Fed Up: Culture Shock

By Danielle DiMartino Booth

“If it were possible to take interest rates into negative territory, I would be voting for that.”

— Janet Yellen, February 2010

Photo Credit: Howie Le

As her fame has grown, Janet Yellen is recognized in restaurants and airports around the world. But her world has narrowed. Because the Fed chairman can so easily move markets with a few casual words, Yellen can’t get together regularly and shoot the breeze with businesspeople or analysts who follow the Fed for a living. She must rely on her instincts, her Keynesian training, and the MIT Mafia.

“You can’t think about what is happening in the economy constructively, from a policy standpoint, unless you have some theoretical paradigm in mind,” Yellen had told Lemann of the New Yorker in 2014.

One of Lemann’s final observations: “The Fed, not the Treasury or the White House or Congress, is now the primary economic policymaker in the United States, and therefore the world.”

But what if Yellen’s theoretical paradigm is dead wrong?

The woman who “did not see and did not appreciate what the risks were with securitization, the credit rating agencies, the shadow banking system, the SIVs . . . until it happened” has led us straight into an abyss.

It’s time to climb out. The Federal Reserve’s leadership must come to grips with its role in creating the extraordinary circumstances in which it now finds itself. It must embrace reforms to regain its credibility.

Even Fedwire finally admitted in August 2016 that the Federal Reserve had lost its mojo, with a story headlined “Years of Fed Missteps Fueled Disillusion with the Economy and Washington.” In an effort to explain rising extremism in American politics in a series called “The Great Unraveling,” Jon Hilsenrath described a Fed confronting “hardened public skepticism and growing self- doubt.”

Mistakes by the Fed included missing the housing bubble and financial crisis, being “blinded” to the slowdown in the growth of worker productivity, and failing to anticipate how inflation behaved in regard to the job market. The Fed’s economic projections of GDP and how fast the economy would grow were wrong time and again.

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Slapped in the Face by the Invisible Hand

By Danielle DiMartino Booth

Slapped, Danielle Dimartino Booth, Fed Up: An Insider's Guide to why the Federal Reserve is Bad for AmericaFor those of you who subscribe to the Wall Street Journal, please link on to today’s story on the book: A teaser in the form of a quote from Richard Fisher who the Journal interviewed for the article. “The book’s greatest value is in describing ‘the hubris of Ph.D. economists who’ve never worked on the Street or in the City, as well as flagging the protected culture of Fed officials in Washington. Many central bankers are, ‘not going to like the book.”

Former Fed Staffer Says Central Bank Is Under the Thumb of Academics, Wall Street Journal

Not that Mr. Fisher asked for an answer. But to those who ‘don’t like it,’ I say, “So be it.” With that, please enjoy an excerpt from Fed Up, Chapter 11: Slapped in the Face by the Invisible Hand.


You want to put out the fire first and then worry about the fire code.”  — Ben Bernanke, December 1, 2008

Among the economists at the Dallas Fed, Bernanke’s optimism prevailed. The Bear Stearns rescue was the punctuation mark that ended the paragraph. Bernanke would trim the sails to right the foundering ship.

I disagreed. The demise of the Bear was a flashing red light that shouted “danger.” My colleagues rolled their eyes.

Rosenblum treated me with a new respect. The chain of events was playing out as I had predicted. He and I began collaborating on a paper on moral hazard. It would make Rosenblum no fans at the Board of Governors.

The bailout both relieved and alarmed the financial press.

The Economist wrote that the Fed was “taking the unprecedented (and, some say, disturbing) step of financing up to $30 billion of Bear’s weakest assets. This could cost the central bank several billion dollars if those assets fall in value.”

The fear of the unknown prompted the Fed, for the first time ever, to extend lending at its discount window to all bond dealers.

Under previous rules, only institutions offering depository insurance or under strict regulatory oversight were allowed to use the discount window, paying a penalty fee for the privilege. Now any distressed investment bank, broker, or commercial bank was allowed to come, hat in hand, to use the window.

The Economist expressed skepticism at this development, saying that fear persisted because the “new Fed window is untested and the very act of drawing on it could rattle markets.” No bank wanted to be perceived as the next sick buffalo.

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The Yield Curve is Critical of Fed Credibility

By Michael Ashton

If your forecasts are frequently wrong, it is important to shut up and stop trying to move markets where you want them with “open mouth” operations

I was planning to write an article about the shape of the yield curve. Since the Global Financial Crisis, the Treasury curve has been very steep – in early 2010 the 2y/10y spread reached almost 300bps, which is not only unprecedented in absolute terms but especially in relative terms: a 300bp spread when 2-year yields are below 1% is much more significant than a 300bp spread when 2-year yields are at 10%.

