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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Fed Watch: Are Yellen and Fischer Really Worlds Apart?

Tim Duy:

Are Yellen and Fischer Really Worlds Apart?, by Tim Duy: This from Bloomberg surprised me:

Michael Gapen, chief U.S. economist at Barclays Plc in New York, said Fischer’s comments “reflect an ongoing divergence of opinion” at the central bank. Fischer “doesn’t see much room for running the economy hot” while Yellen’s views “seem to provide a wide-open door to do that. You have a chair and a vice chair who see policy differently right now,” he said.

I don't think there exists a yawning gap between Federal Reserve Vice-Chair Fischer and Federal Reserve Vice Chair Yellen. The perception of this gap stems in part from what I think was an aggressive reading of Yellen's speech last week. The line in question:

If we assume that hysteresis is in fact present to some degree after deep recessions, the natural next question is to ask whether it might be possible to reverse these adverse supply-side effects by temporarily running a "high-pressure economy," with robust aggregate demand and a tight labor market.

Is this a call for a "high-pressure economy"? My interpretation is somewhat more muted. Note that this was posed as a potential research question, along with three others, that macroeconomists should pursue in the wake of the Great Recession:

The Influence of Demand on Aggregate Supply
The first question I would like to pose concerns the distinction between aggregate supply and aggregate demand: Are there circumstances in which changes in aggregate demand can have an appreciable, persistent effect on aggregate supply?

My second question asks whether individual differences within broad groups of actors in the economy can influence aggregate economic outcomes--in particular, what effect does such heterogeneity have on aggregate demand?

Financial Linkages to the Real Economy
My third question concerns a key issue for monetary policy and macroeconomics that is less directly addressed by this conference: How does the financial sector interact with the broader economy?

Inflation Dynamics
My fourth question goes to the heart of monetary policy: What determines inflation?

She does not actually say that the Fed should run a high pressure economy. Nor should this be seen as a defense of current policy because this is decidedly not a high pressure economy. Instead, Yellen argues we need more research on the topic to understand the costs and benefits of such a policy approach:

More research is needed, however, to better understand the influence of movements in aggregate demand on aggregate supply. From a policy perspective, we of course need to bear in mind that an accommodative monetary stance, if maintained too long, could have costs that exceed the benefits by increasing the risk of financial instability or undermining price stability. More generally, the benefits and potential costs of pursuing such a strategy remain hard to quantify, and other policies might be better suited to address damage to the supply side of the economy.

Now, to be sure, she is willing to delay rate hikes to explore the possibility of drawing more supply from the labor market. From the press conference:

But with labor market slack being taken up at a somewhat slower pace than in previous years, scope for some further improvement in the labor market remaining, and inflation continuing to run below our 2 percent target, we chose to wait for further evidence of continued progress toward our objectives.

Does this mean the economy is a running at a high pressure? Later in the conference:

And that is some news that we’ve received in recent months, that the labor market does have that potential to have people come back in without the unemployment rate coming down. So we’re not seeing strong pressures on utilization suggesting overheating, and my assessment would be, based on this evidence, that the economy has a little more room to run than might have been previously thought.

One reason Yellen is willing to delay rate hikes is because the economy is not overheating. Again, this is not a high pressure economy - and if it was, she would not be so willing to delay rate hikes. Indeed, willingness to accept a high pressure economy suggests that Yellen has abandoned preemptive policy. But:

So I think the notion that monetary policy operates with long and variable lags—that statement is due to Milton Friedman, and it is one of the essential things to understand about monetary policy, and it has not fundamentally changed at all. And that is why I believe we have to be forward looking, and I’m not in favor of a “whites of their eyes” sort of approach. We need to operate based on forecasts.

Compare this with Fischer, via the same Bloomberg story:

“If you go below the full employment rate, or peoples’ estimates of full employment, by a couple of tenths of percentage points, I don’t think there’s any danger in that,” Fischer said Monday in response to questions at an Economic Club of New York lunch. “But saying we should keep going until the inflation rate shows us we’re wrong, then you’re going to change too late.”

Then, back to Yellen:

One is the risk that the economy runs too hot, that unemploy—the labor market tightens too much, that unemployment falls to a very low level, that we need to tighten policy in a less gradual way than would be ideal, and in the course of doing that, because that is a very difficult thing to accomplish, to gently create a bit more slack in the labor market, we could cause a recession in the process.

So you get the idea. There is nothing here to suggest that Yellen looks to generate a high pressure economy. She holds the commonly held view within the Fed that policy makers need to prevent the unemployment rate from sinking too low because they cannot just nudge the rate higher. If anything, with the unemployment rate dancing on the edge of Fed estimates of the natural rate, she would almost certainly react to an acceleration in activity with an acceleration in the pace of rate hikes. So too would Fischer. But with growth around 2 percent per tracking estimates, labor force participation rising to meet job growth, and inflation below target, we do not have a high pressure economy and hence the need for immediate rate hikes dissipates. Yellen will let it play out a bit longer. But if the labor force participation rate stalls out and unemployment starts heading back down, Yellen would become nervous that the Fed is poised to fall behind the curve.

Bottom Line: The key debate within the Fed at the moment centers around the need for preemptive rate hikes. The hawks prefer more preemption, the doves favor less. Federal Reserve Lael Brainard pulled the FOMC to the dovish camp, primarily through her influence at Constitution Ave. Yellen is probably somewhat more sympathetic to Brainard than Fischer, but as I said last week, Fischer has moved substantially in Brainard's direction. It is really the presidents that are on the hawkish side of the aisle. There just isn't that much space between Yellen and Fischer at the moment.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Fed Watch: Jobs Data Keeps Hawks Sidelined

Tim Duy:

Jobs Data Keeps Hawks Sidelined: Federal Reserve hawks face an array of labor market data that threatens a key pillar holding up their policy view. That pillar is the assertion that monthly nonfarm payroll growth over roughly 100k will soon force unemployment far below the natural rate, thus placing the US economy in grave danger from inflationary forces. By this view, the decline of unemployment long ago justified further rate hikes. Hawks failed to anticipate that the unemployment rate would flatten out at 5 percent despite steady payrolls growth. This outcome does not fit in their worldview. Fundamentally, they were supply-side pessimists. The recent strength in labor force growth suggests their pessimism was sorely misplaced and undermines their argument for immediate rate hikes. The key elements of the FOMC - the permanent voters - now stand as supply-side optimists and are prepared to hold rates at current levels through the next meeting, and perhaps even longer. A December rate hike is still not a foregone conclusion. 
In recent speeches, Federal Reserve Chair Stanley Fischer appears to be now fully under the sway of Fed doves. Fischer's take on the employment report, from his speech this weekend:
Despite the strong job growth, the unemployment rate, at 5 percent in September, has essentially moved sideways this year as individuals have come back into the labor market in response to better employment opportunities and higher wages. As a consequence, the labor force participation rate has edged up against a backdrop of a declining longer-run trend owing to aging of the population. This increase is a very welcome development.
Four charts deserve attention here. First, "strong job growth:


Second, the unemployment rate has "moved sideways":


Third: "higher wages":


Fourth "labor force participation has edged up":


Overall, the October employment report justified the FOMC's decision to hold rates steady in September. The reasoning, according to Fischer:
But with labor market slack being taken up at a somewhat slower pace than in previous years, scope for some further improvement in the labor market remaining, and inflation continuing to run below our 2 percent target, we chose to wait for further evidence of continued progress toward our objectives.
The Fed sees that demand-side policy triggers a supply side response, and consequently does not want to risk leaving millions in the ranks of the unemployed (and remaining workers with sub-optimal wage growth) with a premature tightening of policy. Moreover, the lack of substantial inflationary pressures continues to the bedevil the hawks. As Fischer notes, inflation expectations remain in check, or, if they have moved, have drifted down. And while inflation has indeed edged up in recent months, it remains below target:


And I would argue that much of the rise in inflation was attributable to January's gain:


Fischer also undercuts the hawks' argument that preemptive hikes are necessary because without them the Fed will fall behind the curve:
But since monetary policy is only modestly accommodative, there appears little risk of falling behind the curve in the near future, and gradual increases in the federal funds rate will likely be sufficient to get monetary policy to a neutral stance over the next few years.
The key is that he sees policy as only modestly accommodative - a view that follows the Fed's epiphany on the persistence of a low natural rate of interest. Hence no massive catch-up would be needed even if future conditions require a faster pace of rate hikes.
I suspect that the hawks, now derailed by the employment data, will further pivot toward financial stability as they argue for a more rapid reduction of financial accommodation. Here too, however, Fischer is prepared to meet them head on. From last week:
Let me briefly mention a second reason for worrying about ultralow interest rates: The transition to a world with a very low natural rate of interest may hurt financial stability by causing investors to reach for yield, and some financial institutions will find it harder to be profitable. On the whole, however, the evidence to date does not point to notable risks to financial stability stemming from ultralow interest rates. For instance, the financial sector has appeared resilient to recent episodes of market stress, supported by strong capital and liquidity positions.
Overall, sounds to me that Fischer now embraces the intellectual framework pushed for over a year by his colleague, Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard. This likely is true also of all the permanent voting members. Within the context to the Board's current framework, the hawkish Fed president can do little more than squawk.  
Bottom Line: A November rate hike remains dead. We have two labor reports until the December meeting. A continuation of recent trends would leave a rate hike at that meeting in doubt. Odds favor that meeting currently, but it is not a foregone conclusion. The doves are supply-side optimists. They want to let this rebound run for as long as possible. And remember, those closest to Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen are now those that inhabit the halls of Constitution Ave. Be wary of the words of hawkish Fed presidents; they have been very misleading this year. 

