Fed Outgunned, EMU Outflanked

By Claus Vistesen

As I read the latest round-up of comments by Fed officials that they are certainly not ruling out another round of asset purchases I am wondering whether this signals another round of actual quantitative easing by the Fed or whether investors should change their mindset back to before the crisis where it wasn’t the USD that acted as the global carry trade funder but rather the JPY (or maybe the GBP here?).

Quote Bloomberg

Fed Vice Chairman Janet Yellen said yesterday that a third round of large-scale asset purchases “might become appropriate if evolving economic conditions called for significantly greater monetary accommodation.” A day before, Governor Daniel Tarullo said buying mortgage-backed securities “should move back up toward the top of the list of options.”

They join Charles Evans, president of the Chicago Fed, and Boston’s Eric Rosengren in calling for consideration of further stimulus to boost growth and bring down a jobless rate stuck around 9 percent or higher for 30 months. A stock-market rally and gains in manufacturing and retail sales may convince the Federal Open Market Committee, which meets Nov. 1-2, to decide that it’s too soon for a third round of bond purchases.

You see, the recent initiative of the Fed in the form of Operation Twist is not quantitative easing since it does not involve an expansion of the balance sheet. Instead, it is what we refer to as qualitative easing as the bonds the Fed intends to buy on the long end (to move long rates down to help the mortgage market) will be paid for by proceeds of selling bonds on the short end.

The biggest problem for the Fed here is not necessarily that Operation Twist is a bad idea. Indeed, to the extent that it fixes the effort squarely on halting the slide in the housing market and supporting volume and price in the primary and second market for mortgage securities I think it is an excellent idea.

But we are forgetting the auxiliary objective of QE by the Fed; to weaken the USD. Make no mistake that this is an important objective for the Fed even if they have never declared this formally. And herein lies the rub.  Quite simply, with the recent announcement by the BOE of another round of QE worth £75 billion, with the ECB now willingly or unwillingly being forced into increased support of peripheral debt markets and with the BOJ also pledging more stimulus, the Fed is starting to look like the conservative central bank in the G4. [1].

In my opinion, this is very significant and also one of the reasons why Fed officials are busy ensuring markets that they have plenty of ammunition left should economic conditions merit it. But investors should not take anything at face value I think. Before the Fed actually starts to buy those MBS and/or moves to lower interest rates on excess reserves there is a real chance that especially the JPY will start to act more like the JPY of old, a.k.a global carry trade anchor of choice. Of course, this requires the BOJ to back up all the pledges with real action. For now though, the only thing we can say is that the Fed looks set to be outgunned by its peers in the G4.

EMU Outflanked

Is Europe now finally getting down to serious business or is it just another round of fudge from the fudge factory that investors have learned to respect for its ability to produce relief rallies out of nothing. Looking at the evidence I thoroughly inclined to go for the latter even if each failed attempt to shore up market confidence brings Europe closer to full fiscal union.

Even if Merkel and Sarkozy, and rightly so, appear most concerned with putting pressure on Italy, the most significant issue remains Greece which is now in default a fact that was un-sanctimoniously confirmed by the leaked bailout document which has the Troika admitting that the medicine they were mandated to administer would only make the patient worse and not better.

Quote FT

Greece’s economy has deteriorated so severely in the last three months that international lenders would have to find €252bn in bail-out loans through the end of the decade unless Greek bondholders are forced to accept severe cuts in their debt repayments.The dire analysis, contained in a “strictly confidential” report by international lenders and obtained by the Financial Times, is more than double the €109bn in European Union and International Monetary Fund aid agreed just three months ago.

The most recent estimate of haircut has now risen to 60% and this, mind you, would only reduce the debt to GDP to 110% and this without any consideration on how Greece is supposed to grow itself out of this level of debt while simultaneously dealing with the default. In addition and only adding to my disdain for the ECB, Reuters reports that the central bank opposed a 60% haircut on account that it  the private sector would refuse likely refuse this leading to a "full-scale" Greek default.

I am continuingly amazed by the denial here. Ever since the first Private Sector Proposal (PSI) was put on the table, Greek has been in default and figuring out who would pay for recapitalising banks as a function of how large the final haircut ends up are merely steps in the actual default process.

