It’s complicated

A James Alexander post

We were rightly excited by John Williams letter from San Francisco on Monday as we had already detected stirrings. We and many others were also equally right to wonder what was going on when JW reverted to type on Thursday.

The JW-induced downward move in the USD Index stuck. The move down was against all major currencies but specifically against the JPY where it fell through Y100 to the USD for a while on Tuesday and more persistently on Thursday.

JA YenUSD

The Japanese were repeatedly browbeaten by the US Treasury when their currency versus the USD had traded up to Y120. They did what they were told, pulling back from more QE. However, the US Treasury campaign still culminated in the creation of the ignominious “monitoring list” in April this year.

Now the Japanese find themselves with an even stronger currency than in April and overnight we see reported “plunging foreign trade“. In July export volumes were down 2.5% and imports down 4% – despite the new buying power. Exports by value were down 14% and imports by value were down 25%. AD is suffering.

Even more USD weakness to come?

The reaction to the idea of further reform of US monetary policy by John Williams ahead of the “Designing … Frameworks For The Future” brainstorming at Jackson Hole was pretty swift. Japanese currency chief called journalists into his office in Tokyo and issued a public warning.

William Dudley and his market-monitoring colleagues on the NY Fed frontline must have either had a call from Tokyo or felt compelled to react first or both. The NY Fed President’s hastily arranged a five minute interview on CNBC attempted to put a floor on this new USD weakness. Very significantly, he failed. Maybe Dudley failed because he looked so ashen-faced. On such things markets move, or rather refuse to move. John Williams’ latest public speech was very much back-to-business as usual for him, but also failed to raise the USD.

However, the NGDP Level Targeting bandwagon may be hard to stop as widely-read commentators as diverse as Larry Summers and Stephen King both weighed into the debate in favour.

Central banks do not act in isolation from one another. The US monetary tightening since mid-2014 has been causing a global slowdown. The active tightening in December 2015 caused global markets mayhem by early 2016. The rowing back from that tightening caused the USD to weaken, particularly against the JPY.[See chart above]

Ironically, if the US were to adopt NGDP Level Targeting it would lead to a stronger US economy and alleviate the pressure on the currency. The markets do not see it that way at the moment, though.

Most of the world’s central banks have had to pull back from their post-2009 tightening, the Federal Reserve probably will be no different. But it will cause a lot of major ripples, no doubt. Things are complicated. 

What a difference one month makes in the views of John Williams

On March 23 it was “up, up and away”:

“Things are looking better–in fact, they’re looking downright good,” the official said in a speech to be delivered to an audience in Sydney and Melbourne via video.

Given how much the economy has improved and is likely to continue to gain ground, “I think that by mid-year it will be the time to have a discussion about starting to raise rates,” Mr. Williams said.

On April 20 another FOMCer is not so sure any longer:

Hopefully” the economic data will “support a decision to lift off later this year,” Mr. Dudley said, in reference to taking the first move to push interest rates off of their current near-zero levels.

But, “because the economic outlook is uncertain, I can’t tell you when normalization will occur,” he said. When it comes to rate rises, “the timing is data dependent. We will have to see what unfolds,” he said.

And on goes the FOMC, directionless!

PS Could have titled this post as “Random Walks at the FOMC”