Personal Wealth Management / Economics

Monetary Policy’s Big Week Continues

The Bank of England and European Central Bank got in on the action Thursday.

One day after the US Federal Reserve (Fed) doubled the pace of its reduction to its “quantitative easing” (QE) monthly asset purchases, the Bank of England (BoE) and European Central Bank (ECB) made some moves of their own. Amusingly, most financial commentators we follow interpreted the BoE’s teensy rate hike and the ECB’s fresh QE taper as curiously divergent monetary policy, which suggests the ECB’s apparent attempt to camouflage another reduction in its purchases worked. We wouldn’t make much of either move, as neither appears likely to have much impact on inflation and growth—something we think stocks already know, even if people broadly don’t.

Of the two, we think the BoE’s move is more straightforward. In an 8 – 1 decision, the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) voted to raise the BoE’s key short-term interest rate, the Bank Rate, from … 0.10% to 0.25%.[i] Many commentators we follow couched this as the end of stimulus and a new era of inflation fighting, which we find just mildly hilarious. In any other known universe, after all, a 0.25% policy rate might as well be zero. Actually, when the US Fed was employing what it called “zero interest rate policy,” 0.25% was the upper end of the targeted range.[ii] Commentators also described the BoE’s cutting the Bank Rate to 0.25% as extraordinary stimulus after 2016’s Brexit vote. But evidently, the direction of rates matters more to onlookers than the level.

In all seriousness, we fail to see how raising short-term interest rates by 0.15 percentage point (ppt) will do, well, anything—and not just we tink because supply shortages, energy prices and post-reopening distortions are the primary culprits for the UK’s accelerating inflation. Even if excess money supply were to blame, we doubt a 0.15 ppt hike would address it. Our research shows money creation and circulation aren’t functions of short-term interest rates alone. They depend on the yield curve—the graphical representation of an issuer’s interest rates across the spectrum of maturities—and how much higher the long end is than the short end. In modern financial systems, banks create most new money through lending. Their business model is simple: borrow at short-term rates, lend at long-term rates, and pencil in the difference between those rates as their profit margin on the next loan. They are also for-profit entities, so as a general rule, we think wider spreads will encourage more lending.

Rate hikes directly affect the short end of the yield curve only. Long rates, which are set in the marketplace, tend to have a mind of their own. To us, a rate hike is technically tightening policy only if long rates don’t also rise. But gilt yields didn’t totally play nice with the BoE on Thursday. They crept up a bit across the entire yield curve.[iii] Therefore, the gap between the Bank Rate and 10-year gilt yields narrowed just ever so slightly, from 0.63 ppt on Wednesday to 0.523 ppt at Thursday’s close.[iv] In other words, from rather flat to a whisker flatter.

The extent of this flattening is basically a rounding error, and we doubt it is likely to change banks’ behaviour much. Floating-rate mortgages probably won’t suddenly become unaffordable for current homeowners. Current accounts won’t suddenly start compensating savers for inflation. Loan growth, which hit an anemic 1.6% y/y in October, probably stays anemic.[v] The economy, already slowing from the post-reopening boom, probably keeps slowing.[vi] And if you are worried about the latest COVID restrictions taking a toll, well, we think keeping the Bank Rate at 0.10% probably wasn’t going to help businesses suffering from reduced foot traffic, so we doubt today’s move makes things markedly worse. It is a symbolic nod to inflation, in our view, and nothing more.

The ECB’s move appears odder but probably similarly feckless. It announced its pandemic-era “emergency” QE program will end in March, as scheduled. But it also decided to increase the total size of its longer-term QE in April. Together, the moves amount to a reduction of monthly ECB QE from €80 billion to €40 billion in four months.[vii] That is a 50% cut, or taper, to asset purchases! But headlines are couching the increased total size of the longer programme as stimulus, suggesting the ECB has once again managed to taper stealthily.

We think this, too, likely changes very little. Buying long-term bonds isn’t stimulus, in our view, because it reduces long rates and flattens the yield curve. Buying fewer bonds theoretically exerts less pressure on long rates, but such a well-telegraphed reduction likely has scant impact.

One could argue that reduced asset purchases give banks less new money to lend, but they already appeared to have more than they could handle. As The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week, eurozone banks have parked a mountain of spare cash in a Fed facility paying them 0.05% instead of them paying the ECB’s negative rate on deposits.[viii] If the ECB force-feeds banks less cash, so much the better, we guess. But there, too, yield curves are quite flat, so we think the likelihood any of this translates to aggressive lending seems low.[ix] It likely won’t stimulate the eurozone’s economy any more than the BoE’s tiny move will tighten the UK’s.

Monetary policy isn’t unimportant, but our research shows tiny moves rarely do much. To see monetary moves that actually pack a punch, look at Turkey, where the central bank just once again cut rates by a full percentage point even though inflation is officially 21.3% (and analysts we follow suspect the actual rate is double that).[x] Turkey’s policy rate is now down from 19% in mid-September to 15%, and given the central bank governor and President Recep Tayyip Ergogan share the (unorthodox) view that high interest rates cause inflation, most commentators expect rates to go lower still.[xi] The lira has tanked, people are struggling to make ends meet, and no commentator we follow argues things are likely to get better any time soon. We think this qualifies as a monetary earthquake. The ECB and BoE’s tweaks? Even if we did analogies, there wouldn’t be any good ones to illustrate how tiny they are.

Don’t overrate small monetary moves. Like the Fed, we think the BoE and ECB are pushing on a string. We think you should save your sanity—and your energy—for when they actually make a move more likely to carry real consequences.    

[i] Monetary Policy Summary and Minutes of the Monetary Policy Committee Meeting, Bank of England, 16/12/2021.

[ii] Source: US Federal Reserve. Statement based on fed-funds target rate range, 31/12/2008 – 30/11/2015.

[iii] Source: FactSet, as of 16/12/2021.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Source: Bank of England, as of 16/12/2021.

[vi] See Note ii. Statement based on monthly gross domestic product, which is a government-produced measure of economic output.

[vii] Monetary Policy Decision and Monetary Policy Statement, European Central Bank, 16/12/2021.

[viii] “Cash Glut in Eurozone Drives Dollar Demand,” Caitlin Ostroff, The Wall Street Journal, 14/12/2021. Accessed via The New York Ledger.

[ix] See Note ii. Statement based on yield curves for France, Germany, Italy and Spain.

[x] Source: FactSet, as of 16/12/2021.

[xi] Ibid.

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