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Fed Watch: Hard To Say That November Is Really "Live"

Tim Duy:

Hard To Say That November Is Really "Live," by Tim Duy: If there is one thing that I am fairly sure that monetary policymakers hate, it is the idea that the outcomes of their meetings are preordained. November appears to be just such a meeting. To be sure, Fed hawks want to believe the meeting is "live." The sizable group that dissented - or would have dissented if they were voting members - likely sees the case for a rate hike in November as even more pressing than in September. Remember, it is all about preemptive policy action from that contingent. If you thought delay was bad in September, it must be worse in November. But the doves - including a powerful group of permanent voting members - will likely have none of it. From their point of view, the case for a rate hike is no more pressing in November than September. Indeed, according to the the dot-plot, at least three would be happy taking a pass in December as well. And, although they would be loathe to admit it, within the context of a risk management framework the timing of the election argues against a hike as well. As I see it, the best the hawks can hope for is a strong statement about December. The data would have to very quickly turn very strong to give the hawks an upper hand in November.

I did get a chuckle out of this last week:

The only way to reinforce the idea that November is a "live" meeting is to continue to hold out the hope of a rate hike. But unless the doves budge between now and November, a rate hike is not happening. And the doves aren't likely to budge anymore than the hawks. It's kind of a stalemate at the moment, and everyone knows it. So reinforcing the the idea that a hike is going to happen when it isn't is not really an effective communication strategy. It is not exactly good policy guidance.

Cleveland Federal Reserve President Loretta Master would also like you to believe November is "live." From Monday, via Bloomberg:

Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland President Loretta Mester said the economy is ripe for an interest-rate increase and repeated that the Fed’s November meeting should be viewed as “live” for a policy decision, despite its proximity to the U.S. presidential election.

“I would expect that the case would remain compelling” for a rate hike when the Federal Open Market Committee gathers in Washington Nov. 1-2, the week before Americans head to the polls, she told Kathleen Hays in an interview on Bloomberg Television Monday. Mester added that politics wouldn’t affect the decision.

Of course she wants November to be "live." She wanted to hike rates at the last meeting. And I suspect she believes that unless the hawks can push up rate hike expectations to something closer to 50% (from the current 13% or so), they have no chance of pushing through a rate hike. Not that I think they have much of a chance even then. Seems that his amounts to trying to manipulate market expectations to obtain an advantage at the FOMC meeting. I sense this is what hawks have attempted more than once this year. In my opinion, this too is not a good communications strategy.

Like the outcome of the November meeting, Mester's dissent is also preordained.

Mester also repeats the "politics are irrelevant" story. And, broadly, I agree. I don't believe, for example, the Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen is holding rates low simply to help President Obama or enhance Hillary Clinton's election chances. That is ludicrous. So if you are saying that the Fed won't hike in November for those reasons, I think you are wrong.

But I am going to give some on this issue in another dimension. Elections are risk events, and a risk management strategy thus demands that they be considered when making policy. And we know that in fact the Federal Reserve considers elections when making policy. New York Times reporter Binyamin Appelbaum caught Yellen by surprise at the press conference with this question:

BINYAMIN APPELBAUM. Binya Appelbaum, the New York Times. In the run-up to the Brexit vote earlier this year, several Fed policymakers cited it as a reason that they were reluctant to raise rates in June because of the uncertainty associated with that vote. In the run-up to the presidential election, I have not heard any Fed policymaker give that as a reason that they might want to delay raising rates in November. Could you explain why the Fed regards Brexit as a greater danger to the American economy than the presidential election that’s actually happening here? And, second, there were three dissents at this meeting. Could you explain what the cause of disagreement was, what those policymakers thought?

CHAIR YELLEN. So we are very focused on evaluating, given the way the economy is operating, what is the right policy to foster our goals, and I’m not going to get into politics.

Appelbaum nailed that one - we can't credibly believe that the Brexit vote is a more relevant risk for the US economy than this presidential election. Yet the Fed is asking us to believe exactly that. If you can't comment on how US elections impact Fed policy, you shouldn't comment on how foreign elections impact Fed policy. Just chalk it up to "global economic uncertainty" and move one. The Fed really messed up by identifying the Brexit vote as a reason to hold rates steady.

This also doesn't seem like a win for the Fed's communication strategy. Live and learn.

Finally, when considering the risk management issues, don't let New York Federal Reserve President William Dudley's latest speech slip by you. He questions the effectiveness of unconventional monetary policy:

Given the initial novelty of unconventional monetary policy tools, central banks did not have a well-developed body of research to draw on to design the programs and calibrate their impact. While it will take time to build this body of work, research to date varies in terms of the estimated effectiveness of unconventional policy. Several studies indicate that the FOMC’s first asset purchase program helped to reduce long-term interest rates, while the subsequent programs had smaller though still significant effects on rates. However, Professor Summers, who is participating in our program, has recently questioned the effectiveness of the Fed’s asset purchase programs when financial markets are well-functioning.

