Wednesday, December 2, 2015

US Fed chief says economy ready for rate rise; Another stimulus looms for Eurozone; Zuckerberg's billions and the world's problems

1 US Fed chief says economy ready for rate rise (NYT/San Francisco Chronicle) Janet Yellen, the Federal Reserve chairwoman, has said that economic conditions are ripe for the Fed to start raising its benchmark interest rate this month, a move that appears all but inevitable. “The economy has come a long way toward the ... objectives of maximum employment and price stability,” she said.

Yellen said that when the Fed decides to raise rates, the decision would be “a testament, also, to how far our economy has come in recovering from the effects of the financial crisis and the Great Recession.”

“It is a day that I expect we all are looking forward to,” she said. Yellen underscored that the Fed expects to raise rates slowly, because the economy remains weak. And she said the Fed’s policymaking committee will not make a final decision until its meeting Dec. 15 and 16.

It appears that Yellen and her colleagues, who have held the Fed’s benchmark rate near zero for almost seven years, have finally concluded that the domestic economy is strong enough to keep growing with less support from the central bank.

Investors and analysts have generally concluded that the Fed is likely to raise its benchmark rate to a range of 0.25 to 0.5 percent. By keeping rates low, the Fed has sought to stimulate economic growth by encouraging risk-taking by investors, and borrowing by businesses and consumers. As it raises rates, the Fed will reduce those incentives.

2 Another stimulus looms for Eurozone (BBC) The European Central Bank is expected to announce further stimulus measures to boost growth in the eurozone's economy later on Thursday. At its policy meeting, the ECB has the option of stepping up "quantitative easing", buying financial assets with newly created money.

It could also cut the interest rate on overnight bank deposits at the ECB. This is to encourage lending, as with a rate of -0.2%, the banks in effect pay the ECB for holding their reserves. The policy is designed to make it more profitable for banks to offer loans to consumers and businesses, ensuring a free flow of money.

The immediate problem driving this expected action is inflation. It is too low. The most recent figure for the eurozone is 0.1%. The ECB's target is below, but close to, 2%. The figure has been below zero - that is, prices were falling - as recently as September. This has been because of falls in international energy prices, particularly crude oil.

But "core inflation", which strips out volatile food and energy prices, is also low, hovering persistently around 1%. The latest figure, for November, was down on the previous month.

So why would low inflation be seen as a problem? ECB President Mario Draghi spelt out a number of reasons. Low or even below-zero inflation - otherwise known as deflation - can aggravate debt problems. It can lead to households and firms delaying spending.

There are several ways the ECB could achieve its QE. It could increase its monthly spending from the current level of €60bn or it could commit to continuing beyond the tentative date it has set for ending the programme, which is September 2016.

3 Zuckerberg’s billions and the world’s problems (William MacAskill & Deborah Orr in The Guardian) Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan have announced that they will donate 99% of their Facebook shares, currently valued at $45bn, to a new charitable foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Zuckerberg and Chan deserve enormous respect for this decision. The next big question is: where should this money go? A large proportion of social programmes have no impact at all, whereas the best are incredibly effective – hundreds of times better than the merely good ones.

The overarching aims they list are broad: “advance human potential” and “promote equality”. Listed underneath each aim is a dizzying array of possibilities, from “eliminating poverty and hunger” to “curing disease so you live much longer and healthier lives”.

That’s a good sign. There are a lot of important problems in the world. It would be worrying if their foundation had already narrowed its focus at such an early stage, before they had collected any evidence about where their donation could have the greatest social impact.

What I’d really hope is that they follow the lead of Zuckerberg’s cofounder Dustin Moskovitz and his partner Cari Tuna, a former Wall Street Journal reporter. Together, they founded Good Ventures, which might be the best model for how to run a charitable foundation.Good Ventures is extremely transparent, publishing the evidence and analysis behind its grants, so that others can scrutinise their choices and learn from their experience.

It’s a rookie error. You have your first baby and it’s very exciting. So, instead of quietly getting on with working out what life with a baby is going to be like, you noisily tell everyone you can think of that you’ve had a baby and this is going to be the best baby ever.

Having spent several centuries struggling to formulate some kind of democratic system in which everyone has the right to participate, I think humans have every right to find it quite amusing that some guy with a lot of money thinks he can do better, literally on his own initiative.

Anyway, since Zuckerberg is personally going to administer the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, what he’s actually done is give himself a really interesting new job for which he’s eminently unqualified. His new job will be very much unlike other people’s jobs, because it will be all about giving money away, rather than getting hold of it, to put bread on the table.

At the same time, he’s lectured parents around the world about how important it is to set their own work aside to spend time with their children. Hilariously, the new job will largely consist of striving to promote equality. No prizes for guessing who is first among equals. And second. And third.

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