At its meeting on 6 May, the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee decided to keep Bank Rate at 0.1%. Due to the significant impact of COVID-19 and the measures put in place to try to contain the virus, the MPC voted unanimously to keep Bank Rate the same.
However, it decided not to launch a new stimulus programme, with the committee voting by a majority of 7-2 for the Bank to continue with the current programme of quantitative easing. This involves the purchase of £200 billion of government and sterling non-financial investment-grade corporate bonds, bringing the total stock of bonds held by the Bank to £645 billion.
The Bank forecast that the crisis will put the economy into its deepest recession in 300 years, with output plunging 30 per cent in the first half of the year.
Monetary policy and MPC
Monetary policy is the tool used by the UK’s central bank to influence how much money is in the economy and how much it costs to borrow. The Bank of England’s main monetary policy tools include setting the Bank Rate and quantitative easing (QE). Bank Rate is the interest rate charged to banks when they borrow money from the BoE. QE is the process of creating money digitally to buy corporate and government bonds.
The BoE’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) sets monetary policy to meet the 2% inflation target. Maintaining a low and stable inflation rate is good for the economy and it is the main monetary policy aim. However, the Bank also has to balance this target with the government’s other economic aims of sustaining growth and employment in the economy.
Actions taken by the MPC
It is challenging to respond to severe economic and financial disruption, with the UK economy looking unusually uncertain. Activity has fallen sharply since the beginning of the year and unemployment has risen markedly. The current rate of inflation, measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI), declined to 1.5% in March and is likely to fall below 1% in the next few months. Household consumption has fallen by around 30% as consumer confidence has declined. Companies’ sales are expected to be around 45% lower than normal and business investment 50% lower.
In the current circumstances, and consistent with the MPC’s remit, monetary policy is aimed at supporting businesses and households through the crisis and limiting any lasting damage to the economy. The Bank has used both main monetary tools to fulfil its mandate and attempt to boost the economy amid the current lockdown. The Bank Rate was reduced to 0.1% in March, the lowest level in the Bank’s 325-year history and the current programme of QE was introduced in March.
What is next?
This extraordinary time has seen the outlook for the all global economies become uncertain. The long-term outcome will depend critically on the evolution of the pandemic, and how governments, households and businesses respond to it. The Bank of England has stated that businesses and households will need to borrow to get through this period and is encouraging banks and building societies to increase their lending. Britain’s banks are warned that if they try to stem losses by restricting lending, they will make the situation worse. The Bank believes that the banks are strong enough to keep lending, which will support the economy and limit losses to themselves.
In the short term, a bleak picture of the UK economy is suggested, with a halving in business investment, a near halving in business sales, a sharp rise in unemployment and households cutting their spending by a third. Despite its forecast that GDP could shrink by 14% for 2020, the Bank of England is forecasting a ‘V’ shaped recovery. In this scenario, the recovery in economic activity, once measures are softened, is predicted to be relatively rapid and inflation rises to around the 2 per cent target. However, this would be after a dip to 0.5% in 2021, before returning to the 2 per cent target the following year.
However, there are some suggestions that the Bank’s forecast for the long-term recovery is too optimistic. Yael Selfin, chief economist at KPMG UK, fears the UK economy could shrink even more sharply than the Bank of England has forecast.
Despite the stark numbers issued by the Bank of England today, additional pressure on the economy is likely. Some social distancing measures are likely to remain in place until we have a vaccine or an effective treatment for the virus, with people also remaining reluctant to socialise and spend. That means recovery is unlikely to start in earnest before sometime next year.
There are also additional factors that could dampen future productivity, such as the impact on supply chains, with ‘just-in-time’ operations potentially being a thing of the past.
There is also the ongoing issue of Brexit. This is a significant downside risk as the probability of a smooth transition to a comprehensive free-trade agreement with the EU in January is relatively small. This will only increase uncertainty for businesses along with the prospect of increased trade frictions next year.
