Just a few months ago the specter of inflation dominated Wall Street. Now the tables have turned and low inflation is again the worry du jour as a deflationary wave propagates from the rest of the world - think Europe, China, oil prices. How quickly sentiment changes.
And given how quickly sentiment changes, I am loath to make any predictions on the implications for Fed policy. The very earliest one could even imagine a possible rate hike would be March of next year, still five months away. But since that month is the preference of Fed hawks, better to think that the earliest is the June meeting, still eight months away.
Eight months is a long time. We could pass through two more of these sentiment cycles between now and then. Or maybe the story breaks decisively one direction or the other. Given the uncertainty of economy activity, it is clearly dangerous to become too wedded to a particular date for liftoff. At best we can describe probabilities.
But what I think is often missing is a recognition that through all of the ups and downs of last year, the Fed has sent a very consistent signal: The ongoing improvement in the US economy justifies the steady removal of monetary accommodation. To be sure, we can quibble over the timing of the first move, but consider the path since last May:
- In May of 2013, then-Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke opens the door for tapering of asset purchases.
- The actual tapering begins in December of that year, two meetings later than expected. I think it is heroic to believe those 12 weeks were materially important. By that point, the underlying expectation was well established.
- Although they claimed that the pace of tapering was data dependent, they proceeded on a very methodical path of $10 billion cuts at each meeting. They proceeded on this path despite persistent below target inflation.
- They clearly established that this month's meeting is very, very likely to be the end of the asset purchase program. Again, they stated this expectation despite low inflation.
- Despite the current turmoil, I still expect the asset purchase program to end. I think hawks and doves alike want out of that program. They want to return to interest rate-based policy.
- Even as inflation bounces along below target, they formulated and announced the path of policy normalization. That normalization includes the expectation that the expansion of the balance sheet was temporary and thus will be reversed.
- Even as inflation has bounced along below trend, they have repeatedly warned via the Summary of Economic Projections that rate hikes are just around the corner, and that market participants should plan accordingly.
- And while New York Federal Reserve President William Dudley foreshadowed the minutes and a week of Fedspeak that was generally interpreted dovishly, the key takeaway was although the US economy was not expected to accelerate further, the current path was sufficient to believe in the "consensus view is that lift-off will take place around the middle of next year. That seems like a reasonable view to me" even "if it were to cause a bump or two in financial markets." Those remarks were seconded by San Francisco Federal Reserve President John Williams. So the moderates and hawks both continue to send signal rates hikes by the middle of next year, leaving the voices of doves Minneapolis Federal Reserve President Narayana Kocherlakota and Chicago Federal Reserve President Charles Evans sounding very lonely. Fed Chair Janet Yellen has been somewhat absent from the current debate, although we suppose she sympathizes more with the dovish position.
Given the consistent, methodological approach to policy normalization witnessed over the past year, is it wonder that inflation signals all look soft? For example:
Fed signaling resulted in consistent, downward pressure on inflation expectations. Hence what they view as a dovish policy stance, I view as a hawkish policy stance. And most remarkable to me is that they never realized what I always thought was obvious - that they were setting the stage for a return trip to the zero bound in the next recession. Matthew C Klein at the Financial Times points us to this from the Fed minutes:
For example, respondents to the recent Survey of Primary Dealers placed considerable odds on the federal funds rate returning to the zero lower bound during the two years following the initial increase in that rate. The probability that investors attach to such low interest rate scenarios could pull the expected path of the federal funds rate computed from market quotes below most Committee participants’ assessments of appropriate policy.
The most hawkish projection for the long-term Federal Funds rate is 4.25%. During the downside, cutting cycles are generally in excess of 500bp. The math here is not that complicated. I struggle to find the scenario by which policy does not revert to the zero lower bound. That would imply that the Fed allows conditions to evolve such that the appropriate Fed Funds rate is well in excess of 6%. But given the Fed thinks that the equilibrium real rate has fallen, this implies a willingness to support higher inflation expectations, which is something I just don't see at this point.
And I don't think it is just me. I don't think Wall Street sees the path out. Hence the high probability assigned to a return to the zero bound. Hence also the flattening of the yield curve since tapering began:
I think the Fed should very much change its messaging if policymakers want to lift us from the zero bound for more than a couple of years. I think they should drop the calendar-based guidance they are all now giving. I think they should drop the SEP dot plot, because that clearly sends a hawkish message. I think they should drop reference to the labor market outcomes in terms of quantities in favor of price signals (wages, a direction they seem to be moving). I think they should define their policy strategy to make clear they intend to lift the economy off the zero bound permanently, but that I believe requires them to abandon their 2% inflation fetish (and note that on this I believe their behavior is clearly more consistent with a 2% ceiling then a symmetrical target). They also need to adandon their claim that the balance sheet will be reversed. The size of the balance sheet should not be a policy objective, only the economic outcomes yielded by the size of the balance sheet.
That said, I am also beginning to expect that a return to the zero bound is almost guaranteed. I fear the time has passed for the appropriate mix of fiscal and monetary policy that leaps the economy to a higher equilibrium. But that is a topic for another post.
Bottom Line: Fed policy might sound dovish this week, but take note the the underlying tone has been methodically hawkish for a long, long time. And markets have responded accordingly, including anticipating a return to the zero bound when the next recession hits. Nor should this be unexpected. Monetary policymakers have yet to set clear objectives that includes a high probability that the zero bound is left behind for good.