was that taxpayers should never guarantee any private firm for fear of inducing "moral hazard". This is the "heads bankers win, tails taxpayers lose" dysfunction that emerges when governments insure downside risk. The RBA has since conceded that the crisis bail-outs unleashed unprecedented moral hazards, such as too-big-to-fail institutions, that require new mitigants.
The Australian Prudential Regulation Authority used to allow the major banks to leverage their equity 65 times when lending against housing because these assets were presumed to be nearly risk-free. Since the 2014 financial system inquiry APRA has been persuaded to deleverage the major banks' home loan books to merely (!) 40 times.
In 2013 the RBA was publicly dismissive of foreign regulators' efforts to contain credit growth via so-called macroprudential interventions to cool hot housing markets. One and a half years later APRA belatedly sought to cauterise the housing boom the RBA's 2012 and 2013 rate cuts precipitated with light-touch macroprudential jaw-boning.
Of course in 2017 the RBA has a different version of events. Apparently it has always seen "macroprudential policy as part and parcel of the financial stability framework". It turns out that "in 2014 the Australian regulators [presciently!] took the [rear-]view that risks were building in the residential housing market that warranted attention".
Actually, none of APRA's December 2014 announcements had any impact until well into 2015 (two years after the boom started) and they proved to be woefully inadequate. This column revealed, for example, that many banks had completely ignored APRA's minimum serviceability tests on home loans.
Good risk management requires intellectual honesty, which is missing in action among those overseeing the "wonder down under".
Read more: http://www.afr.com/personal-finance/the-rba-is-blowing-the-mother-of-all-bubbles-20170316-gv043y?&utm_source=social&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=nc&eid=socialn:twi-14omn0055-optim-nnn:nonpaid-27/06/2014-social_traffic-all-organicpost-nnn-afr-o&campaign_code=nocode&promote_channel=social_twitter#ixzz4bXWSWyAu