The predictions from the Bank of England are based on many assumptions, one of which is that the economy will only be gradually released from lockdown. Its numbers contain the expectations that consumer and worker behaviour will change significantly, and continue for some time, with forms of voluntary social distancing. On the other hand, Mr Bailey expects the recovery to be much faster than seen with the financial crisis a decade ago. However, again this is based on the assumption that measures put in place from the public health side prevent a second wave of the virus.
It also assumes that the supply-side effects on the economy will be limited in the long run. Many economists disagree, arguing that the ‘scarring effects’ of the lockdown may be substantial. These include lower rates of investment, innovation and start ups and the deskilling effects on labour. They also include the businesses that have gone bankrupt and the dampening effect on consumer and business confidence. Finally, with a large increase in lending to tide firms over the crisis, many will face problems of debt, which will dampen investment.
The Bank of England does recognise these possible scarring effects. Specifically, it warns of the danger of a rise in equilibrium unemployment:
It is possible that the rise in unemployment could prove more persistent than embodied in the scenario, for example if companies are reluctant to hire until they are sure about the robustness of the recovery in demand. It is also possible that any rise in unemployment could lead to an increase in the long‑term equilibrium rate of unemployment. That might happen if the skills of the unemployed do not increase to the same extent as they would if they were working, for example, or even erode over time.
What is certain, however, is that the long-term picture will only become clearer when we start to come out of the crisis. Bailey implied that the Bank is taking a wait-and-see approach for now, waiting on the UK government to shed some light about easing of lockdown measures before taking any further action with regards to QE. The MPC will continue to monitor the situation closely and, consistent with its remit, stands ready to take further action as necessary to support the economy and ensure a sustained return of inflation to the 2% target. Paul Dales, chief UK economist at Capital Economics, suggested that the central bank is signalling that ‘more QE is coming, if not in June, then in August’.
Donald Trump has suggested that the Fed should cut interest rates by 1 percentage point and engage in a further round of quantitative easing. He wants to see monetary policy used to give a substantial boost to US economic growth at a time when inflation is below target. In a pair of tweets just before the meeting of the Fed to decide on interest rates, he said:
China is adding great stimulus to its economy while at the same time keeping interest rates low. Our Federal Reserve has incessantly lifted interest rates, even though inflation is very low, and instituted a very big dose of quantitative tightening. We have the potential to go up like a rocket if we did some lowering of rates, like one point, and some quantitative easing. Yes, we are doing very well at 3.2% GDP, but with our wonderfully low inflation, we could be setting major records &, at the same time, make our National Debt start to look small!
But would this be an appropriate policy? The first issue concerns the independence of the Fed.
It is supposed to take decisions removed from the political arena. This means sticking to its inflation target of 2 per cent over the medium term – the target it has officially had since January 2012. To do this, it adjusts the federal funds interest rate and the magnitude of any bond buying programme (quantitative easing) or bond selling programme (quantitative tightening).
The Fed is supposed to assess the evidence concerning the pressures on inflation (e.g. changes in aggregate demand) and what inflation is likely to be over the medium term in the absence of any changes in monetary policy. If the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) expects inflation to exceed 2 per cent over the medium term, it will probably raise the federal funds rate; if it expects inflation to be below the target it will probably lower the federal funds rate.
In the case of the economy being in recession, and thus probably considerably undershooting the target, it may also engage in quantitative easing (QE). If the economy is growing strongly, it may sell some of its portfolio of bonds and thus engage in quantitative tightening (QT).
Since December 2015 the Fed has been raising interest rates by 0.25 percentage points at a time in a series of steps, so that the federal funds rate stands at between 2.25% and 2.5% (see chart). And since October 2017, it has also been engaged in quantitative tightening. In recent months it has been selling up to $50 billion of assets per month from its holdings of around $4000 billion and so far has reduced them by around £500 billion. It has, however, announced that the programme of QT will end in the second half of 2019.
