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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Fed Watch: And So It Begins

Tim makes a bold call on the outcome of the Fed's rate setting meeting:

And So It Begins, by Tim Duy: The Fed begins a two-day meeting today, with market participants widely expecting a rate cut. I am mentally prepared to be on the wrong side of this call, joining the lonely few, but I just can’t tease another rate cut out of the incoming data.

In my mind, the argument for a rate cut hinges on one crucial assumption – that the market is expecting a rate cut, and the Fed will not want to disappoint. From Bloomberg:

''The Fed is reluctant to ease,'' says Louis Crandall, chief economist at Jersey City, New Jersey-based Wrightson ICAP LLC, a unit of ICAP Plc, the world's largest broker for banks and other financial institutions. ''But it also doesn't want to unsettle the financial markets unnecessarily.''

If the Fed fails to ease, so the story goes, they will be blamed for failure to communicate effectively. After all, given their push for transparency, shouldn’t they make an effort to send a signal when the markets are headed in the wrong direction? The problem with this view is that Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke does not believe it is his job to lead markets around by the nose like his predecessor. I think under the new regime, the Fed expects their comments to be taken at face value. And I think they are pretty effectively communicating their view on the economy: Outside of housing, there is minimal spillover, and whatever spillover exists is completely expected. From Bernanke on October 15 (italics mine):

Since the September meeting, the incoming data have borne out the Committee's expectations of further weakening in the housing market, as sales have fallen further and new residential construction has continued to decline rapidly. The further contraction in housing is likely to be a significant drag on growth in the current quarter and through early next year. However, it remains too early to assess the extent to which household and business spending will be affected by the weakness in housing and the tightening in credit conditions. We will be following indicators of household and business spending closely as we update our outlook for near-term growth. The evolution of employment and labor income also will bear watching, as gains in real income support consumer spending even if the weakness in house prices adversely affects homeowners' equity. The labor market has shown some signs of cooling, but these are quite tentative so far, and real income is still growing at a solid pace.

A week later, Chicago Fed President Charles Evans reiterated the outlook:

Indeed, on balance, I would characterize the data we have received on the real economy since the last FOMC meeting as supporting our baseline forecast.

Such comments – that the economy is roughly in-line with the Fed’s forecast – are essentially ignored by commentators. Has anyone noticed that the data flow has steadily caused 3Q07 estimates of growth to be raised above 3%? Think about it – the Fed cut rates 50bp during a quarter in which growth topped 3%, just after a quarter with almost 4% growth.

The Fed is never that proactive. Never.

Yes, I know, forecasts for 4Q07 are low on the potential impact of the August market turmoil. But note that we have almost no data on the 4th quarter to assess the quality of those forecasts; largely some volatile data on consumer confidence and jobless claims. Moreover, the Fed expects weakness, and is trying to look through it to mid-2008. And the Fed already cut 50bp because they knew that they would not have any good data on which to assess the 4th quarter at their October meeting. Nor would they normally commit to policy with only a single month’s data. The month is not even over! That was the “risk management” portion of their decision to cut 50bp in September. How many rate cuts do you take as insurance?

And, on risk management, Fed Governor Frederick Mishkin, one of the architects of 50bp move, sees financial conditions improving:

''Market functioning has certainly not yet returned to normal,'' Mishkin said in a speech at a seminar commemorating the 1907 U.S. financial panic, which led to the Fed's creation. Still, Fed actions ''have helped improve conditions in several short-term funding markets and instill confidence in investors that liquidity would be available if needed,'' he said.

They did not expect conditions to return to normal overnight; they are simply looking for things to be moving in the right direction. And they are – notice that the ABX market is coming unglued again, as documented by Calculated Risk, but the impact on financial markets is considerably more muted than this summer.

I also believe that this latest jump in oil prices will cause Fed policymakers to question their confidence in the inflation outlook more so than the growth outlook (if economic activity was really coming unglued, oil consumption should be slowing). And notice that despite a softer near term outlook for the economy, FedEx is still prepared to boost its air rates 6.9% next year, following this year’s 5.5%. They must be pretty confident of their pricing power. In my mind, the entire commodity complex is a worrying signal about the path of inflation, but I doubt the Fed is as concerned. Likewise the Dollar; I still have trouble believing the Fed has completely written off the Dollar, but continued rate cuts would signal that the Greenback remains a one-way bet.

Finally, I think analogies to the 1998 rate cuts are missing a key ingredient. Then, the world economy was teetering on the verge of collapse (perhaps a bit melodramatic, but you get the idea). Today, the global economy is in the completely opposite condition, this time dragging the US along and helping to offset a portion of housing weakness.

If the Fed decides they are unwilling to defy the market, or that “risk management” requires additional rate cuts, I would have to conclude that regardless of what the statement says, that one must expect a series of multiple rate cuts. They will be responding to the deteriorating housing market, and I simply expect no stabilization in that market in the near future (don’t get me wrong – I am not a pie-in-the-sky optimist).

Finally, if they do cut, I wish they would stop telling us that their forecast is for moderate growth near potential. A rate cut would suggest that they clearly do no believe that forecast.

Bottom Line: I believe the Fed intended to take a pass in October with the 50bp rate cut. I believe market participants were correctly reading the data until they got caught up in the risk management story. I think the Fed has been explaining past actions, not future policy. For that, you need to look at their forecast. On the basis on the data alone, the Fed is already so far in front of the curve it is hard to justify another cut at this point. I absolutely do not expect the Fed to cut 50bp.

This is the most contrarian call I have made; I simply believe that the case for a rate cut is much weaker than market participants appear to believe.

Update: Here's Greg Ip in the Wall Street Journal:

Why Rate Cut Isn't a Sure Thing, by Greg Ip, WSJ: The market is convinced the Federal Reserve will cut interest rates tomorrow, but for the Fed itself, it is a closer call. ...[F]or policy makers, the decision is between the quarter-point reduction and no cut at all. A half-point cut is unlikely to get serious consideration...

Both courses of action have risks. Perhaps the biggest is that the market's certainty that rates will be cut creates a burden on the Fed to deliver. Ordinarily, meeting market expectations isn't a goal in itself for the Fed. But the current environment is more fragile than usual...

The Fed can mitigate the risks on either front with its accompanying statement. No rate cut could be accompanied by a statement opening the door to a future cut. A cut could be accompanied by a statement damping expectations of more reductions. ...

The case for remaining on hold comes down to the economic forecast. While housing data has deteriorated further, there is little sign so far that it has spilled over to the broader economy. Fed officials don't appear to have significantly altered their forecast of a return to moderate growth next year. ...

[T]he biggest argument for cutting rates will be market expectations. Fed officials didn't intend to nudge the market to expect a rate cut, so they will have to weigh the possibility that markets are signaling a more pessimistic view on growth and credit markets than the Fed sees. ...

Also see William Polley's "Could the Fed hold rates constant?" and his comments on Tim's post.

Update: The Chicago Board of Trade's CME Group Fed Watch has:

Summary Table
October 24: 86% for -25 bps versus 14% for -50 bps.
October 25: 86% for -25 bps versus 14% for -50 bps.
October 26: 92% for -25 bps versus 8% for -50 bps.
October 29: 2% for No Change versus 98% for -25 bps.
October 30:
October 31: FOMC decision on federal funds target rate.

A graph of the probabilities from the Cleveland Fed is here.

    Posted by on Tuesday, October 30, 2007 at 12:24 AM in Economics, Fed Watch, Monetary Policy | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (30)

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