Rate cuts were unnecessary in a shutdown economy

Introduction

As a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic and the potential catastrophic impact on the global economy, the Fed slashed interest rate to zero in March after four years of effort to increase its benchmark rate. In addition, it has also increased drastically the size of its balance in order to prevent the whole market from collapsing; the Fed’s balance sheet is now expecting to grow to USD 8/9 trillion by the end of the year, twice more than the high reached in October 2014. Even though there is no question that the whole economy was healthier this time than prior to the Great Financial Crisis and that the Fed’s interventions and liquidity injections were timely and mandatory to save the whole market, we believe that the rate cuts were unnecessary.

A slowing economy pre-virus

As we know, the US economy peaked in the last quarter of 2018 and was already considerably slowing down in 2019 due to the high uncertainty in the market (Brexit, followed by the China-US trade war). Figure 1 (left frame) shows the global and US manufacturing PMI overlaid with the US 10Y yield. After the global economy peaked in Q4 2017, the outperformance of the US relative to the rest of the World in 2018 led to a rising USD and a rising 10Y yield, but eventually the slowdown of the US economic growth brought the long-end of the Treasury curve to the downside.

In addition, the sharp sell-off in equities in Q4 2018 (nearly 20 percent from peak to trough) reversed the Fed’s policy guidance with the famous ‘Powell pivot’ from ‘a long way from neutral’ in October 2018 to ‘appropriate stance in January 2019. Policymakers even cut rate three times in the second half of 2019 in order to stimulate demand after the 2Y10Y yield curve inverted in August.

Figure 1

RR1Source: Eikon Reuters, Bloomberg

Hence, the reversal in global central banks’ policy (from global tightening to global easing) combined with the significant increase in global liquidity led to a sharp recovery in stocks, with the SP500 recording one of its best year in the past 30 years (figure 2, right frame). However, the 2020 events generated a global panic and equities sold off aggressively in February/ March amid concerns of the global supply shock will soon spill over demand. Did the Fed increase volatility at first by just cutting interest rates to zero? Even though we understand that policymakers globally wanted to quickly reassure markets by hinting participants that it will not let the whole market fail, there has been very few debates on whether rate cuts are useful in a shutdown economy. In theory, rate cuts should decrease the incentives to save and increase demand for credit and the incentives to consume. We think that the massive liquidity injections would have been enough this time to halt the global panic and that policymakers should have save the little room left in the benchmark rate for later (i.e. when the economy reopens). In addition, we believe that the aggressive rate cuts may have increased price volatility in March; figure 2 (right frame) shows that stocks tend to sell rapidly in when Fed cut rates aggressively.

Figure 2

RR2Source: Eikon Reuters

US shadow rate to hit -5 percent in 2020

Even though some economists have been speculating that the Fed will adopt a negative interest rate policy (NIRP) in the coming months as a response of the Covid-19 crisis, we are not convinced of that and we think that policymakers will first wait and see if the massive liquidity injections will be enough to stimulate the economy. Figure 3 shows the historical path of the Fed Funds rate since 1960, including the ‘shadow rate’ based on Wu-Xia calculations (2015),a tool that researchers have proposed in recent years to estimate how low would the benchmark rate be had the the Fed not used unconventional monetary policy.

This time, the shadow rate is expected to fall down to -5% by the end of the year, 2 percent lower than the -3 percent low reached in the third quarter of 2014 (due to QE3), which should in theory represents a massive stimulus for the economy.

Figure 3

Source: Eikon Reuters, Wu-Xia (2015)

Key economic measures such as r-star have become less relevant in the past cycle

Unlike most of the central banks, the Fed follows a triple mandate when conducting its monetary policy, which is to achieve the following goals: maximum employment, stable prices and moderate long-term interest rates. In addition, policymakers have tried to estimate the dynamics of the (unobservable) neutral rate of interest, r-star, which can be defined as the interest rate that supports the economy at maximum employment while keeping stable prices. Figure 4 (left frame) shows the relationship between r* (estimated by Holston et al. (2017)) and the implied Fed Funds rate (including the shadow rate). Policymakers’ have usually immediately been reacting by lowering the FFR when the r-star was starting to decrease due to an economic shock / recession.

We do not have the recent Q1 updates for r-star, but it is fair to say that it will decrease drastically, which would support the argument of a lower FFR. However, the Fed should just have increased the size of its balance sheet this time (which would have lowered the shadow rate) while keeping extra room for FFR intervention in the coming months when economies reopen.

