As recovery starts to stall in the US and Europe with echoes of mid-1931, bond experts are once again dusting off a speech by Ben Bernanke given eight years ago as a freshman governor at the Federal Reserve.
Entitled “Deflation: Making Sure It Doesn’t Happen Here”, it is a warfare manual for defeating economic slumps by use of extreme monetary stimulus once interest rates have dropped to zero, and implicitly once governments have spent themselves to near bankruptcy.
The speech is best known for its irreverent one-liner: “The US government has a technology, called a printing press, that allows it to produce as many US dollars as it wishes at essentially no cost.”
Bernanke began putting the script into action after the credit system seized up in 2008, purchasing $1.75 trillion of Treasuries, mortgage securities, and agency bonds to shore up the US credit system. He stopped far short of the $5 trillion balance sheet quietly pencilled in by the Fed Board as the upper limit for quantitative easing (QE).
Investors basking in Wall Street’s V-shaped rally had assumed that this bizarre episode was over. So did the Fed, which has been shutting liquidity spigots one by one. But the latest batch of data is disturbing.
The ECRI leading indicator produced by the Economic Cycle Research Institute plummeted yet again last week to -6.9, pointing to contraction in the US by the end of the year. It is dropping faster that at any time in the post-War era.
The latest data from the CPB Netherlands Bureau shows that world trade slid 1.7pc in May, with the biggest fall in Asia. The Baltic Dry Index measuring freight rates on bulk goods has dropped 40pc in a month. This is a volatile index that can be distorted by the supply of new ships, but those who watch it as an early warning signal for China and commodities are nervous.
Andrew Roberts, credit chief at RBS, is advising clients to read the Bernanke text very closely because the Fed is soon going to have to the pull the lever on “monster” quantitative easing (QE)”.
“We cannot stress enough how strongly we believe that a cliff-edge may be around the corner, for the global banking system (particularly in Europe) and for the global economy. Think the unthinkable,” he said in a note to investors.