FOMC Minutes and More, by Tim Duy: So much Fed, so little time. But the short story is this: The Fed is in risk management mode, which means they will leave rates on hold until they see clear evidence that markets are stabilizing, growth remains on track, and they are even leaning towards needing to see the white in the eyes of the inflation beast. This has the makings of a significant strategic shift. To date, the Fed has argued for early and modest action toward "normalizing" policy with the ultimately goal of staying ahead of the inflation curve. We are moving to a new strategy where Fed policy lags the cycle. The cost of a Fed pause now is the risk of more aggressive policy later.
The minutes of the January FOMC meeting revealed that policymakers struggled to reconcile market volatility with their economic outlook:
In discussing the appropriate path for the target range for the federal funds rate over the medium term, members agreed that it would be important to closely monitor global economic and financial developments and to continue to assess their implications for the labor market and inflation, and for the balance of risks to the outlook. Members expressed a range of views regarding the implications of recent economic and financial developments for the degree of uncertainty about the medium-term outlook, with many members judging that uncertainty had increased. Members generally agreed that the implications of the available information were not sufficiently clear to allow members to assess the balance of risks to the economic outlook in the Committee's postmeeting statement.
That said, they could agree on the following:
However, members observed that if the recent tightening of global financial conditions was sustained, it could be a factor amplifying downside risks.
And they had plenty of reasons to fear the downside risks:
Almost all participants cited a number of recent events as indicative of tighter financial conditions in the United States; these events included declines in equity prices, a widening in credit spreads, a further rise in the exchange value of the dollar, and an increase in financial market volatility. Some participants also pointed to significantly tighter financing conditions for speculative-grade firms and small businesses, and to reports of tighter standards at banks for C&I and CRE loans. The effects of these financial developments, if they were to persist, may be roughly equivalent to those from further firming in monetary policy.
It is very unlikely that these fears will be ameliorated by the March meeting, or even the April meeting, and Fed speakers are signaling as much. See, for example, remarks by Philadelphia Federal Reserve President Patrick Harker and Boston Federal Reserve President Eric Rosengren.
These concerns are growing:
Several participants noted that monetary policy was less well positioned to respond effectively to shocks that reduce inflation or real activity than to upside shocks, and that waiting for additional information regarding the underlying strength of economic activity and prospects for inflation before taking the next step to reduce policy accommodation would be prudent.
And echo a repeated warning from the Fed staff:
The staff viewed the uncertainty around its January projections for real GDP growth, the unemployment rate, and inflation as similar to the average of the past 20 years. The risks to the forecast for real GDP were seen as tilted to the downside, reflecting the staff's assessment that neither monetary nor fiscal policy was well positioned to help the economy withstand substantial adverse shocks; the downside risks to the forecast of economic activity were seen as more pronounced than in December, mainly reflecting the greater uncertainty about global economic prospects and the financial market turbulence in the United States and abroad. Consistent with the downside risk to aggregate demand, the staff viewed the risks to its outlook for the unemployment rate as skewed to the upside. The risks to the projection for inflation were seen as weighted to the downside, reflecting the possibility that longer-term inflation expectations may have edged down and that the foreign exchange value of the dollar could rise substantially further, which would put downward pressure on inflation.
The recent unpleasantness in financial markets has likely prompted the FOMC to take the downside risks more seriously than they did in December. The fact of the matter is that they have very little left in their toolkit should the economy take a turn for the worse. Yes, they could turn toward more quantitative easing, but I think on average they are loathe to go down that route. And yes, they could consider negative interest rates, but that now looks a lot riskier than it did just a few weeks ago. Indeed, from the minutes:
The effects of a relatively flat yield curve and low interest rates in reducing banks' net interest margins were also noted.
A financial system based on banking starts to run into challenges when banks can't make a profit. Significantly negative rates likely require some substantial re-plumbing of the financial pipes to be effective.