This does raise the question of whether the FOMC is succumbing to political pressure to cease QT and put interest rate rises on hold. If so, it is going against its remit to base its policy purely on evidence. The Fed, however, maintains that its caution reflects uncertainty about the global economy.
The second issue is whether Trump’s proposed policy is a wise one.
Caution about further rises in interest rates and further QT is very different from the strongly expansionary monetary policy that President Trump proposes. The economy is already growing at 3.2%, which is above the rate of growth in potential output, of around 1.8% to 2.0%. The output gap (the percentage amount that actual GDP exceeds potential GDP) is positive. The IMF forecasts that the gap will be 1.4% in 2019 and 1.3% in 2020 and 2021. This means that the economy is operating at above normal capacity working and this will eventually start to drive up inflation. Any further stimulus will exacerbate the problem of excess demand. And a large stimulus, as proposed by Donald Trump, will cause serious overheating in the medium term, even if it does stimulate growth in the short term.
For these reasons, the Fed resisted calls for a large cut in interest rates and a return to quantitative easing. Instead it chose to keep interest rates on hold at its meeting on 1 May 2019.
But if the Fed had done as Donald Trump would have liked, the economy would probably be growing very strongly at the time of the next US election in November next year. It would be a good example of the start of a political business cycle – something that is rarer nowadays with the independence of central banks.
Growth in the eurozone has slowed. The European Central Bank (ECB) now expects it to be 1.1% this year; in December, it had forecast a rate of 1.7% for 2019. Mario Draghi, president of the ECB, in his press conference, said that ‘the weakening in economic data points to a sizeable moderation in the pace of the economic expansion that will extend into the current year’. Faced with a slowing eurozone economy, the ECB has announced further measures to stimulate economic growth.
First it has indicated that interest rates will not rise until next year at the earliest ‘and in any case for as long as necessary to ensure the continued sustained convergence of inflation to levels that are below, but close to, 2% over the medium term’. The ECB currently expects HIPC inflation to be 1.2% in 2019. It was expected to raise interest rates later this year – probably by the end of the summer. The ECB’s main refinancing interest rate, at which it provides liquidity to banks, has been zero since March 2016, and so there was no scope for lowering it.
Second, although quantitative easing (the asset purchase programme) is coming to an end, there will be no ‘quantitative tightening’. Instead, the ECB will purchase additional assets to replace any assets that mature, thereby leaving the stock of assets held the same. This would continue ‘for an extended period of time past the date when we start raising the key ECB interest rates, and in any case for as long as necessary to maintain favourable liquidity conditions and an ample degree of monetary accommodation’.
Third, the ECB is launching a new series of ‘quarterly targeted longer-term refinancing operations (TLTRO-III), starting in September 2019 and ending in March 2021, each with a maturity of two years’. These are low-interest loans to banks in the eurozone for use for specific lending to businesses and households (other than for mortgages) at below-market rates. Banks will be able to borrow up to 30% of their eligible assets (yet to be fully defined). These, as their acronym suggests, are the third round of such loans. The second round was relatively successful. As the Barron’s article linked below states:
Banks boosted their long-term borrowing from the ECB by 70% over the course of the program, although they did not manage to increase their holdings of business loans until after TLTRO II had finished disbursing funds in March 2017.
Whether these measures will be enough to raise growth rates in the eurozone depends on a range of external factors affecting aggregate demand. Draghi identified three factors which could have a negative effect.
Brexit. The forecasts assume an orderly Brexit in accordance with the withdrawal deal agreed between the European Commission and the UK government. With the House of Commons having rejected this deal twice, even though it has agreed that there should not be a ‘no-deal Brexit’, this might happen as it is the legal default position. This could have a negative effect on the eurozone economy (as well as a significant one on the UK economy). Even an extension of Article 50 could create uncertainty, which would also have a negative effect
Trade wars. If President Trump persists with his protectionist policy, this will have a negative effect on growth in the eurozone and elsewhere.
