Bernanke's bind

THE spirit of St Augustine hovered over the Federal Reserve this week. “Oh Lord, let us stop cutting interest rates, but not yet,” is pretty much what America’s central bankers decided on Wednesday April 30th. The Fed’s governors cut their policy rate by another quarter-point, to 2%. But the accompanying statement gave a small hint that they may now pause.

There are plenty of reasons to stop cutting. Real interest rates are now firmly negative. Although the housing market continues to contract, the economy is limping rather than slumping. According to initial GDP estimates released on Wednesday, output grew at an annualised rate of 0.6% in the first three months of the year—the same pace as in the previous quarter and faster than most people expected. The mix of growth was not good. Final sales fell while firms built up their stocks, which bodes ill for future output. But with tax-rebate cheques arriving in the mail, a dose of fiscal stimulus is imminent.

A growing chorus worries that ever lower policy rates are adding to America’s problems. Some prominent economists have urged the central bank to stop. Fed cuts, they argue, are doing little to reduce borrowing costs but have sent commodity prices soaring—fuelling inflation and hitting Americans’ wallets hard.

Thanks to the credit crunch, Fed loosening plainly packs less punch than hitherto. But monetary policy has not been impotent. One route through which it has worked has been the weaker dollar. Although the greenback has been sliding for over five years, the pace of decline stepped up as the Fed slashed rates. Together with strong global growth, this weakness has cushioned and reoriented America’s economy. Strong foreign earnings have boosted corporate profits. Strong exports have countered the weakness in construction. Exclude oil, and America’s current-account deficit has shrunk to an eight-year low of 2.4% of GDP.

But oil—and other commodities—are the crux of the problem. In the past, economic weakness in America has usually pushed the price of oil and other commodities down. That relationship has weakened thanks to demand growth in big commodity-intensive emerging economies. But the recent surprise is that commodity prices have soared even as America’s economy has stalled and forecasts for global growth have been trimmed as well. Supply shocks are clearly part of the problem. But the fact that prices have soared across so many commodities suggests a common cause.

Could the culprit be the Fed? Advocates of this idea point to two channels. First, by slashing real interest rates, the Fed has encouraged speculation in commodities by reducing the cost of holding inventories. Second, by pushing down the dollar, Fed looseness is pushing up the price of dollar-denominated commodities.

Jeff Frankel, a Harvard economist, has long argued that low real interest rates lead to higher commodity prices. When real rates fall, he points out, commodity producers have more incentive to keep their asset—whether crude oil, gold or grain—in the ground or in a silo, than to sell today. Speculators, in turn, have more incentive to shift into commodities. There is no doubt that commodities have become an increasingly popular investment category—in fact they bear many of the hallmarks of a speculative bubble. But inventories for many commodities, particularly grains, are unusually low.

What about the dollar link? Chakib Khelil, president of the Organisation of Petroleum-Exporting Countries, argued this week that oil could reach $200 a barrel largely because the market was being driven by the dollar’s slide. Movements in the euro/dollar exchange rate and the price of oil have become extremely close (see chart). An analysis by Jens Nordvig and Jeffrey Currie of Goldman Sachs shows that the correlation between weekly changes in the oil price and the euro/dollar exchange rate has risen from 1% between 1999 and 2004 to 52% in the past six months.

That link is partly a matter of accounting. If the dollar falls, the dollar price of a commodity must rise for its overall price—in terms of a basket of global currencies—to remain stable. But commodity prices have risen even when priced in non-dollar currencies. And the correlation between changes in the price of oil and the euro/dollar exchange rate has risen even when oil is priced in a basket of currencies, such as the IMF’s special drawing rights.

So is the weaker dollar driving oil prices up or are high oil prices driving the dollar down? The Goldman analysts argue the latter because oil exporters import more from Europe than America and hold less of their oil revenues in dollars. A second factor lies with central banks. Because the Fed focuses on “core” inflation (which excludes food and fuel), whereas the ECB targets overall inflation, America’s central bank runs a looser policy in response to higher oil prices, thus pushing the dollar down.

Another reason to suspect that the Fed is more than a bit player is that American interest-rate decisions have a disproportionate effect on global monetary conditions. Some emerging economies still peg their currencies to the dollar; many others have been reluctant to let their exchange rates rise enough to make up for the dollar’s decline. As a result, monetary conditions in many emerging markets remain too loose. This fuels domestic demand, pushing up pressure on prices, particularly of commodities. All of which suggests that the Fed’s decisions are propagated widely through the dollar.

The most recent circumstantial evidence also suggests that the Fed may bear some responsibility for the commodities boom. As investors speculated that it was putting short-term interest rates on hold for a while, the dollar rallied against the euro during European trading hours on Thursday. In turn, oil, gold and other commodities fell. Whatever the role of the Fed, if those trends persist, its policymakers will heave a sigh of relief.

[Source: The Economist: News analysis

No comments: