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Policy Hub: Macroblog provides concise commentary and analysis on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, inflation, labor economics, and financial issues for a broad audience.

Authors for Policy Hub: Macroblog are Dave Altig, John Robertson, and other Atlanta Fed economists and researchers.

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May 27, 2021

The Role of Central Banks in Fostering Economic and Financial Resiliency

The Atlanta Fed recently hosted its 25th annual Financial Markets Conference, with the theme of Fostering a Resilient Economy and Financial System: The Role of Central Banks. The conference addressed both the adequacy of the monetary policy toolkit and the role of the U.S. dollar (USD) in international financial markets. The conference included two keynote talks. The first day featured a keynote speech by Federal Reserve Board vice chair Richard Clarida, followed by a discussion with Atlanta Fed president Raphael Bostic. The second day began with an armchair discussion featuring Harvard professor Larry Summers and Atlanta Fed research director David Altig. A video of the conference is available here video fileOff-site link. This post reviews some of the highlights from the conference.

Keynote talks
Vice chair Clarida's keynote speechOff-site link focused on global factors that help determine the yield curve for sovereign bonds. Clarida observed that studies of domestic and major foreign government markets have found that most of the movements in the term structure of interest rates can be explained by the overall level of the curve and the slope of the curve. He then reviewed work suggesting that a global factor—one that is highly correlated with estimates of the neutral real interest rate—has a great influence on the level of the curve. Given this information, central banks may not have much ability to influence the yield curve's level unless they are willing to unanchor inflation expectations in their domestic market. Clarida then presented evidence that the slope of the U.S. yield curve is highly correlated with its monetary policy, specifically the deviation of the U.S. neutral nominal policy rate from the actual federal funds rate. He acknowledged that correlation does not equal causation but provided some evidence that central bank decisions (by the Fed and major foreign central banks) have a causal relationship with the slope of the yield curve. These observations led Clarida to conclude that "major central banks can be thought of as calibrating and conducting the transmission of policy...primarily through the slopes of their yield curves and much less so via their levels."

Professor Summers raised a variety of concerns about current policy and the risks to the financial system in his chat on the conference's second day. One of these concerns relates to the monetary policy projections, which suggest that inflation will remain sufficiently low so that the Fed's policy rate may not increase for several years. This expectation of low rates may create a "dangerous complacency," according to Summers, that will make it more difficult to raise rates. The result may be that nominal policy rates remain too low, producing higher inflation that leads to even lower real rates and even higher inflation. The result could be not only a "substantial pro-cyclical bias in financial conditions" but also a threat to financial stability if the low nominal rates result in excessive financial leverage.

Monetary policy panel session
The monetary policy toolkit received some scrutiny in a panel titled "Is the Monetary Policy Toolkit Adequate to Meet Future Challenges?" It was moderated by Julia Coronado, president of MacroPolicy Perspectives. Coronado promised a session with some provocative comments, and each of her panelists delivered. Among the problems addressed by the panelists was central banks' limited ability to counteract economic downturns. Historically, central banks have lowered their nominal interest rate target by several percentage points in response to the onset of a recession, or even the elevated risk of one. The continuing decline in nominal rates, however, has reduced central banks' ability to use rate reductions to fight recessions, instead forcing them to rely more on quantitative easing (or more accurately, large-scale asset purchases). Joseph Gagnon, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, and Willem Buiter, a visiting professor at Columbia University, provided two alternative ways of restoring the central bank's ability to lower nominal rates by more than 1 or 2 percentage points.

Gagnon's analysis was based on the Fisher equation, in which the nominal interest rate is approximately equal to the real rate of interest plus the rate of inflation. Gagnon observed that central banks, including the Fed, had set a target inflation rate of 2 percent back when the equilibrium real rate was higher (likely around 2 to 3 percent). Establishing this target rate resulted in equilibrium nominal interest rates around 4 to 5 percent, which gave central banks considerable room to respond to a recession. However, in the period since the inflation targets were set, equilibrium real rates have fallen by 1 to 2 percentage points. This decline greatly reduced central banks' ability to lower rates without taking them negative. Thus, to restore the ability of central banks to respond to higher inflation, Gagnon argued that central banks' inflation target should be increased to 3 to 4 percent.