China. Chinese growth has slowed and this dampens global growth. What is more, China is a major trading partner of the eurozone countries and hence slowing Chinese growth impacts on the eurozone through the international trade multiplier. The ECB has taken this into account, but if Chinese growth slows more than anticipated, this will further push down eurozone growth.
Then there are internal uncertainties in the eurozone, such as the political and economic uncertainty in Italy, which in December 2018 entered a recession (2 quarters of negative economic growth). Its budget deficit is rising and this is creating conflict with the European Commission. Also, there are likely to be growing tensions within Italy as the government raises taxes.
Faced with these and other uncertainties, the measures announced by Mario Draghi may turn out not to be enough. Perhaps in a few months’ there may have to be a further round of quantitative easing.
Investigate the history of quantitative easing and its use by the Fed, the Bank of England and the ECB. What is the current position of the three central banks on ‘quantitative tightening’, whereby central banks sell some of the stock of assets they have purchased during the process of quantitative easing or not replace them when they mature?
What are TLTROs and what use of them has been made by the ECB? Do they involve the creation of new money?
What will determine the success of the proposed TLTRO III scheme?
If the remit of central banks is to keep inflation on target, which in the ECB’s case means below 2% HIPC inflation but close to it over the medium term, why do people talk about central banks using monetary policy to revive a flagging economy?
What is ‘forward guidance’ by central banks and what determines its affect on aggregate demand?
It is impossible to make both precise and accurate forecasts of a country’s rate of economic growth, even a year ahead. And the same goes for other macroeconomic variables, such as the rate of unemployment or the balance of trade. The reason is that there are so many determinants of these variables, such as political decisions or events, which themselves are unpredictable. Economics examines the effects of human interactions – it is a social science, not a natural science. And human behaviour is hard to forecast.
Nevertheless, economists do make forecasts. These are best estimates, taking into account a number of determinants that can be currently measured, such as tax or interest rate changes. These determinants, or ‘leading indicators’, have been found to be related to future outcomes. For example, surveys of consumer and business confidence give a good indication of future consumer expenditure and investment – key components of GDP.
Leading indicators do not have to be directly causal. They could, instead, be a symptom of underlying changes that are themselves likely to affect the economy in the future. For example, changes in stock market prices may reflect changes in confidence or changes in liquidity. It is these changes that are likely to have a direct or indirect causal effect on future output, employment, prices, etc.
Macroeconomic models show the relationships between variables. They show how changes in one variable (e.g. increased investment) affect other variables (e.g. real GDP or productivity). So when an indicator changes, such as a rise in interest rates, economists use these models to estimate the likely effect, assuming other things remain constant (ceteris paribus). The problem is that other things don’t remain constant. The economy is buffeted around by a huge range of events that can affect the outcome of the change in the indicator or the variable(s) it reflects.
Forecasting can never therefore be 100% accurate (except by chance). Nevertheless, by carefully studying leading indicators, economists can get a good idea of the likely course of the economy.
Leading indicators of the US economy
At the start of 2019, several leading indicators are suggesting the US economy is likely to slow and might even go into recession. The following are some of the main examples.
Political events. This is the most obvious leading indicator. If decisions are made that are likely to have an adverse effect on growth, a recession may follow. For example, decisions in the UK Parliament over Brexit will directly impact on UK growth.
As far as the USA is concerned, President Trump’s decision to put tariffs on steel and aluminium imports from a range of countries, including China, the EU and Canada, led these countries to retaliate with tariffs on US imports. A tariff war has a negative effect on growth. It is a negative sum game. Of course, there may be a settlement, with countries agreeing to reduce or eliminate these new tariffs, but the danger is that the trade war may continue long enough to do serious damage to global economic growth.