The second issue on the table is what to do with the increasingly freakishly looking EFSF. There has been no shortage of suggestions on how to increase the scope of the fund using the same guarantee by the same countries for the same amount of money (currently €440 in effective capital). The suggestion that might actually work came from France which has aired the suggestion that the EFSF be turned into a bank which would then allow it to access liquidity from the ECB. Both Germany and the ECB however have vehemently denied this which indicates that there is still notable reluctance to allow the ECB to wield the full arsenal of quantitative easing.

The proposal which currently seems to have most traction is to turn the EFSF into a monoline insurer which would essentially use its capital to insure anything from 10% to 30% on any new issuance of sovereign debt by Italy and Spain. Crucially, the idea is that this "leverage" would bring calm to markets as this insurance could cover as much as 2 trillion worth of debt.

I really struggle to find adequate words here. I think this is madness and if any Eurozone politician were afraid that an equivalent of AIG would certainly enter the scene, they now seem content on creating one. The first and most widely flagged issue is this would obviously create a two tier bond market.

Quote Reuters

This would create a division between insured and non-insured debt, that could split a country’s investor base and suck liquidity out of the market unless new bonds were carefully constructed to allow them to trade on a par with existing debt."The issuer would have to create a new curve of insured debt, limiting the liquidity in both curves with risks that investors would dump the old non-insured bonds," said Commerzbank rate strategist Christoph Rieger.

Based on a 20 percent insurance model, JPMorgan estimates that insured bonds issued by Italy would trade at a yield around 100 basis points below existing debt with new, insured Spanish debt likely to be priced 80 bps lower than existing bonds.

I think this is significant, but we are missing the main point here. If this is set up, Spain and Italy will likely never be able to issue un-insured debt again and the contingent liability here is not only complex but will lock in future capital commitments to this aim of providing first loss insurance. For me, this is a horrible way to spend already scarce capital.

Another issue is obviously that it assumes that it will make the Spanish and Italian problem go away which it clearly won’t. However, much more fundamentally; while the idea is to ring fence Italy and Spain it almost guarantees painful haircuts in the case of Ireland, Portugal and Greece and once again, who will pay for those I might ask.

The only silver lining I have seen in the latest reports is that it seems to me that while the imminent objective is to fiddle with the EFSF, there has also been serious talk about bringing forward the ESM which would have a much stronger mandate and essentially constitute a first step towards socialising of sovereign risk in the euro zone. Until that happens, the EMU and her politicians will be continuously outflanked by economic realities.

[1] – I repeat that with the ECB not formally in ZIRP mode, the Fed still has the yield disadvantage here but do we really expect the ECB not to lower going forward?

  1. David Lazarus says

    I am concerned that Operation Twist could prove to be a mistake. If it shortens the average term of US debt then it makes it much more vulnerable to a refinancing crisis such as the one that is hurting the euro periphery.

  2. Bernd says

    It looks more and more like this will be solved via default, in whatever form (at the very least for Greece), and correspondent bank bailouts. I would very much like to get your opinion on Buiters solution for these difficulties: https://voxeu.org/index.php?q=node/3264 , based on a paper by Robert E. Hall&Susan Woodward ( https://www.voxeu.org/index.php?q=node/3132 ).
    Why aren´t these sensible solutions?

  3. Claus Vistesen says


    Thanks for the comments.

    Why would OT shorten the average maturity of US federal debt. Are we not exchanging short term debt for long debt here? Obviously though, the Fed is pushing short term debt into the secondary market. I am unclear about the implications for average maturity of the Federal Debt.

    I will have a look Bernd. In principle though I think this is right.

    ” (…) It argues that too-big-too-fail bank should immediately be taken into public ownership and restructured decisively through a mandatory debt-to-equity conversion or debt write-down. The Fed and Treasury have been captured by save-unsecured-creditors reasoning pushed by special interest groups.”

    I think this is definitely the way we are moving in Europe one way or the other. Richard Koo from Nomura recently noted the idea of capital injection “with no strings attached” which is a similar idea.


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