At the US Federal Reserve, when is a threshold not a threshold? When it's an embarrassment

The Federal Open Market Committee is keen to hold fund rates in spite of falling unemployment. It's the first act of a newer, stricter committee.

Let’s take the Fed first. When is a threshold not a threshold? Answer: when it becomes an embarrassment.

With the unemployment rate plummeting towards the 6.5 per cent "threshold" touted by the Fed as the point at which it would consider rate increases, we were told in the statement released after their December meeting that the FOMC "now anticipates that the funds rate will be held unchanged until 'well past' the time that the unemployment rate has fallen below its 6.5 per cent threshold".

This was a meeting at which a majority in favour of just lowering the threshold to 6.0 per cent, or even 5.5 per cent, obviously couldn’t be found. Thank goodness. This is certainly a testament to the sagacity of the committee, as moving the goal posts so soon after they were inserted into the ground would have been seriously detrimental to the Fed’s credibility. What’s to say the threshold wouldn’t suddenly become 5 per cent, or even be abandoned completely when it was subsequently convenient?

We should bear in mind that in many ways this was the outgoing, dovish Fed’s final act, with Helicopter Ben at the helm (or the cyclic, I guess). The FOMC composition became distinctly more hawkish at the January meeting. No surprise then that the January meeting saw another $10bn reduction in QE and no lowering of thresholds.

My guess would be that by the March meeting several clouds that have been obscuring the health of the US economy, and hammering risk assets, will have blown over. I don’t feel that by any means all emerging markets will have escaped the cosh, but I do feel that we will have avoided widespread contagion, a la the 1997/8 Asian/Russian Crises, and that the pressure will be seen as contained and upon the most vulnerable - Argentina, Brazil, Turkey, South Africa, say, whereas key Asian nations will be relatively calm - India, China, Indonesia, Korea and Taiwan.

I do feel that headline US unemployment will be lower by then and that there will be a burgeoning realisation that we shouldn’t devalue that because of low participation rates. Widespread academic research has highlighted that a large proportion of the fall in participation rates has been caused by demographics - to somewhat over-simplify, baby boomer retirees - and is not going to race back up cyclically. Finally, US economic data will finally be free of both government shutdown and weather distortions, and looking very healthy.

Here in the UK, the BOE faces a very similar dilemma and Wednesday’s release of the Bank's Quarterly Inflation Report (QIR) will surely unveil tweeks to forward guidance. As in the US, unemployment is crashing, and last week’s January UK Services PMI Reading, although only a tad lower at 58.3, from 58.8 in Dec, boasted sub-components that still made excellent reading, with the key employment index moving higher, along with the outstanding business index which, at 55.3, stands at its high since 1997. At this rate Q1 growth is looking like 1.0 per cent qoq.

I do not expect the QIR to announce a reduction in the unemployment threshold to 6.5 per cent, say, but I do expect to see a nod to other metrics, such as wage and productivity growth. There must also be a 25 per cent chance that they take a leaf out of the Fed's book and introduce a version of the Summary of Economic Projections, with a record of individual MPC members' views on the future path of the Bank's Base Rate. In short, RIP forward guidance, long live old-style insight into the MPC's thinking and reaction function.

Janet Yellen, Chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. 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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.