The Fed's decision not to taper was a protest

But do they protest too much?

The Fed’s decision to surprise the market by NOT tapering last Wednesday was clearly intended as a protest at the market’s interest rate expectations and maybe also told us that now Larry Summers has been forced shamefully out of the contest, the front-runner to replace Mr Bernanke, San Francisco Fed President Janet Yellen, is already easing herself quietly into the Chairman’s seat.

The FOMC’s shock tactic certainly had the desired effect, sending Treasury yields tumbling and forcing estimates for the timing of the first Fed Funds hike further into the distance.

My guess, however, would be that this is will be brief victory for the Fed, and maybe ultimately a Pyrrhic one, endangering its credibility; the reason being that the Fed’s actions and statements are littered with inconsistencies.

The Fed’s own prognoses for the economy, the Summary of Economic Projections (SEP) would have us believe that by the end of 2016 the US will be enjoying an employment rate between 5.4 per cent to 5.9 per cent, very close to the FOMC’s own estimate for the long-run "full employment" rate which the economy can support without inflation getting out of hand, of 5.2 per cent to 5.8 per cent.  However, extraordinarily, the SEP also tells us that inflation will be at or near the 2 per cent target, but that the nominal Fed Funds rate will still only be at 2 per cent (meaning the real rate will be near zero).

This set of outcomes would represent an unheard of state of affairs; for instance, the standard piece of theory used by economists to predict the  appropriate level for interest rates, given prevailing unemployment and inflation rates, the so-called Taylor rule, would suggest a Fed Funds rate close to the long-run neutral level, which the FOMC itself estimates as 4 per cent!

When asked about these inconsistencies at the post-meeting press conference Chairman Bernanke said that “there may be possibly several reasons” for their end-2016 Fed Funds rate expectation being still far below the long-run neutral level but the “primary reason for that low value is that we expect that a number of factors, including the slow recovery of the housing sector, continued fiscal drag, perhaps continued effects from the financial crisis, may still prove to be headwinds to the recovery”.

Really? Eight years after the Financial crisis peaked? Why exactly? Show a little more faith in the US economy’s "animal spirits" please, Mr Bernanke but, hang on, your growth estimates for the next few years, with real GDP growth forecasts of 3.0 per cent in 2014, 3.25 per cent in 2015, and 2.9 per cent in 2016, are really quite upbeat? They don’t suggest that the crisis will still by then be inflicting the sort of structural damage that would call for the bizarre combination of economic variables and interest rates which you are trying to convince us will pertain?

My feeling would be that the Fed, like the BOE, will have to raise rates far earlier and faster than it would have us expect. Not tapering would have delivered an effective slap on the wrist to the market, the combination of the SEP and the forward interest rate guidance together meant "they did protest too much".

Ben Bernanke 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
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.