2s10s

But what I had planned to write about was the phenomenon – well-known when I was a cub interest-rate strategist – that the yield curve steepens in rallies and flattens in selloffs. The chart below shows this tendency. The 5-year yield is on the left axis and inverted high-to-low. The 2y/10y spread is on the right axis. Note that there is substantial co-movement for the recession of the early 1990s, throughout the ensuing expansion (albeit with a general drift to lower yields), in the recession of the early 2000s, the ensuing expansion, and the lead-up to the GFC.

and5yyields

I was ready to point out that the steepening and flattening trends tend to be steady, and I was going to illustrate that they feed on themselves partly for this technical reason: that when the curve is steep, steepening trades (selling 10-year notes and buying duration-weighted 2-year notes, financing both in repo) tend to be positive carry and therefore easier to maintain, while on the other hand when the curve is flat the opposite tends to be true. So the actual causality of the relationship between steepening and rallies is more complex than it seems at first blush.

It would have made a very good article, but then I noticed that since 2010 or so the tendency has in fact reversed!

Specifically, from 1987-1995 the correlation of the level of the 5-year spread to the level of the 2s/10s spread was -0.78. From 1995-1999, the correlation flipped to +0.48 (but I didn’t bother to de-trend the data and I suspect that correlation stems more from the strong, 350bp decline in interest rates from 1995-1999). From 1999-2009, the correlation was -0.81. Since 2010, the correlation is +0.60: the curve has tended to flatten in rallies and steepen in selloffs. And, in the recent bond market selloff, the curve steepened as long rates rose further than short rates.

This is interesting. Clearly, carry dynamics cannot explain why the relationship is inverted. I think the answer, though, is this: since 2010, the overnight has been anchored. That isn’t different than in the past – from late 1992 to early 1994, the Fed funds target was anchored at 3%. But the difference is that back then, traders acted as if the Fed might eventually move the overnight rate in a meaningful way. Since 2010, investors and traders have attributed no credibility to the Fed, with virtually no chance of a substantial move over a short period of time. Accordingly, while short interest rates historically have tended to be the tail wagging the dog, while longer-term interest rates move around less as investors assume the Fed will remain ahead of the curve and keep longer-term inflation and interest rates in a reasonable range…in the current case, short term rates don’t move while longer-term rates reflect the market belief that rates will eventually reach an equilibrium but over a much longer period than 2 years as the Federal Reserve is dragged kicking and screaming.

I happen to agree, but it isn’t a great sign. I suppose it was destined, in a way – “open mouth” operations can only work in the long run if the Fed is credible, and the Fed can only be credible in the long run if it delivers on its promises. But it hasn’t. This is probably because the Fed’s forecast have been worse than abysmal, meaning its promises were based on bad forecasts. In such a case, changing one’s mind when the data changes is the right thing to do. But even more important, if your forecasts are frequently wrong, is to shut up and stop trying to move markets where you want them with “open mouth” operations. I have said it for 20 years: the worst thing Greenspan ever did was to make “transparency” a goal of the Fed. They’re just not good enough at what they do to make their activities transparent…at least, if they want to maintain credibility.

Administrative Note: On Monday I will be conducting the third and final in a series of webinars on inflation and inflation investing. This series will be done on the Shindig platform, sponsored by Enduring Investments, in cooperation with Investing.com. This webinar is on “Inflation-Aware Investing.” You can sign up directly with Shindig here, or find the webinar link at Investing.com.

Fischer Says Fed Needs Help Regarding Low-Rate Risks

By Chris Ciovacco

What Message Was Embedded In Fischer’s Entire Speech?

Human beings tend to look for data that supports their personal bias. This concept applies to interpreting information coming from the Federal Reserve. It would be easy to find portions of Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer’s remarks that support the case for raising rates as well as the case for holding rates steady for the remainder of 2016.

Fischer Says Low Rates Are Concerning

In Monday’s speech, Fischer enumerated concerns that are tied to an extended period of near-zero interest rates:

There are at least three reasons why we should be concerned about such low interest rates. First, and most worrying, is the possibility that low long-term interest rates are a signal that the economy’s long-run growth prospects are dim.

A second concern is that low interest rates make the economy more vulnerable to adverse shocks that can put it in a recession.

And the third concern is that low interest rates may also threaten financial stability as some investors reach for yield and compressed net interest margins make it harder for some financial institutions to build up capital buffers.

Does It Imply The Fed Needs To Hike Rates?

If the Fed Vice Chair comes out and says there are serious concerns about having low interest rates for an extended period of time, then it is logical to imply the Fed’s Vice Chair is in favor of hiking rates in December. However, the text of Fischer’s speech makes it clear that it is not that easy:

Now, I am sure that the reaction of many of you may be, “Well, if you and your Fed colleagues dislike low interest rates, why not just go ahead and raise them? You are the Federal Reserve, after all.” One of my goals today is to convince you that it is not that simple, and that changes in factors over which the Federal Reserve has little influence–such as technological innovation and demographics–are important factors contributing to both short- and long-term interest rates being so low at present.

