If you have stocks or bonds then you should be acutely interested in the FED right now

Time for an exit strategy?

Last Wednesday’s prepared testimony by Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke to the Joint Economic Committee of Congress seemed to start with an effort to silence recent chatter about the Fed’s so-called "exit strategy", i.e. the "tapering" off of its quantitative easing program.

"A premature tightening of monetary policy could lead interest rates to rise temporarily, but would also carry a substantial risk of slowing or ending the economic recovery and causing inflation to fall further". Obviously. Pretty much an undeniable truism.

But then, in response to a question from the Committee, he stunned the markets with what seemed like a complete volte face, when he commented that the Fed could cut the pace of asset purchases,"in the next few meetings", sending 10 –Yr US Treasury yields through the 2 per cent barrier for the first time since they fell through the floor on 15th March on news of the first, ill-conceived version of the Cypriot bail-in.

Then, later that evening, the minutes of the most recent meeting of the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy committee, the FOMC, informed us that, "…. a number of participants favored tapering, (of Quantitative Easing), as early as June if incoming information suggested sufficiently strong and sustained growth at the time", although "views differed on the likelihood of that outcome".

It’s certainly the case then that the FOMC as a body has tilted towards removal of the "punch bowl’", as evidence that the "party" is hotting up becomes more widespread. Sure,  the big-guns, Bernanke, New York Fed President Dudley and Vice-Chairperson Yellen are inveterate doves, but there is a vociferous contingent of more-hawkish voters, (and non-voters), and when the Committee undergoes its annual rotation of regional Fed President voters next January, the balance will become distinctly more "hair-shirt"; if you assign a rating to each voter using a scale with 0 for dovish, to 5 for hawkish, and aggregate the changes, then I’d say it’s 10 "out"and 16 "in". Markets will begin to discount this soon.

This may all seem pretty arcane stuff and you may think that unless you’re a bond trader you needn’t really pay too much attention to such detail. ABSOLUTELY NOT; if you have investments of any sort in stocks, bonds, (of course), or commodities, then you should be acutely interested, as there is nothing which has contributed to rallies since March 2009 so much as the Federal Reserve’s largesse.

So what is the Fed up to? My view would be that they know QE has played a highly significant role in powering markets higher, they fear bubbles, they fear the reaction when they start to tighten, but they know it’s much like a visit to the dentist-the longer you put it off, the more painful the consequences.

Above all perhaps, they fear a repeat of 1994, when unexpected tightening caused a bond market rout.

So they’re trying to let us know as subtly as possible that they’re thinking about making a dentist’s appointment, and that means the rallies probably only have a month or two to run.

Photograph: Getty Images

Chairman of  Saxo Capital Markets Board

An Honours Graduate from Oxford University, Nick Beecroft has over 30 years of international trading experience within the financial industry, including senior Global Markets roles at Standard Chartered Bank, Deutsche Bank and Citibank. Nick was a member of the Bank of England's Foreign Exchange Joint Standing Committee.

More of his work can be found here.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.