But just how damaging it is likely to be is impossible to predict. That depends on future political decisions, not just those of the recent past. Will there be a global rise in protectionism or will countries pull back from such a destructive scenario? On 29 December, President Trump tweeted, ‘Just had a long and very good call with President Xi of China. Deal is moving along very well. If made, it will be very comprehensive, covering all subjects, areas and points of dispute. Big progress being made!’ China said that it was willing to work with the USA over reaching a consensus on trade.
Rises in interest rates. If these are in response to a situation of excess demand, they can be seen as a means of bringing inflation down to the target level or of closing a positive output gap, where real national income is above its potential level. They would not signify an impending recession. But many commentators have interpreted rises in interest rates in the USA as being different from this.
The Fed is keen to raise interest rates above the historic low rates that were seen as an ’emergency’ response to the financial crisis of 2007–8. It is also keen to reverse the policy of quantitative easing and has begun what might be described as ‘quantitative tightening’: not buying new bonds when existing ones that it purchased during rounds of QE mature. It refers to this interest rate and money supply policy as ‘policy normalization‘. The Fed maintains that such policy is ‘consistent with sustained expansion of economic activity, strong labor market conditions, and inflation near the Committee’s symmetric 2 percent objective over the medium term’.
However, many commentators, including President Trump, have accused the Fed of going too fast in this process and of excessively dampening the economy. It has already raised the Federal Funds Rate nine times by 0.25 percentage points each time since December 2015 (click here for a PowerPoint file of the chart). What is more, announcing that the policy will continue makes such announcements themselves a leading indicator of future rises in interest rates, which are a leading indicator of subsequent effects on aggregate demand. The Fed has stated that it expects to make two more 0.25 percentage point rises during 2019.
Surveys of consumer and business confidence. These are some of the most significant leading indicators as consumer confidence affects consumer spending and business confidence affects investment. According to the Duke CFO Global Business Outlook, an influential survey of Chief Financial Officers, ‘Nearly half (48.6 per cent) of US CFOs believe that the US will be in recession by the end of 2019, and 82 per cent believe that a recession will have begun by the end of 2020’. Such surveys can become self-fulfilling, as a reported decline in confidence can itself undermine confidence as both firms and consumers ‘catch’ the mood of pessimism.
Stock market volatility. When stock markets exhibit large falls and rises, this is often a symptom of uncertainty; and uncertainty can undermine investment. Stock market volatility can thus be a leading indicator of an impending recession. One indicator of such volatility is the VIX index. This is a measure of ’30-day expected volatility of the US stock market, derived from real-time, mid-quote prices of S&P 500® Index (SPXSM) call and put options. On a global basis, it is one of the most recognized measures of volatility – widely reported by financial media and closely followed by a variety of market participants as a daily market indicator.’ The higher the index, the greater the volatility. Since 2004, it has averaged 18.4; from 17 to 28 December 2018, it averaged 28.8. From 13 to 24 December, the DOW Jones Industrial Average share index fell by 11.4 per cent, only to rise by 6.2 per cent by 27 December. On 26 December, the S&P 500 index rallied 5 per cent, its best gain since March 2009.
Not all cases of market volatility, however, signify an impending recession, but high levels of volatility are one more sign of investor nervousness.
Oil prices. When oil prices fall, this can be explained by changes on the demand and/or supply side of the oil market. Oil prices have fallen significantly over the past two months. Until October 2018, oil prices had been rising, with Brent Crude reaching $86 per barrel by early October. By the end of the year the price had fallen to just over $50 per barrel – a fall of 41 per cent. (Click here for a PowerPoint file of the chart.) Part of the explanation is a rise in supply, with shale oil production increasing and also increased output from Russia and Saudi Arabia, despite a commitment by the two countries to reduce supply. But the main reason is a fall in demand. This reflects both a fall in current demand and in anticipated future demand, with fears of oversupply causing oil companies to run down stocks.
Falling oil prices resulting from falling demand are thus an indicator of lack of confidence in the growth of future demand – a leading indicator of a slowing economy.