The Fed may be turning toward my long-favored policy position - the best chance they have of lifting off from the zero bound is letting the economy run hot enough that inflation becomes a genuine concern. That means following the cycle, not trying to lead it. And I would argue that if the recession scare is just that, a scare, they are almost certainly going to fall behind the curve. The unemployment rate is below 5 percent and wage pressures are rising. The economy is already closing in on full-employment. If we don't have a recession, then how much further along will the economy be by the time the Fed deems they are sufficiently confident in the economy that they can resume raising rates? And note the importance of clearly progress on inflation:
Several participants reiterated the importance of monitoring inflation developments closely to confirm that inflation was evolving along the path anticipated by the Committee.
A couple of members emphasized that direct evidence that inflation was rising toward 2 percent would be an important element of their assessments of the appropriate timing of further policy firming.
By the time we actually see inflation we will be in my "scenario five":
Financial markets remain choppy in the first half of the year, pushing the Fed into “risk management” mode despite solid labor market activity. The Fed skips the March and April meetings. Officials’ delayed response calms markets and prevents a slowdown in activity, but they feel behind the curve and try to catch up with a steeper pace of hikes late in the year.
Separately, some members questioned the effectiveness of the Fed communication strategy:
A couple of participants questioned whether some financial market participants fully appreciated that monetary policy is data dependent, and a number of participants emphasized the importance of continuing to communicate this aspect of monetary policy.
St. Louis Federal Reserve President James Bullard was likely one such participant. From the press release of his speech tonight:
Bullard noted that the FOMC has repeatedly stated in official communication and public commentary that future monetary policy adjustments are data dependent. He then addressed the possibility that the financial markets may not believe this since the SEP may be unintentionally communicating a version of the 2004-2006 normalization cycle, which appeared to be mechanical.“The policy rate component of the SEP was perhaps more useful when the policy rate was near zero, and the Committee wished to commit to the idea that the policy rate was likely to remain near zero for some period into the future,” Bullard explained. “But now, post liftoff, communicating a path for the policy rate via the median of the SEP could be viewed as an inadvertent calendar-based commitment to increase rates.”
You might forgive market participants for believing that the SEP infers some calendar-based guidance when Federal Reserve Vice Chair Stanley Fischer says things like:
Well, we watch what the market thinks, but we can't be led by what the market thinks. We've got to make our own analysis. We make our own analysis and our analysis says that the market is underestimating where we are going to be. You know, you can't rule out that there is some probability they are right because there's uncertainty. But we think that they are too low.
Saying the markets are wrong implies that the policy direction is fairly rigid. In any event, I am not confident there is yet much support for Bullard's position (you would think to switching to a press conference at every FOMC meeting would be easier, but he hasn't apparently made much progress there either). Instead, the Fed is debating enhancing the SEP with fan charts around the projections to illustrate the associated uncertainty. My preference is to reveal each participant's forecast and their associated dot, as well as the Greenbook forecast. This can be done anonymously. Then we could throw out the crazy forecasts and focus on the reaction functions of the remaining forecasts. I don't think, however, the Fed wants us identifying any forecasts as crazy because they would like us to believe all are equally valid. And they don't want to use the Greenbook forecast because that would imply a central FOMC forecast, which they maintain does not exist. So we are stuck with the dot plot for the foreseeable future.
Bullard has also gone full-dove. He remembered that he thought inflation expectations were supposed to be important, and the decline in 5-year, 5-year forward expectations has him spooked. And he thinks that the excess air has been released from financial markets, so his fears of asset bubbles has eased. Hence, the Fed can easily pause now. But note that Bullard is fickle - just one higher inflation number and he will quickly change his tune.
Bottom Line: The Fed is on hold, stuck in risk management mode until the skies clear. If you are in the "recession" camp, the path forward is obvious. The Fed cuts back to zero, drags its heals on more QE, and fumbles around as they try to figure out if negative rates are a good or bad thing. Not pretty. But if you are in the "no recession" camp, it's worth thinking about the implications of a Fed pause now on the pace of hikes later. Being on hold now raises the risk that by the time the Fed moves again, they will be behind the cycle.