Archive for July 11th, 2017

Notes From Underground: Brainard Delivers a Very Significant Speech

July 11, 2017

Tuesday, FOMC Governor Lael Brainard delivered what I deem to be a very important speech, which spoke to the necessity starting to shrink the balance sheet while halting further interest rate increases. The speech, titled, “Cross-Border Spillovers of Balance Sheet Normalization,” is packed with insight into FOMC thinking reminiscent of the powerful speeches of former Fed Vice Chairman Donald Kohn. I have noted that Brainard is Yellen’s confidant (mere conjecture on my part) similar to how Kohn served as Greenspan’s consigliere, providing great insight into FED policy. Governor Brainard puts forth the reasons for HOLDING fed funds steady while beginning the task of balance sheet shrinkage. Important points to consider:

1. Raising policy rates and reducing central bank balance sheets–appear to affect domestic output and inflation in a qualitatively similar way. This means that central banks can substitute between raising the policy rate and shrinking the balance sheet to remove accommodation;

2. Is there a difference between conventional policy hikes or shrinking the balance sheet on cross-border spillover effects? “Most prominently, the exchange rate may be more sensitive to the path of short-term rates than to balance sheet adjustments, as some research suggests,” (Stavrakeva and Tang, 2016). This issue is what I have discussed for eight years in NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND. Foreign exchange rates are more sensitive to the short-end of the curve than the long-end. A flattening curve has historically been positive for a currency as the interest rate market is signalling that the central bank is too tight for economic conditions. (Brainard cites the example of the FED‘s Operation Twist in the early 1960s.)

If a similar amount of tightening is achieved through the balance sheet reduction “… while keeping the POLICY RATE unchanged, the exchange rate would appreciate to a SMALLER degree, reflecting the lower assumed sensitivity of the exchange rate to the term premium than to policy rates.” Governor Brainard further supports this view by noting that other countries would not have to act as swiftly to raise rates in response and therefore allow other nations to pick up the slack if the U.S. economy was to slow down. Also, in the case of a managed exchange rate, she cites China in 2015-16 as China responded to the incipient rise in U.S. fed funds rate by squeezing liquidity and depreciating the YUAN.

3. If different monetary regimes are pursuing different policies in trying to contain demand shocks, the cross-border impact on the nation using interest rate policy versus balance sheet shrinkage in the other will probably result in greater foreign exchange rate movements. Brainard notes that the “… downward pressure on term premiums around the globe, especially in those foreign economies whose bonds were perceived as close substitutes.” Certainly this speaks to the BUND/U.S. 10-YEAR NOTE correlation. In this regard the Brainard suggests that the BOJ and ECB present programs provides an opportunity for the FED to reduce the balance sheet without as much disruption as the fungibility of global markets will provide some support to U.S. term premiums.

4. Inflation for Brainard will remain very important. She said, “I will want to monitor inflation developments carefully, and to move cautiously on further increases in the FEDERAL FUNDS RATE, so as to help guide inflation back up around symmetric target.”

I fully expect Chair Yellen to speak to this in her testimony this week. If I am right, the yield curve OUGHT to steepen further. The 2/10 curve closed at 98 basis points Tuesday after holding support levels. The SPOOS and NASDAQ should fine near-term strength as markets believe that FED FUNDS INCREASES ARE ON HOLD. Commodities should return to supply/demand fundamentals and the precious metals OUGHT to repel fears of rising short-term rates. Also, emerging markets should breathe a sigh of relief.

There is much to contemplate in Brainard’s speech, but if she plays Jiminy Cricket to Janet Yellen expect the Fed chair to support this outlook. The FED seems to have been shaken by the recent severe flattening in the yield curves. Other political factors such as the White House tweets and buffoonery cannot be accounted for in an algo-driven world. But I believe that Brainard did more to impact markets than the e-mails of Donald Trump, Jr.