The yield curve. This depicts the yields on government debt with different lengths to maturity at a given point in time. Generally, the curve slopes upwards, showing higher rates of return on bonds with longer to maturity. This is illustrated by the blue line in the chart. (Click here for a PowerPoint file of the chart.) This is as you would expect, with people requiring a higher rate of return on long-term lending, where there is normally greater uncertainty. But, as the Bloomberg article, ‘Don’t take your eyes off the yield curve‘ states:
Occasionally, the curve flips, with yields on short-term debt exceeding those on longer bonds. That’s normally a sign investors believe economic growth will slow and interest rates will eventually fall. Research by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco has shown that an inversion has preceded every US recession for the past 60 years.
The US economy is 37 quarters into what may prove to be its longest expansion on record. Analysts surveyed by Bloomberg expect gross domestic product growth to come in at 2.9 percent this year, up from 2.2 percent last year. Wages are rising as unfilled vacancies hover near all-time highs.
With times this good, the biggest betting game on Wall Street is when they’ll go bad. Barclays Plc, Goldman Sachs Group Inc., and other banks are predicting inversion will happen sometime in 2019. The conventional wisdom: Afterward it’s only a matter of time – anywhere from 6 to 24 months – before a recession starts.
As you can see from the chart, the yield curve on 24 December 2018 was still slightly upward sloping (expect between 6-month and 1-year bonds) – but possibly ready to ‘flip’.
However, despite the power of an ‘inverted’ yield in predicting previous recessions, it may be less reliable now. The Fed, as we saw above, has already signalled that it expects to increase short-term rates in 2019, probably at least twice. That alone could make the yield curve flatter or even downward sloping. Nevertheless, it is still generally thought that a downward sloping yield curve would signal belief in a likely slowdown, if not outright recession.
So, is the USA heading for recession?
The trouble with indicators is that they suggest what is likely – not what will definitely happen. Governments and central banks are powerful agents. If they believed that a recession was likely, then fiscal and monetary policy could be adjusted. For example, the Fed could halt its interest rate rises and quantitative tightening, or even reverse them. Also, worries about protectionism may subside if the USA strikes new trade deals with various countries, as it did with Canada and Mexico in USMCA.
Would you start a family if you were pessimistic about the future of the economy? Buckles et al (2017) (see link below) believe that fewer of us would do so and, therefore, fertility rates could be used by investors and central banks as an early signal to pick up subtle changes in consumer confidence and overall economic climate.
Their study titled ‘Fertility is a leading economic indicator’ uses ‘live births’ data, sourced from US birth certificates, to explore if there is any association between fertility changes (measured as the rate of change in number of births) and GDP growth. Their results suggest that, in the case of the USA, there is: dips in fertility rates tend to precede by several quarters slowdown in economic activity. As the authors state:
The growth rate of conceptions declines prior to economic downturns and the decline occurs several quarters before recessions begin. Our measure of conceptions is constructed using live births; we present evidence suggesting that our results are indeed driven by changes in conceptions and not by changes in abortion or miscarriage. Conceptions compare well with or even outperform other economic indicators in anticipating recessions.
Although this is not the first piece of academic writing to claim that fertility has pro-cyclical qualities (see for instance, Adsera (2004, 2011), Adsera and Menendez (2011), Currie and Schwandt (2014) and Chatterjee and Vogle (2016) linked below), it is, to the best of our knowledge, the most recent paper (in terms of data used) to depict this relationship and to explore the suitability of fertility as a macroeconomic indicator to predict recessions.
Economies, after all, are groups of people who participate actively in day-to-day production and consumption activities – as consumers, workers and business leaders. Changes in their environment should affect their expectations about the future.
Are people, however, forward-looking enough to guide their current behaviours by their expectations of future economic outcomes? They may be, according to the findings of this study.
Did you know, for instance, that sales of ties tend to increase in economic downturns, as men buy more ties to show that they are working harder, in fear of losing their job? But this is probably a topic for another blog.