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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.