And then he considers the implications for monetary policy (emphasis added):

There is a related concern given that the federal funds rate is still close to zero at this point in the expansion. While I’m on record as saying that expansions do not simply die of old age, some economists are concerned that the risk of a recession is increasing. As I indicated earlier, the FOMC was able to reduce the federal funds rate by more than 5 percentage points in an effort to offset the effects of the last recession. If another recession were to happen in the next few years, it is likely that the FOMC would be unable to respond with a cut of such magnitude. In this case, the effectiveness of unconventional monetary policy in providing accommodation would again become a central issue, as Chair Yellen discussed in her recent Jackson Hole speech. A risk management approach to monetary policy would suggest that the more concerned one is with the effectiveness of these policies at the zero lower bound, the more cautious one would be in the process of removing accommodation. So, even though we are now slightly off the zero lower bound, an assessment of the effectiveness of unconventional monetary policy has implications with respect to the current stance of monetary policy.

Recessions don't die of old age, that's true. But the fact that Dudley even mentions rising risks of recession among "some economists" is notable. And note the time horizon of his concerns - the next few years! He must have a tingle in the back of his head saying that we are closer to the end than the beginning, and we still don't have adequate policy room, nor can we get adequate policy room by hiking rates because that will only accelerate the onset of the next recession. So the only thing they can do is delay (although not clear why he should consider a rate hike wise at all if he concedes to recession concerns). Such an argument will continue to dominate over the preemptive strike argument (see Richmond Federal Reserve President Jeffrey Lacker for the extreme view on that point) in November.

My takeaways on Fed communications over the last week are thus:

  • If you are only going to hike once a year, it is difficult to see why that hike would come at a meeting without a press conference. Clearly, it is not as if the timing of that one hike is really all that critical. You just have to learn to live with the reality that it will be hard to describe all eight meetings a year as "live" when you hike in only one of them. Live with the fact that at least half will end up effectively as "dead." And guess what? You determined which were "dead" with the decision to only have a press conference at every other meeting.
  • Don't try to talk up a rate hike with the only purpose of keeping the drama surrounding the meeting alive. That is not helping market participants understand the factors driving policy.
  • Don't try to talk up the market odds of a meeting just to attempt to gain a tactical advantage at that meeting. That seems to me to be what Fed hawks have been doing this year. The doves just aren't buying the preemptive strike argument. And they won't if market odds for a meeting are 50% rather than 15%. Wait until December.
  • If US politics are off limits, then foreign politics need to be off limits. It is very hard to explain why US politics don't matter for policy when foreign politics do matter.

Bottom Line: I am hard pressed to see the way forward to a November rate hike. Seems that delay will still dominate over preemptive strikes in November.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Fed Watch: December Looking Good. But...

Tim Duy:

December Looking Good. But..., by Tim Duy: FOMC doves squeezed out another victory at last week’s meeting. But can they do it again in December?
As was widely expected, the Fed held rates steady at the September FOMC meeting. That said, the meeting was clearly divisive, with three dissents, all from regional bank presidents. And the accompanying statement leaned in a hawkish direction – the committee noted that near-term risks were “balanced” and that the case for a rate hike had “strengthened.” Moreover, only three of the participants did not expect a rate hike before year end.
And if that was not enough, during her press conference, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen suggested the bar to a December rate hike was low:
…most participants do expect that one increase in the federal funds rate will be appropriate this year and I would expect to see that if we continue on the current course of labor market improvement and there are no major new risks that develop and we simply stay on the current course.
Sounds like December is a go. But markets are not entirely convinced, with participants pricing in a roughly 60% chance of a rate hike. Perhaps this pricing reflects post-election economic risk. Or perhaps it reflects the possibility that the doves can stare down the hawks one more time before the composition of the Board changes next year.
Can they? That question requires understanding what happened to squash the parade of Fed presidents looking for a rate hike in September. What happened were Federal Reserve Governors Lael Brainard and Daniel Tarrullo. Brainard in particular laid down the intellectual framework ahead of the FOMC meeting, arguing that the potential for further labor market improvement and asymmetric policy risks justified a steady hand at this meeting. Yellen and the rest of the Board bought into this story. The hawks could squawk all they wanted, but the votes just weren’t going to go in their favor.
This episode provided two important lessons. The first is that if you haven’t been taking Brainard seriously this past year – ever since her bombshell speech last October – you have been doing it wrong. The second is that a small group of governors can have a much larger influence on policy than a large group of presidents. There are lots of presidents, and they talk a lot, so their message is louder. But the power rests in the Board.
Indeed, this asymmetry of power is why the relative lack of speeches from Board members is one of the Fed’s biggest communication failures. The people driving policy shouldn’t be waiting until the Friday before the blackout period to begin delivering their message.
Now consider the dots. There remain three “no hike” dots for 2016. I think it is reasonable to believe those three dots belong to Tarullo, Brainard, and Chicago Federal Reserve President Charles Evans. If true, that suggests that Tarullo and Brainard are at the present time considering making another dovish stand at the December meeting. To do so, they need to keep Yellen on their side.
During the press conference, Yellen revealed that she remains attached to a preemptive view of policy. Since monetary policy operates with long lags, it is important that policy responds to inflationary threats before they emerge. She also rejected a “whites of their eyes” approach to policy, or the suggestion by Evans that they Fed waits until core inflation hits two percent before they hike rates. These concerns are balanced against Brainard’s argument that they can’t be sure they have yet achieved full employment.
Hence, and as I said ahead of the meeting, I think that if unemployment dips between now and December, or progress on underemployment resumes, or inflation moves closer to target, the hawks will win as Yellen’s support will shift toward a rate hike. And these things can all be reasonably expected given the current course of job growth, which is in excess of the Fed’s estimate of what is necessary to absorb labor force growth. For the doves to have a decent chance of holding back the hawks one more time, progress on these points needs to remain stalled.
Regardless of a December hike or not, the Fed continues to mark down the expected path of policy. The median projected Fed funds rate dropped 50bp for both 2017 and 2018, continuing the pattern of the Fed moving toward the market rather than vice-versa. And note that the changing composition of the FOMC next year will allow for this dovish message to come through. This meeting’s dissenters will all be replaced with presidents that are on average more dovish. Consider this ordering of monetary policy makers via Julia Coronado of Graham Capital, modified to show the shift of voters for next year:


Voting presidents will be more aligned with the preferences of the governors. This should help ease some of the recent communications challenges even if the governors maintain their relative silence.
Bottom Line: Doves on the Board continue to delay the preemptive strike on inflation. Stalling gains on unemployment and underemployment gave them the ammunition to stand their ground. If those gains resume, doves will fall prey to the hawks at the next meeting. But they will have an easier time maintaining a shallow path of policy next year, and hopefully are better set to communicate that path.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Fed Watch: Ahead Of The FOMC Meeting

Tim Duy:

Ahead Of The FOMC Meeting, by Tim Duy: A roundup of Fed-related stories and viewpoints ahead of the FOMC meeting. First, Jeanna Smialek at Bloomberg sees danger lurking in the new dot plot:

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.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Fed Watch: Is Pushing Unemployment Lower A Risky Strategy?

Tim Duy:

Is Pushing Unemployment Lower A Risky Strategy?, by Tim Duy: The unemployment is closing in on the Fed's estimate of the natural rate of unemployment:


Consequently, Fed hawks are pushing for a rate hike sooner than later in an effort to prevent the economy from "overhearing." This overheating is argued to set the stage for the next recession. For instance, see San Francisco Federal Reserve President John Williams:
History teaches us that an economy that runs too hot for too long can generate imbalances, potentially leading to excessive inflation, asset market bubbles, and ultimately economic correction and recession. A gradual process of raising rates reduces the risks of such an outcome. It also allows a smoother, more calibrated process of normalization that gives us space to adjust our responses to any surprise changes in economic conditions. If we wait too long to remove monetary accommodation, we hazard allowing imbalances to grow, requiring us to play catch-up, and not leaving much room to maneuver. Not to mention, a sudden reversal of policy could be disruptive and slow the economy in unintended ways.
In his Bloomberg View column, former Minneapolis Federal Reserve President Narayana Kocherlakota questions whether there is much theory behind this contention:
Some Fed officials worry that “overheating” could trigger a recession. (I don’t understand the precise economic mechanism, but let’s leave that aside.)
Kocherlakota was specifically referring to the risks of undershooting the natural rate of unemployment. New York Federal Reserve President William Dudley summarized his perception of that risk in January of this year:
A particular risk of late and fast is that the unemployment rate could significantly undershoot the level consistent with price stability. If this occurred, then inflation would likely rise above our objective. At that point, history shows it is very difficult to push the unemployment rate back up just a little bit in order to contain inflation pressures. Looking at the post-war period, whenever the unemployment rate has increased by more than 0.3 to 0.4 percentage points, the economy has always ended up in a full-blown recession with the unemployment rate rising by at least 1.9 percentage points. This is an outcome to avoid, especially given that in an economic downturn the last to be hired are often the first to be fired. The goal is the maximum sustainable level of employment—in other words, the most job opportunities for the most people over the long run.
I don't know that there is an economic mechanism at work here. I don't know that there is a law of economics where the unemployment can never be nudged up a few fractions of a percentage point. But I do think there is a policy mechanism at play. During the mature and late phase of the business cycle, the Fed tends to overemphasize the importance of lagging data such as inflation and wages and discount the lags in their own policy process. Essentially, the Fed ignores the warning signs of recession, ultimately over tightening time and time again.
For instance, an inverted yield curve traditionally indicates substantially tight monetary conditions. Yet even after the yield curve inverted at the end of January 2000, the Fed continued tightening through May of that year, adding an additional 100bp to the fed funds rate. The yield curve began to invert in January of 2006; the Fed added another 100bp of tightening in the first half of that year.
This isn't an economic mechanism at work. This is a policy error at work.
Kocherlakota offers another important point:
It's easy to imagine, though, that many people would be willing to trade the risk of recessionary pain in 2019 and 2020 for the near-term gain of 2017 and 2018. They might even believe there's some chance that policy 2 will generate an outstanding outcome -- if, for example, the long-run unemployment rate is actually lower than the Fed thinks it is.
The Fed seems to place almost zero weight on the probability that the natural rate of unemployment is significantly below their estimates. In their view, only bad things happen when the unemployment rate drifts much below 5%.  
Bottom Line: The Fed thinks the costs of undershooting their estimate of the natural rate of unemployment outweigh the benefits. I am skeptical they are doing the calculus right on this one. I would be more convinced they had it right if I sensed that placed greater weight on the possibility that they are too pessimistic about the natural rate. I would be more convinced if they were already at their inflation target. And I would be more convinced if their analysis of why tightening cycles end in recessions was a bit more introspective. Was it destiny or repeated policy error? But none of these things seem to be true.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Fed Watch: Rate Hike Hopes Fading Fast