Some Areas Are Outside Of The Fed’s Control

If Fischer believes successfully pushing interest rates higher is not as “simple” as the Fed hiking rates, what areas did he focus on during Monday’s speech? Excerpts from his prepared remarks provide some insight:

What might contribute to raising longer-run equilibrium interest rates?

  1. An improvement in animal spirits
  2. Expansionary fiscal policy (examples: boost government spending by 1 percent of GDP or cuts taxes by a similar amount.)

In summary, a variety of factors have been holding down interest rates and may continue to do so for some time. But economic policy can help offset the forces driving down longer-run equilibrium interest rates. Some of these policies may also help boost the economy’s growth potential.

Fed Desperately Wants Higher Rates

With rates near zero, central bankers are probably not sleeping very well given the limited ammunition they have to fight the next recession. The Fed wants to raise rates to put some bullets back in their chamber, but they don’t want to push the economy into a recession via an ill-timed rate hike. Based partly on the fear of hiking too soon, Janet Yellen’s remarks last Friday contained an easy to discern dovish tone. Fischer’s speech basically asked for fiscal help from Congress, something that has been absent for quite some time.

Stock Market Maintains Indecisive Stance

An October 12 article contained four charts outlining some key areas for the stock market. An updated version of one of the charts is shown below. Early in Tuesday’s session, the S&P 500 remained above several “we will learn something either way” levels.

Passive Investors Unite: We Blind Mice

By Daniel DiMartino Booth

Passive Investors Unite: We Blind Mice

Throughout man’s bloody history of conflict, time and again it is the hand defending the faith that lights a fuse. Is this because, by its very nature, faith is blind and can only promise abundant spiritual rewards for the here and now, while saving its true rewards to bestow in the afterlife? Does it take the strength of a warrior to defend and die for it? Name a faith and you are sure to encounter a struggle.

The Protestant Reformation certainly had its fair share of strife. In 1517, Martin Luther, angered by the selling of indulgences, pounded his 95 theses on a chapel door. Aided by the advent of the printing press, he began spreading the word and paving the path to Protestantism. He could never have guessed that less than a century later, the defense of his faith would spawn ghastly nursery rhymes that were anything but spiritual.

One of those rhymes is the well-known, but perhaps not deeply pondered, Three Blind Mice of so many a nursery setting. Before Queen ‘Bloody’ Mary I inspired that spicy drink with a side of celery to be concocted in her gory memory, she stirred 17th century nannies to seemingly innocent singalongs. Written in 1609, the mice are said to represent three loyalist Protestant noblemen or bishops, depending on history’s recollection, who dared to question the Papist queen’s mental state and thus attempt her overthrow. The farmer’s wife in the nursery rhyme was of course the queen who with her husband, King Philip of Spain, owned many large arable estates. Being less than amused by the Protestant’s fervor, the farmer’s wife chose for their demise not a knife, but a burning stake. From whence, we must ask, does blindness enter the unseen picture? Historians suggest the author to have been a crypto-Catholic alluding to the inherent blindness of Protestantism’s proselytes. Clever indeed.

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The QE Premium

By Michael Lebowitz, CFA

Equity valuations are grossly dislocated from supporting fundamental data

It has been eight years since the great financial crisis of 2008, and the Federal Reserve (Fed) is still maintaining an unprecedented level of accommodation in monetary policy. The Federal Funds rate has been pinned at or near zero since 2008. Recent discussions on raising the rate a mere quarter of a percent are met with a palpable level of angst and incredulity by economists and investors alike. Since the crisis, the Fed quadrupled their balance sheet using printed money to buy U.S. Treasury and mortgage securities. The economic results, supposedly the justification for these aggressive actions, have mostly been disappointing. That said, one can credit Fed policy actions for driving financial asset valuations to historic levels.

Over the last eight years investors have adopted a mindset that Fed intervention is good for asset prices, despite clear evidence that it has contributed little to the fundamental rationale for owning such assets.  Fixed income yields are at or near record lows and stock indices trade at valuations that have only been eclipsed twice in history, just prior to the great depression (1929) and at the height of the technology bubble (2000). High end real-estate and various collectables trade at unparalleled levels. The eye-popping valuations on these less liquid assets further confirm how impactful Fed policy has been on asset prices.

We have written numerous articles highlighting rich valuations and the infectious behavior that can compel investors to make investment decisions that they would not otherwise make.  In this article we employ a cash flow model to quantify the potential ramifications on the equity market. The goal is to provide investors with a simple tool to calculate total return outcomes that could occur if investors were to lose confidence in the Fed and as a result stretched market valuation premiums built up since 2008 diminish or vanish altogether.

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