Buiter implicitly started from the same point: that the decline in the equilibrium real rate had left central banks with too little room to cut interest rates. However, rather than raising the inflation target, Buiter argued that a better solution would be to accept deeply negative nominal interest rates. Several central banks in Europe, as well as the Bank of Japan, have lowered their rates below zero but never as much as 1 percent below zero. Buiter recommended that central banks take the steps necessary to be able to have deeply negative interest rates if that is appropriate for conditions.

Simon Potter, vice chairman at Millennium Management, noted an international dimension to the Fed's policy setting. Potter observed that many emerging markets had taken on considerably more debt to respond to the ongoing pandemic. He argued that these countries would need fast U.S. growth, and the accompanying increase in exports to the United States to be able to service their debt. Absent such increased debt service capacity, he pointed out that changes in the structure of these countries' debt markets would make rescheduling their debts even more difficult than it had been previously.

These provocative comments did not go unchallenged, however, as the other panelists raised concerns about the feasibility and/or desirability about each of these policy recommendations in the subsequent discussion that Coronado moderated.

Global dollar policy session
A panel on the conference's second day had the provocative title "Is the Financial System's Backbone, the U.S. Dollar, Also a Transmitter of Stress?" The panel's moderator was Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas president Robert Kaplan, who began the discussion by highlighting the importance of the USD in both international trade and international financial markets.

Stanford University Professor Arvind Krishnamurthy's presentation Adobe PDF file format supplied further evidence on the importance of the USD in trade and financial markets. He suggested that the USD's important role resulted in it providing a convenience yield to its users, which resulted in lower USD interest rates for those borrowing USD—both domestic and foreign borrowers. These lower rates, however, came with some financial risks, according to Krishnamurthy. For one, lower rates may induce greater financial leverage in U.S. borrowers. Additionally, foreigners who borrow USD to take advantage of the lower rates may be creating a mismatch between the currency they receive as revenue (especially from sales in their domestic markets) and the USD they need to repay their debt.

Thomas Jordan, chairman of the governing board of the Swiss National Bank, also noted the dominance of the USD in international markets and discussed its implications from the Swiss point of view. He noted two ways in which Switzerland is especially vulnerable to developments regarding USD. First, Swiss banks hold substantial amounts of USD assets and liabilities. Second, the Swiss franc is a safe haven currency that experiences increased demand in times of international financial stress. These result in Switzerland having a strong interest in global financial stability and especially in the stability of USD-funding markets. In this respect, Jordan observed that the Federal Reserve's swap lines with other central banks, including the Swiss National Bank, has been "very crucial." The swap lines provide an important liquidity backstop that recently proved valuable during the COVID-19 crisis.

Michael Howell, the managing director at CrossBorder Capital, focused on the potential for another currency to displace the USD in international markets. In his presentation Adobe PDF file format, he argued we should not be "shortsighted" in dismissing other currencies. In particular, he pointed to China, saying that China sees the USD as a rival and wants to displace it, particularly in Asia. He then went on to discuss some of the steps that China would need to take—and is taking—to displace the USD.

After these remarks by the panelists, Kaplan moderated a question-and-answer session that took a closer look at these and other issues.

May 3, 2021

Is There a Global Factor in U.S. Bond Yields?

The answer to this question seems obvious simply from observing the secular comovement of global nominal yields across some advanced economies plotted in chart 1.

Chart 1: 10-Year Bond Yields, 1992-2021

This observation raises the possibility that domestic bond yields, including those in the large U.S. Treasury market, may be anchored by global economic developments (see, for example, hereOff-site link and hereOff-site link), provision of global liquidity, and international markets arbitrage. The synchronized dynamics in global yields during the last few months serve as a stark reminder of the powerful role that global bond markets play in the transmission of country-specific shocks as well as of monetary and fiscal impulses.

Yet the standard term structure models (see, for example, hereOff-site link), that policymakers and market participants use to form their expectations about the future path of the policy rate, are typically estimated only with information embedded in domestic yields. Global influences enter only via the term premia—that is, the extra returns that investors demand to hold long-term bonds—and are influenced by the flight to safety and arbitrage across international markets. But because the term premia are obtained as a residual component in the model, any misspecification of the factor structure that drives equilibrium interest rates—by omitting a common global factor, for example—may result in erroneously attributing some fundamental movements to the term premia.