Tim Duy:

Rate Hike Hopes Fading Fast, by Tim Duy: The next FOMC meeting is just two weeks away. Fed hawks had hoped that this was their moment in the sun. I suspect they will need to wait another three months before their next opportunity to act. Signs of a second half rebound are likely too tentative for the doves to tolerate a rate hike. I don't think they will roll over as easily as they did last December.
The August employment report was not terrible. Not by any measure. On the positive side, labor supply is reacting to both demographic changes and stronger demand:


The demographic shift - essentially, the aging of the Millennials toward their prime age working years - is I believe a powerful secular force supporting the economy. That said, the Fed needs to ensure cyclical forces do not undermine the economy. And that is where the story becomes tricky. Is the economy slowing sufficiently on its own that the Fed should refrain from rate hikes? Or is the slowing still insufficient to quell the inflationary pressures Fed hawks in particular believe to be building?
On first take, the slowing in payroll growth is modest:


And arguably sufficient to place additional downward pressure on the unemployment rate. Cleveland Federal Reserve President Loretta Mester recently repeated this view, which is widely held within the FOMC. Via Reuters:
Mester, a voting member on the Fed's policy-setting committee, had earlier in the day told a philanthropy conference that the U.S. economy probably needs to generate between 75,000 and 150,000 jobs per month to keep the jobless rate stable.
Hiring has been stronger than that this year and the U.S. jobless rate is currently at 4.9 percent.
"The economy is basically at full employment," Mester said.
This "full employment" view is also evident in the Fed's estimate of the natural rate of unemployment:


This, not inflation directly, seems to be driving Fed hawks toward a rate hike. See former Federal Reserve President Narayana Kocherlakota here. It is the perceived threat of inflation, not the actual, realized threat of inflation.
Fed hawks will also point toward wage growth as evidence of tighter labor markets that foreshadows inflationary pressures:


Fed doves, however, will not be without their own interpretation of the data. The flattening of the unemployment rate could indicate supply side pessimism on the part of the hawks. That is the positive story that still fits with a no hike scenario. A more negative story is that the flat unemployment rate is consistent with late cycle patterns:


Similarly, progress toward reducing underemployment has stalled noticeably, leaving underemployment at very high levels:


Perhaps the household data is picking up a degree of slowing not yet evident in the establishment data? And on the establishment side, temporary help services payrolls are holding in a late cycle pattern as well:


As far as wages are concerned, Fed doves will say that wage growth is still anemic in comparison with past cycles and - they should add - that wages are a lagging indicator. The Fed should be paying much more attention to forward indicators. And those forward indicators remain tentative at best. The hawks' basic case is not just that the economy is at full employment, but that a second half rebound will send it beyond full employment. And while consumer spending supports the second half rebound story:


the ISM reports draw that into question. Today's service sector report was particularly disconcerting with weakness across the board - the sharp drop in new orders should give FOMC members reason for caution. Doves will thus say the Fed can't count their chickens before they hatch. And this is especially important given that the Fed continues to miss its inflation target, and a misstep at this juncture with overly tight policy will basically guarantee they miss it for the next five years as well.
Indeed, while Fed hawks such as Vice Chair Stanley Fischer and Boston Federal Reserve President Eric Rosengren see progress toward the inflation goals, Peter Olson and David Wessel, writing in the WSJ, conclude:
The inflation rate is higher now than it was in 2015. But over the course of 2016 we’ve seen no apparent progress toward the 2% inflation target. If anything, the inflation rate in January was closer to the Fed’s goal than in July. So it’s increasingly difficult for Fed officials to rely on current inflation numbers as a justification for raising rates. Higher inflation might be just around the corner, but we haven’t seen it yet.
I agree. The "progress" that Fischer and Rosengren point to occurred early in the year, mostly in January. Recent trends have been less promising.


