If you are wondering what’s behind the sudden largesse of the European Central Bank (ECB) when it comes to purchases of bonds, you may find a recent speech by an ECB official at a conference about financial stability enlightening.
While regulators focused on making banks safer following the 2007-2009 financial crisis, the non-bank financial sector has been allowed to continue without the same stringent requirements for liquidity and leverage. This gap came into sharp focus during the crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The abrupt fall from grace of Dominic Cummings, the much-admired and much-loathed adviser to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, has sparked all sorts of theories as to what was behind it, and with good reason.
Cummings’ actions have been divisive and often controversial, starting with his choice of “misfits and weirdos” to replace civil servants whom he sacked unceremoniously, to the famous drive he took across the country while both he and his wife were ill with Covid-19 and a national lockdown was in place.
If after the great financial crisis of 2007-2009 the word “extraordinary” characterised monetary policy, the Covid-19 pandemic calls for a much stronger adjective: “unprecedented”.
As the world has never before been faced with an instance when virtually all economic activity stopped for a certain period of time, this is an appropriate word. However, in monetary policy really very little can be said to be truly “unprecedented”.
For example, take modern monetary theory (MMT) — a theory about how to have your (monetary) cake and eat it, which (simplistically) states that if a country can print its own currency, that country will never default on its debt because it can create as much currency as it wants to and use it to pay back the debt.
Major central banks, to a certain degree, have already begun versions of MMT.
Central banks are again under the limelight. With Mark Carney’s departure as governor of the Bank of England next month, Boris Johnson could try to seize the opportunity to curtail the central bank’s independence.
This should not come as a surprise. Already, Johnson’s soulmate from across the ocean, Donald Trump, has been making noises about the Federal Reserve being too independent (or rather: insubordinate) for his liking.
So, if these two authoritarian populists go for central banks, what are their chances of bringing them under their rule?
The first year of the new decade begins with markets in a much more exuberant mood than at the beginning of 2019. Some of the world’s most important stock markets reached record highs in the last month of 2019 — but do investors feel that markets have peaked?
Caught in the middle of the Brexit saga, European investors can be forgiven if they glossed over a speech by Fed Chairman Jerome Powell that could turn out to be the starting point of a very risky period for the global economy.
It’s no secret that President Donald Trump would want the Fed to cut interest rates and debase the dollar. Earlier this year, he called the Fed “crazy” and Powell himself, “clueless.”
Of course, Powell did not immediately show that these repeated attacks influenced his policy. However, in a speech he gave last week he reiterated his fondness for a very risky idea on how to ease monetary policy even further.
Uncertainty about the outcome of the Brexit negotiations has hit new highs, President Trump seems determined to scare the markets witless with his threats of escalating the trade war, debt problems in China are accelerating – the perfect background for a contrarian ‘buy’ signal.
Last week, investors yet again favoured bonds over any other asset class, despite central banks cooing dovish everywhere.
The Fed is cutting rates? No worries, buy bonds. The European Central Bank prepares to push rates even further into negative territory? Bonds are the ticket. The Bank of England gets the printing press ready again? Oh yes, some bonds would be great.
It is becoming increasingly difficult for central banks to surprise the markets with good news. No matter how dovish they are, investors expect them to be even more dovish still. This financial repression has facilitated the rise of populist politicians, who threaten to bring the end of central banks’ independence.