Chart 2 illustrates this point, presenting a less-noticed and even overlooked empirical regularity between the term premiaOff-site link on the spread between the 10-year U.S. bond and the 10-year/2-year German bond, which is the benchmark bond for the Eurozone government bond market. This comovement has proved remarkably strong since 2014.1

Chart 2: German Bond Spread and U.S. Term Premia, 2010–21

Take, for example, the pronounced decline in the term premia and the accompanying slide in the German bond spread between 2014 and 2019. Although technical factors might be behind the downward trend in the German bond spread—for example, large Eurozone bond outflows triggered by the euro-area crisis and the introduction of negative interest rates—the slope of the yield curve could also convey important information about the fundamentals of the economy. If the term premia on the 10-year U.S. bond reflect an exogenous "distortion" in the U.S. yield curve due to a flight to safety or an elevated demand for global safe assets, yields are likely to return to normal levels when the uncertainty shock dissipates. In contrast, if investors interpret the yield curve's decline as an endogenous "risk-off" response—that is, a switch to less risky assets—to a deteriorated global environment that can spill over to the U.S. economy, the term structure model would require a "global" factor whose omission may otherwise contaminate an estimate of the term premia.

So how sensitive is the estimate of the future path of policy rate to model specification? I next illustrate this sensitivity by augmenting the factor space in a standard (five-factor) term structure model with incremental information from an additional global factor, not contained in the other factors. Given the reasonably tight correlation between the term premia for the 10-year U.S. bond and the 10-year/2-year German bond spread, it seems natural to use the latter as an observed proxy for a global factor, although other statistical approaches for extracting one or more common global factors are certainly possible.

To quantify the potential effect of the global factor, I focus on yield curve dynamics seen in 2019, a period characterized by elevated economic, trade, and geopolitical uncertainty that led to a material decline in observed yields. But did a fundamental shift in the expected path of policy rate, or lower term premia, drive this decline? In the left panel of chart 3, I plot the expected policy rate paths for the second quarter (or midpoint) of 2019, obtained from models with and without a global factor. (Recall that in the second quarter of 2019, the target range for the federal funds rate was 2.25 percent to 2.50 percent.)

Chart 3: Model-Implied Paths of Policy Rate

The difference in the shape of the expected policy rate paths implied by the two models is striking. (The models' estimates use unsmoothed yield data at quarterly frequency, with continuous bond maturities from one to 80 quarters.) Although the expected policy rate path for the standard model is fairly flat, the rate path for the model with a global factor is deeply inverted up to five-year maturities, suggesting that over this horizon one could have expected rate cuts of almost 100 basis points. These expectations occurred against the backdrop of stable growth and inflation outlook in the United States but deteriorating global economic and trade conditions. The right panel of chart 3 displays the evolution of the expected rate path, estimated from the global factor model, for the two quarters before and the two quarters after the second quarter of 2019, as the Federal Reserve started to adjust its policy rate lower. It is worth noting that the strong effect of the German 10-year/2-year spread in the term structure model with global factor is a relatively recent phenomenon. (Additional results suggest that this factor has only a muted impact on the model estimates prior to 2014.)

The policy implications of these findings warrant several remarks. One direct implication is that the common global determinants of the neutral rate of interest, as well as inflationary dynamics, could constrain the potency of domestic monetary policy. A prime example of these constraints was the policy rate normalization phase undertaken by the Fed during the 2016–18 period, which was characterized by global disinflationary pressures, underwhelming economic performance in Europe and Japan, slowing economic growth in China, and escalating trade tensions. These forces were potentially counteracting the Fed's policy efforts and exerting downward pressure on the global neutral rate of interest. The recent economic and financial developments resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic (such as the global nature of the shock, synchronized monetary and fiscal response across countries, and international financial market comovements) and the ongoing recovery appear to only strengthen the case for the importance of incorporating global information in bond-pricing models.




1 [go back] I should note that the correlation between the two series increased from 52.9 percent before 2014 to 76.2 percent after 2014. Interestingly, the beginning of 2014 marks another important shift in financial markets: a sharp and persistent compression in the breakeven inflation forward curve, as a Liberty Street Economics blog postOff-site link recently discussed. A similar flattening is present in the forward term premia of nominal bonds. This is consistent with the interpretation that such flattening—starting in 2014—is likely the result of a new regime, characterized by the compression of inflation risk across maturities.

November 9, 2020

The Importance of Digital Payments to Financial Inclusion

Editor's note: In December, macroblog will become part of the Atlanta Fed's Policy Hub publication.