The hawks "inflation is here" story is not particularly compelling. Indeed, I would say it borders on disingenuous. Moreover, I suspect the inflation numbers will prompt strong opposition to a rate hike this month. Recall from the recent minutes:
A couple of members preferred also to wait for more evidence that inflation would rise to 2 percent on a sustained basis.
I suspect these two members were Governors Lael Brainard and Daniel Tarrullo. My guess is that neither will roll over on a rate hike as they did last December; I think they probably question the wisdom of the outcome of that meeting. Furthermore, I think they pull Governor Powell and ultimately New York Fed President William Dudley to their side. St. Louis Federal Reserve President James Bullard is ambivalent about when the next 25bp hike occurs; in his framework, the Fed is already within spitting distance of the correct policy stance. He won't push for a hike. And I suspect that Chair Janet Yellen will thus ultimately see too little consensus to support a rate hike.
Bottom Line: Despite being near the consensus view of full employment, incoming data on the second half remains too tentative to support a rate hike this month. This is especially the case given lost momentum in the labor market, particularly with regards to underemployment, and the weak inflation numbers. Hence I do not anticipate a rate hike in September. Why might I be wrong? Aside from just being wrong on the Fed's likely interpretation of the incoming data, perhaps because I have underestimated the Fed's perception that the risks are not really asymmetric - that they have all the tools they need to fight the next recession even if they are at the zero bound - or that the Fed views financial stability concerns as trumping the inflation outlook.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Fed Watch: Thoughts Ahead Of The Employment Report

Tim Duy:

Thoughts Ahead Of The Employment Report, by Tim Duy: The August employment report has come to be seen as the deciding factor in the Fed's upcoming decision on rates. See Sam Fleming at the Financial Times here. Maybe this is the case, maybe not. I hope not. Hinging policy on the first print of nonfarm payrolls - a volatile, heavily revised number - would be pretty low quality policy making. 
I keep coming back to this by Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen from back in December: real private domestic final purchases (PDFP)--which includes household spending, business fixed investment, and residential investment, and currently represents about 85 percent of aggregate spending--has increased at an annual rate of 3 percent this year, significantly faster than real GDP. Household spending growth has been particularly solid in 2015, with purchases of new motor vehicles especially strong.  
This was Yellen's way of justifying a rate hike last December in spite of faltering GDP numbers. Trouble is that PDFP continued a downward slide since then:


Final sales here are off roughly 1.5 percentage points from their cycle highs. That is a nontrivial swing. It is no wonder that job growth accelerated in 2013-14 and then decelerated in 2015:


I tend to think there is room for some further deceleration. Note too that progress on reducing underemployment slowed markedly:


and the unemployment rate is flattening out:


Now, you might say that the Fed needs to hike because wages are rising. But I would say that wages are a lagging indicator


and are likely to continue rising even after a recession begins. Overly shifting the policy focus to wage growth would a red flag in my opinion. I think the Fed tends to focus too much on lagging indicators in the later stages of a business cycle while ignoring their own policy lags. The end result is overly tight policy.
So when I look at the data, I don't see that the August employment report should be a critical factor in a rate hike decision. I think the critical factors should be the Fed's confidence that growth is set to rebound in the second half of the year and the balance of policy risks.
On the first point, while early signals on growth are positive - see the Atlanta Fed GDPNow measure, for example - they are still just early signals. And today's ISM release doesn't indicate that a manufacturing rebound is right around the corner, so maybe that rebound in investment spending just might take more time as well. And auto sales look to have peaked and are flattening out, so that is not likely to be a source of growth and might be slight drag. So, overall, I don't think we have enough data to be confident that growth will rebound just yet.
Regarding the balance of policy risks, that asymmetry has not magically gone away. The Fed has less room to ease than tighten. And inflation remains mired below target:


So I don't see that that the basic calculus here has changed. If the Fed errors by being too loose now, they have plenty of wiggle room on inflation and policy to respond. If they error on by being too tight, they don't have much policy room and they risk holding inflation below 2 percent for another decade. What's that going to do for inflation expectations?
All that said, there appears to be a movement among FOMC members to minimize the asymmetry of the policy risks. First you have Federal Reserve Vice Chair Stanley Fischer arguing that inflation is close enough to target that it shouldn't be a concern. Via Greg Robb at MarketWatch:
And the core measure of the personal consumption expenditure index — the Fed’s favorite measure of inflation — at 1.6% “is within hailing distance” of the central bank’s 2% target, Fischer added.
I starting to think Fischer is still living in the 1970s. But perhaps more disconcerting is Yellen's final line from her Jackson Hole speech:
But even if average interest rates remain lower than in the past, I believe that monetary policy will, under most conditions, be able to respond effectively.
She is playing down the asymmetric policy risk issue here. Given the experience of the past decade, she is way too complacent in my opinion. And her complacency hinges on the assumption that they now know they (nominal) natural rate of interest is 3 percent. But that has been a moving target. And I don't think that is the signal being sent by the long end of yield curve. 
Then there is the financial stability argument. All I will say on that is the Fed had better be damn certain that they are facing a real risk to the economy before they pull the trigger on that argument. And I don't see how they can be that certain.
Bottom Line: Regardless of the outcome of the employment report, good or bad, I don't see good case for moving next this month. Too many questions about the forecast, and they still face persistently low inflation and asymmetric policy risks. But all that said, there seems to be a large swath of voting members ready to get behind a rate hike. I think the low odds on a rate hike in September is the market's way of telling the Fed that if they do hike, it would be a mistake.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Fed Watch: Data Dump