In addition, we can also see that the relationship between the implied FFR and the US saving rate has broken down in the past cycle (figure 4, right frame). Before 2008, lower FFR was usually leading to a lower saving rate in the following 2 to 3 years (lower rates decrease the incentive to save and should increase the incentive to consume). However, since 2009, while interest rates reached the lower bound and even decreased if we look at the shadow rate, the saving rate has increased. The saving rate could actually go even higher given the uncertainty that households will face post lockdown.

Figure 4

RR4

Source : EIkon Reuters, Holston et al. (2017), Wu-Xia (2015)

In short, more rates cuts are useless in a shutdown economy; policymakers should leave some room for later in case of a ‘Wsss – shape’ recovery.

 

The ‘Obama’ Dollar Rises…

Over the past few weeks, I had several discussions with some friends of mine to try to understand and clarify the US Dollar ‘pause’ we have seen since the middle of March. A dovish stance from the Federal Reserve, which obviously led to a status quo at the June FOMC meeting, may have halted the Dollar bulls, but it seems to me that the market is getting more and more confident about this year’s lift-off.

Based on the forecasts made in June, the Fed Staff expect policymakers to raise the Fed funds rate to 35bps by the end of the fourth quarter of 2015, which implies a one quarter-point hike this year (chances of an initial move at the September meeting stand roughly at 60%).

Quick recap’ on the macro figures

Even though the unemployment rate hit a 7-year low at 5.3% in June (with a strong NFP at 223K) and Q2 GDP came in at 2.3% (above the 2% ‘target’, but still below Wall Street’s consensus estimate of 2.5%), the rest of the figures and the overall macro/geopolitical situation both don’t look quite good. US inflation has average 0% since the beginning of the year (0.1% YoY in June), consumer spending YoY declined for the third consecutive month and both business fixed investments and net exports stayed soft. On a broader scale, the commodity-meltdown continues as demand from China may slow even further on the back of a weak manufacturing activity (Chinese PMI fell to 47.8 in July, its two-year low). For instance, NYMEX WTI September futures are trading near levels not seen since March, with September contract at $46.30 per barrel.

In addition, even though the Economic and Financial Affairs Council (ECOFIN) approved a 7.1bn-euro bridge loan to Greece last month (July 17th) given through the EFSM so that the country could meet its short-term obligations including a 3.5bn-euro payment to the ECB on July 20, Athens has no money left. That is problematic as a second big 3.2bn-euro payment is coming on August 20 to the ECB and there are talks that they may miss it as the bailout timeline is ‘unrealistic’.

Chinese economic slowdown, low oil prices, deflation and Greek payments are all subjects that I try to follow closely as it is the topics I believe that US policymakers are watching as well. However, I think this time the Fed officials are quite ready for a lift-off in September, and now I have been questioning myself about the US Dollar rally.

The Dollar Rallies…

The chart below shows the three dollar rallies that occurred since the collapse of the Bretton Woods system. The first big one is the Reagan dollar rally in the early 80s, fueled by the tight monetary policy. As a result of the second oil shock in 1979, chairman Volker orchestrated a series of interest rate increases that took the federal funds target from 10 to nearly 20 percent. If the Euro had existed then, the single currency would have depreciated by roughly 60%. The rally was eventually halted in September 1985 by the Plaza Accord signed by five governments to depreciate the US Dollar in relation to the Japanese Yen and the Deutsche Mark.

The Clinton Dollar rally started in the mid 90s fueled by the US Tech bubble and capital inflows into the US equity market in addition to the US government running federal surpluses. This surge brought the Euro down to 0.8230 against the greenback and USDJPY was trading at a high of JPY135 at the end of the rally (late 2001).

The recent Obama rally has started in early July last year as a result of monetary policy diverge between the US and the rest of the World. The commodity meltdown will continue to weigh on commodity currencies and especially on the Dollar-Bloc (CAD, AUD and NZD), as Greece will continue to make the headlines until Bailout#3 is eventually agreed.

As you can see on the chart below, I added a downtrend line that was broken in the beginning of the year. The US Dollar index hit a high of 100.80 in mid-March before its March-May consolidation. It looks to me that the greenback is gradually recovering from its quick contraction.

DXY avec MA

Source: Reuters

Despite a low volatile market at the moment, I am convinced that the US Dollar will gain strength in the end of this second semester. I will try to add a currency-detailed article by the end of the week with my new levels on the main currency pairs.