A recent Atlanta Fed white paper titled "Shifting the Focus: Digital Payments and the Path to Financial Inclusion" calls for a concerted effort to bring underbanked consumers into the digital payments economy. The paper—by Atlanta Fed president Raphael Bostic, payments experts Shari Bower and Jessica Washington, and economists Oz Shy and Larry Wall—acknowledges the importance of longstanding efforts to bring the full range of banking services to unbanked and underbanked consumers. (For another take on the white paper and its relationship to the Atlanta Fed's mission, you can read here.) However, the white paper observes, progress towards this goal has been slow. It further notes the growing importance of digital payments for a wide variety of economic activities. It concludes by highlighting a number of potential policies that could expand inclusion in the digital payments economy for policymakers to consider.

The 2017 Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) National Survey of Unbanked and Underbanked Households found that 6.5 percent of U.S. households are unbanked and an additional 18.7 percent underbanked. In this survey, a household is considered underbanked if it has a bank account but has obtained some financial services from higher-cost alternative service providers such as payday lenders. The proportions are even higher in some minority communities, with an unbanked rate for Black households at 16.9 percent. These figures were down modestly from earlier FDIC surveys, but progress remains inadequate.

The white paper retains full inclusion as the ultimate goal but argues we should not let the difficulties of achieving full inclusion deter us from moving aggressively to spread the benefits of digital payments. Such digital payments in the United States are typically made using (or funded by) a debit or credit card. Yet a recent paper by Oz Shy (one of the coauthors of this post) finds that over 4.8 percent of adults in a recent survey lack access to either card. Moreover, those lacking a card tend to be disproportionately concentrated in low-income households, with almost 20 percent of households earning under $10,000 annually and over 14 percent of those earning under $20,000 a year having neither card. These numbers also vary by ethnic groups: 4.8 percent of white and 10.2 percent of Black surveyed consumers.

The lack of access to digital payments has long been a costly inconvenience, but recent developments are moving digital payments from the "nice-to-have" category toward the "must-have" category. Card payments are increasing at an annual rate of 8.9 percent by number in recent years. While cash remains popular, debit cards have overtaken cash for the most popular in-person type of payments. Moreover, the use of cards in remote payments where cash is not an option nearly equals their use for in-person transactions. Most recently, COVID-19 has accelerated this move toward cards, with a 44.4 percent year-over-year increase in e-commerce sales in the second quarter of 2020.

These trends in card usage relative to cash usage pose several problems for consumers who lack access to digital payments. First, some retailers are starting to adopt a policy of refusing cash. Second, many governments are deploying no-cash parking meters, along with highway toll readers and mass transit fare machines that do not accept cash. Third, the growth of online shopping is being accompanied by a decrease in the number of physical stores, resulting in reduced access for those lacking cards.

The last part of the white paper discusses a number of not mutually exclusive ways of keeping the shift from paper-based payments (cash and checks) to digital payments from adversely affecting those lacking a bank account. A simple, short-term fix is to preserve an individual's ability to obtain cash and use it at physical stores. No federal law currently prevents businesses from going cashless, but some states and localities have mandated the acceptance of cash.

However, merely forcing businesses to accept cash does not solve the e-commerce problem, nor does it promote the development of faster, cheaper, safer, and more convenient payment systems, so considering alternatives takes on greater importance. One option the paper discusses is that of cash-in/cash-out networks that allow consumers to convert their physical cash to digital money (and vice versa). Examples of this in the United States include ATMs and prepaid debit cards, as well as prepaid services such as mass transit cards that can be purchased for cash in physical locations.

Another option is public banking. One version of this that has been proposed is a postal banking system like the ones operating in 51 countries outside the United States and the one that was once available here. Another public banking possibility would provide consumers with basic transaction accounts that allow digital payments services. The government or private firms (such as banks, credit unions, or some types of fintech firms) could administer such services.

The paper concludes with a discussion of some important challenges inherent in moving toward a completely cashless economy accessible to everyone. One such consideration is access to mobile and broadband. This issue has a financial dimension, that of being able to afford internet access. It also has a geographic dimension in that many rural areas lack both high-speed internet and fast cellphone networks. Another dimension is that of providing a faster payment service that would allow people to obtain earlier access to their incoming funds, and result in bank balances more accurately reflecting outgoing payments. Finally, the white paper raises the potential for central bank digital currency to expand access to digital payments. However, central bank digital currency raises a large number of issues that the federal government and Federal Reserve would need to work through before it could be a viable option.

