Janet Yellen will frame a decision this week to forgo an interest-rate increase as necessary to achieve the Federal Reserve’s economic goals. Donald Trump and his supporters are likely to frame it as political.
That’s because the central bank on Wednesday will also release fresh “dot plot” projections which will probably show policy makers see one quarter-point rate hike by the end of the year. Such a forecast would be widely interpreted as a sign that a hike is coming at the Fed’s December meeting, instead of at the November gathering, which comes a week before the U.S. presidential election and isn’t accompanied by one of the chair’s quarterly press conferences.
Problem is, having the dot plot signal a December move comes with political baggage...
The political baggage is the timing of the rate hike around a presidential election. Why wait on a rate hike now only to signal that one is coming in December? Detractors will claim that the Fed doesn't want to derail the economy and with it the Democrat's hope of retaining the White House. This despite, as Joe Gagnon notes in the article, politics has little if any impact on the rate setting decision. But this isn't about reality, it is about perception. And, politically, the optics just aren't great.
It seems to me that the Fed is taking a political hit on top of what is likely to be the communications hit if, as is reasonably assumed, the dot plot signals a quarter-point hike in December. That would be a pretty strong calendar-based signal of their intentions. Given there is only a few months left in the year, they have to be pretty confident in the outlook to send such a signal. Which raises the question that if you were so confident, why not hike rates now? And if you send such a strong signal now, is that lowering the bar on the kind of data you need to support a hike? And then are you hiking because of perceived past commitment, a need to maintain "credibility," rather than the data? But doesn't that make the Fed more susceptible to policy errors?
In my opinion, the dots outlived their usefulness when they signaled a pace of policy tightening that never happened. They were a great tool for credibly committing to zero for a long period. But that very credibility made them a terrible tool when the time came for tighter policy. They were perceived as a promise because such perception followed logically from the previous promise of low rates. Now they just appear as a series of broken promises. Worse yet, the Fed might feel tied to those promises when they shouldn't be.
The Fed really needs to rethink the dot plot. Use it as a tool when it can be most effective; pull it when it detracts from the message.
Meanwhile, former Minneapolis Federal Reserve President Narayana Kocherlakota, writing at Bloomberg View, says the Fed is about to make a mistake regardless of what they do:
More than seven years after the recovery began in mid-2009, inflation remains below the central bank's 2-percent target...Worse, markets appear to be losing confidence that the Fed will ever reach its target: Yields on Treasury bonds suggest that traders expect inflation to average less than 2 percent five to 10 years from now. As the experience of the Bank of Japan indicates, restoring such confidence is not easy...The Fed is also falling short of its goal of "maximum" employment.
Kocherlakota concludes that the Fed should be easing policy, so holding and raising rates are both mistakes at this juncture.
But one does not have to go far for an opposing view. The editorial board at Bloomberg has a different idea:
The best it can do is press cautiously ahead on normalizing monetary policy, explain what “normal” now means, and promise to keep an open mind as new information comes in. What this requires right now, it should also say, is a quarter-point rise in interest rates.
The editorial board dismisses Kocherlakota as missing the bigger picture:
What this kind of analysis leaves out is the growing threat to future financial stability. Very low interest rates (together with a massively enlarged central-bank balance sheet, courtesy of quantitative easing) have supported demand as intended, albeit with ever-diminishing effectiveness; at the same time, however, they’ve artificially boosted financial-asset prices and distorted normal patterns of risk-taking in financial markets.
Because interest rate are low, they must be "artificially" low and thus distorting something in the economy. The insinuation is that the Fed can simply raise interest rates and the economy will jump back into a happier equilibrium with no distortions and no negative impact. Good luck with that.
If interest rates were truly too low, then their should be much more economic activity and upward pressure on inflation than currently exists. Whatever distortions currently exist must not be exerting a broad impact and thus are fairly small; monetary policy is a blunt tool to use on small distortions. Nor is it evident that even a fairly large rate hike would stop an asset bubble - at least not without a cost. San Francisco Fed researchers concluded:
What is the takeaway then? Slowing down a boom in house prices is likely to require a considerable increase in interest rates, probably by an amount that would be widely at odds with the dual mandate of full employment and price stability. Moreover, the Fed would need a crystal ball to foretell house price booms. In restraining asset prices, while the power of interest rate policy is uncontestable, its wisdom is debatable.
So hiking rates now to try to stop a bubble will likely end in lower rates later. In other words, to use rate policy to try to calm financial markets, you better be very, very sure you are actually facing a widespread threat to the economy. And I don't see anything that justifies that level of certainty. The Financial Crisis was the last war; policymakers need to be wary about always fighting the last war.
Not everyone believes the Fed will hold steady tomorrow. Via Bloomberg:
Two of the Fed’s 23 preferred bond-trading partners -- Barclays Plc and BNP Paribas SA -- are betting against their peers and the bond market by forecasting officials will raise rates Wednesday. It’s the first time more than one dealer has gone against the consensus during the week of a policy meeting since last September, data compiled by Bloomberg show. Economists at both banks say traders have too steeply discounted officials’ intent to hike after the Fed has remained on hold for longer than expected.
I think this is highly unlikely. There are some heavy hitters pushing to holding rates steady. I would not underestimate the power of a few dovish board members, especially if they don't want to roll over on a rate hike like last December. Moreover, the Fed doesn't like to surprise market participants. They don't need 100% certainty, but they need something better than the current odds hovering between 10 and 20%. The hawks know this, and don't like the outcome of the meeting being a foregone conclusion. That said, if the Fed does hike, the handful of analysts who called for a rate hike will look brilliant. And they should get the credit where credit is due in that circumstance.
And for my views on the meeting, see my piece in Bloomberg this week.