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When it comes to monetary policy, 2015 has so far been the year of the “dovish” surprise. In the first quarter, more than 20 central banks around the world cut interest rates, many of them unexpectedly as far as investors were concerned.
The list stretches from Canada and Australia in the developed world, to China, India, South Korea, Indonesia and Thailand in Asia, on to Turkey, Hungary and Poland in eastern Europe, as well as Israel and Russia.
The trigger was the swoon in commodity prices — and oil above all — which slowed growth for many, while opening up the space to ease for all by driving down inflation. In some countries, such as Poland, disinflation has turned into outright deflation and consumer prices are falling sharply — by 1.5 per cent year-on-year in March, according to the latest data.
The window for looser policy is starting to close, however. Oil prices appear to be stabilising, albeit at low levels, so the downward push on inflation is abating. Global growth should pick up after a dismal first quarter, as the US recovers from an exceptionally cold winter and — who would have thought it — the eurozone picks up steam. And, perhaps most significantly of all, the US Federal Reserve is getting closer to tightening.
The timing of the Fed’s “lift-off” from its current zero interest rate policy remains a subject of much debate in the markets. Medley Global Advisors, a macro-policy research company owned by the FT, currently predicts that the first 25 basis point increase in Fed Funds will come at the central bank’s September meeting. But the precise month, whether it is as early as June or as late as December, is less important than the fact that the Fed chairwoman, Janet Yellen, and her colleagues appear determined to get going this year, according to Medley.
Given the weight of the Fed in setting global monetary conditions, its actions will put pressure on other central banks to follow suit. Across emerging markets, this will be particularly the case for those countries that have large current account deficits and are therefore reliant on foreign inflows (Turkey, South Africa and much of Latin America). Emerging markets with substantial holdings of dollar-denominated debt, such as Russia and Ukraine, may also have to stand ready to defend their currencies if the dollar rises further once the Fed gets going.
To be fair, the Fed’s tightening trajectory will be slow and shallow, with less than 100 basis points of hikes currently priced in until the end of 2016. And there are plenty of developing countries where domestic factors will allow continued easing. In India, for example, the central bank has done a commendable job in lowering inflation expectations.
Still, investors expect policy makers across many emerging markets, particularly in Asia, to follow up on their first-quarter moves with further rate cuts. The risk is that they will be disappointed as central bank doves turn into hawks.