Last week 16 central banks took policy decisions with a record eight banks cutting rates by a total of 550 basis points as the Bank of Japan’s (BOJ) monetary easing looks to become a watershed event in global monetary policy by opening a new front in the currency wars.
Only weeks after the Group of 20 finance ministers and central bank governors agreed that they "will refrain from competitive devaluation,” Australia and Korea - two of the G20 members - surprised markets by cutting interest rates.
Observers questioned the motives behind the two rate cuts as the global economic outlook had not drastically deteriorated.
It is already clear that the ripples from the BOJ’s easing is upsetting global balances, with a range of competitors reacting to the 17 percent plunge in the value of the yen to the U.S. dollar so far this year.
The only substantial change in the policy statements from the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) and the Bank of Korea (BOK) from April to May was the reference to foreign exchange while their observations about growth were largely unchanged.
The other six central banks that cut rates this week did not refer to exchange rates but said a lack of inflationary pressure had given them space to boost growth.
But the RBA said the exchange rate of the Australian dollar had been "little changed at a historically high level" while the BOK said Korea's output gap would continue for a considerable time due to slow global growth, "the influence of the Japanese yen weakening" and geopolitical risks.
To be sure, the global economy has entered a soft patch. But that is exactly the point of international agreements. When times get tough, policy makers are supposed to consider the international ramifications of their actions and look to the common good.
The official reaction of the international community, both the G20 and the Group of Seven, to the BOJ’s new and more aggressive quantitative easing is that it benefits everyone because it strengthens global growth by supporting Japan’s domestic demand and stopping deflation.
Meanwhile, individual countries are adjusting their policies to the impact of the lower yen and the inflow of excess funds to their markets from the BOJ's easing. Data showed that Japanese investors were net buyers of foreign bonds in recent weeks.
The Reserve Bank of New Zealand (RBNZ) intervened in foreign exchange markets for the first time since 2007 to weaken its dollar. The move was hardly a surprise after the RBNZ last month pinned some of the blame for the currency’s appreciation on Japan’s “substantial quantitative easing programme, ” which is making life hard for its exporters.
Thailand has been debating how to tackle the rise in its baht currency and capital inflows with the Bank of Thailand (BoT) on Monday meeting with government and private sector representatives to discuss a response.
The Thai finance minister has been vocal in his criticism of the BOT, saying it should take the strength of the currency into account when deciding on policy and not just inflation. So far the Thai central bank has resisted pressure and kept rates unchanged, arguing the inflows are due to investors’ confidence in the Thai economy and rate cuts would not make much of a difference.
Apart from Australia and Korea, the central banks of Kenya, Belarus, Poland, Georgia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam also cut rates this week. Seven banks held rates steady: Malawi, Norway, the United Kingdom, Malaysia, Peru, Egypt and Mozambique.
Gambia was the only central bank to raise rates this week. Four percent of all rate decisions this year have favored rate hikes, a largely stable ratio. It was Gambia’s first rate rise this year, reversing two rate cuts in 2012, with the bank citing accelerating inflation, partly due to currency depreciation.
Since the BOJ announced its “new phase of monetary easing” on April 4, central banks’ policy rates have tumbled by a cumulative 1,235 basis points, accounting for 58 percent of the total decline in rates so far this year.
Although the decline in policy rates accelerated this week, the total fall this year only amounts to 2,126 basis points, still a far cry from cuts totaling 6,475 in 2012 and 7,517 in 2011. However, the fall in rates does not reflect the true extent of global monetary easing as it doesn’t take into account quantitative easing measures.
Through the first 19 weeks of this year, 24 percent of 186 policy decisions taken by the 90 central banks followed by Central Bank News have lead to rate cuts, a sharp increase from 20 percent after the first 18 weeks.
It was the highest number of rate cuts in one week so far this year, pushing down the average Global Monetary Policy Rate (GMPR) to 5.66 percent from 5.70 percent at the end of April and 6.2 percent at the end of 2012.
The majority of this year’s policy decisions still favor unchanged rates, but the trend is declining. At the end of this week, 72 percent of all decisions this year were to keep rates steady, down from 77 percent after the first 14 weeks of this year and 75 percent after the first 16 weeks.
LAST WEEK’S (WEEK 19) MONETARY POLICY DECISIONS:
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NEXT WEEK (Week 20) features five central bank policy decisions, including Serbia, Indonesia, Iceland, Latvia and Turkey.
On Monday Thailand’s finance minister meets with the Bank of Thailand’s monetary policy committee, government officials and the private sector to discuss the rise in the Thai baht. Markets are speculating the meeting will result in a rate cut. The next scheduled policy meeting by Bank of Thailand is on May 29.
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