November 21, 2019

Private and Central Bank Digital Currencies

The Atlanta Fed recently hosted a workshop, "Financial System of the Future," which was cosponsored by the Center for the Economic Analysis of Risk at Georgia State University. This macroblog post discusses the workshops discussion of digital currency, including Bitcoin, Libra, and central bank digital currency (CBDC). A companion Notes from the Vault post provides some highlights from the rest of the workshop.

The introduction of Bitcoin has sparked considerable interest in cryptocurrencies since its introduction in the 2008 paper "Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System" by Satoshi Nakamoto. However, for all its success, Bitcoin is not close to becoming a widely accepted electronic cash system. Why it has yet to achieve its original goals is the topic of a paper by New York University professors Franz Hinzen and Kose John, along with McGill University professor Fahad Saleh titled "Bitcoin's Fatal Flaw: The Limited Adoption Problem."

Their paper suggests that the inability of Bitcoin to achieve wider adoption is the result of the interaction of three features: the need for agreement on ledger contents (in blockchain terminology, "consensus"), free entry for creating new blocks (permissionless or decentralized), and an artificial supply constraint. The supply constraint means that an increase in demand leads to higher Bitcoin prices. Such a valuation increase expands the network seeking to create new blocks (that is, increases the number of Bitcoin "miners"). But an increase in the network size slows the consensus process as it takes time for newly created blocks to reach all of the miners across the internet. The end result is an increase in the time needed to make a payment, reducing the value of Bitcoin as a means of payment—a significant consideration, obviously, for any type of currency.

As an alternative to the Bitcoin consensus protocol, they suggest a public, permissioned blockchain that results in faster transactions because it imposes limits on who can create new blocks. In their system, new blocks would be selected based on a weighted vote based on the blockchain's cyptocurrency held by validators (in other words, approved block creators). If validators were to approve new and malicious blocks, that would erode the value of the validator's existing cryptocurrency holdings and thus provide an incentive to behave honestly.

Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta visiting economist Warren Weber presented some work with me on Libra, the new digital coin proposed by Facebook. Weber began by pointing to another problem with using Bitcoin in payments: the cryptocurrency's volatile value. Libra solves this problem by proposing to hold a portfolio of assets denominated in sovereign currencies, such as the U.S. dollar, that will provide one-for-one backing of the value of Libra. This approach is similar to that taken by some other "stablecoins," with the exception that Libra proposes to be stable relative to an index of several currencies whereas other stablecoins are designed to be stable with respect to only one sovereign currency.

Drawing on his background in economic history, Weber observes that introducing a new private currency is hard, but not impossible. For example, he pointed to the Stockholm Bank notes issued in Sweden in the 1660s. These notes worked because they were more convenient than the alternatives used in that country. The fact that other U.S. payments systems are heavily bank-based might afford an advantage to Libra.

Although no one is certain of the public's interest in using Libra, policymakers around the world have taken considerable interest in the potential implications of Libra for monetary policy and financial regulation. Could Libra significantly reduce the use of the domestic sovereign currencies in some countries, thus reducing the effectiveness of monetary policy? How might financial institutions providing Libra-based services be regulated?

One of the other possible policy responses to Libra is central banks' introduction of digital currency. Economists Itai Agur, Anil Ari, and Giovanni Dell'Ariccia from the International Monetary Fund consider some of the issues in developing a CBDC in their paper "Designing Central Bank Digital Currencies." They start by observing some important differences between cash and bank deposits. Cash is completely anonymous in that it reveals nothing about the identity of the payer. However, lost or stolen cash can't be recovered, so it lacks security. Deposits have the opposite properties—they are not anonymous, but there is a mechanism to recover lost or stolen funds.

The paper develops a model in which CBDC can be designed to operate at multiple points on a continuum between deposits and cash. The key concern from a public policy perspective is that the more CBDC operates like bank deposits, the more it will depress bank credit and output. However, if the CBDC operates too much like paper currency, then it could supplant paper currency and eliminate a payments method that some individuals prefer. The paper proposes that CBDC be designed to look more like currency to minimize the extent to which CBDC replaces bank deposits. The problem then becomes how to avoid CBDC reducing the usage of cash to the point where cash is no longer viable. (For example, merchants could decide to stop accepting cash because they find that the few transactions using cash do not justify the costs of accepting it.) The way the paper proposes to keep CBDC from being too attractive relative to cash by applying a negative interest rate to the CBDC. The result would be that those who most highly value CBDC will use it, but the negative rate will likely deter enough people so that cash remains a viable payments mechanism.