Friday, 14 February 2014

Nasty Breakup from Forward Guidance

Central banks have been led astray by the policy of forward guidance and it is time to move on

There has been a big breakup in the world of economics just before Valentine’s Day.  Central banks in the US and the UK had been wed to the concept of forward guidance.  This policy involves keeping interest rates low will have greater potency when combined with an outline of how long the policy will remain in place.  With the impact of low interest rates on the wane, central banks in the US and the UK were courted by the idea of forward guidance as a way to eke more out of current policies.  Yet both the Federal Reserve and Bank of England have been caught with their pants down due to the failure of forward guidance to deliver an economic boost.  The falling out has been made worse by debilitating issues with policy execution.

Seemed like a good idea at the time

The Federal Reserve slashed interest rates to 0.25% in December 2008 while the Bank of England pruned UK interest rates back to 0.5%.  In the face of the harshest recession in a generation, this normally dependable form of monetary stimulus failed to have much of an effect.  Continued weak economic growth spurred on a search for something extra and resulted in central banks delving into more unconventional measures.  Quantitative easing (buying bonds with newly printed money) is one example of such measures, forward guidance being another.

It was thought that forward guidance would act as a means to encourage economic growth as low interest rates were not having much of an effect on borrowing by themselves.  The hope was that a pledge that rates would be kept low for at least a few years would be the catalyst that would kick-start lending.  However, the assumption that there was a pent up demand for loans was wrong (as Your Neighbourhood Economist thought it might be). 

Bad idea made worse by shoddy execution

If the thinking behind forward guidance was not the best, the implementation was worse.  Both the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England based the forward guidance on the unemployment rate.  Unemployment was seen as a reliable yardstick of economic performance so the two central banks used it as a marker for changes in policy.  This later became a stumbling block when the number of people out of work declined faster than expected catching out many others along with the central banks.

Having to readjust the policy of forward guidance has been a PR disaster for central banks for whom reputation is key to influencing the financial markets and achieving their goals.  The Bank of England recently explicitly dropped the link between interest rates and unemployment and the Federal Reserve is sure to follow suit.  The necessity for central banks to assuage concerns that interest rates may rise defeats the whole purpose of forward guidance in the first place.

The Bank of England has instead stated that it will rely on a wider range of economic data.  Despite protestations by Bank of England governor Mark Carney that forward guidance is working, the new policy is too vague to act as any guide to the future of interest rates.  The reworking of forward guidance has failed to find any love from the markets.  Expectations that the Bank of England would not be faithful and would hike interest rates sooner rather than later resulted in the value of the UK currency jumping following the statements by Carney.  The saga over forward guidance has left central banks wondering what went wrong but it is time to get out and start afresh. 

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