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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”