Tim Duy:

Data dump, by Tim Duy: Interesting mix of data today that will give monetary policymakers plenty of food for thought. My guess is that it will probably drive a deeper division in the Fed between those who looking to secure two hikes this year rather and those good with just one or none at all.
Retail sales came in stronger than expected, although prior months were revised down. Various measures of sales excluding gas are perking up compared to last year:


While prior expansions churned out some better spending numbers, the consumer is clearly not in some kind of recessionary free-fall. Remember, 2% growth is the new 4%. These data will help reassure the Fed that the bulk of economic activity - that directed by consumers - remains solid.
Industrial production rose, albeit on the back of autos. Compared to a year ago, factory activity remains in negative territory. Still, softness in the sector does not exhibit the degree of dispersion typically experienced in recessions:


Still looks to me more like a mid-cycle slowdown like the mid-80s and 90s rather than a recession. Containing such a slowdown argues for keeping rates low for now.
Inflation as measured by the consumer price index continues to firm. Core CPI inflation came in at 0.2 percent m-o-m and 2.3 percent y-o-y. Of course, the Fed targets PCE inflation, and there the core number is weaker:


See Calculated Risk for more measures of inflation. The key point here is that the Fed's preferred measure is tracking lower than other measures. Watch for the hawks to press their case on those higher measures; the doves should keep a focus on PCE. The doves should win this battle. If they don't win, the Fed will be effectively targeting a different inflation rate than stated in their long-run policy objectives. That would then render those objectives and likely future similar missives essentially worthless.
The Atlanta Fed released its wage measures for June. These measures - which track persons steadily employed over the past twelve months - continue to exceed the average measures of the employment report:


The Atlanta Fed measure just about in the pre-recession territory; while the standard measures still have a ways to go. The Atlanta Fed measure tells the Fed that cyclical labor market dynamics are not terribly different than the past. When unemployment goes down, wage growth accelerates:


Demographic effects - the exit of higher earning Boomers from the labor force, replaced by lower earning Millennials - appear to be weighing on average wage growth. Which one is the better guide for monetary policy? Policymakers will again find themselves at odds along the obvious lines. The San Francisco Fed gives mixed guidance on the issue:
How to best gauge the impact of wage growth on overall inflation is less clear. As long as employers can keep their wage bills low by replacing or expanding staff with lower-paid workers, labor cost pressures for higher price inflation could remain muted for some time. If, however, these lower-wage workers are less productive, continued increases in unit labor costs could be hiding behind low readings on measures of aggregate wage growth.
On net, when the Fed faces a mixed message, they tend to move slower than faster. So given the low core-PCE environment, the doves will likely remain in control.
Separately, the Wall Street Journal has a story on which Fed speakers are most useful as policy guides. The article is behind the WSJPro paywall, but via Twitter came this graphic:


Granted, this type of list is always in flux. That said, I would definitely move Brainard, Powell, and Tarullo up with Yellen and Dudley. I find it very rare that you would learn less from a Board member than a regional president. This is especially true given the caliber of these three speakers. And remember that Tarullo doesn't talk a lot about monetary policy, but when he does you probably should listen. Brainard has been driving policy since last fall. Of the regionals, I would place Evans at the top. Williams has been too hawkish in his guidance the past couple of years; you really need to put a negative delta on any rate forecast you glean from him. Rosengren steered you wrong this year as he joined Williams in trying to set the stage for a June rate hike. I don't see where Lockhart should be in the top half of this list. And I don't know what to make of Fischer. He has leaned hawkish this cycle as well, to the point of being one who scolds markets for thinking differently. He appears to me to be an outlier on the Board at the moment, not one driving the policy debate.
Bottom Line: Generally solid data sufficient to keep the prospect of a rate hike or two alive for this year. But soft or mixed enough on key points to lean policy closer to the former than the latter.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Fed Watch: Catching Up

Tim Duy:

Catching Up: I snuck out of town last week and am catching up on Fed/economy news. Highlights from the past week:
1.) The labor report comes in better than expected. Nonfarm payrolls rose by 287k in June compared to the downwardly revised 11k gain in May. These results speak to the volatility typically seen in the employment data. See also Matthew Boesler on impact of end of the school year on the data. On a twelve month basis, job growth has eased only moderately. But on a three month basis, the slowdown is more pronounced:


You have to decide if this is one of those situations when the longer term trend is missing a more severe turning point in the data.
My sense is that these numbers are sufficient to convince many Fed officials that the unemployment rate will decline further in the months ahead. But many will also see reason for caution. First, as noted earlier, near term trends reveal a moderation in the pace of job growth. And the rate of improvement in the unemployment rate has slowed markedly in recent months:


This raises the prospect that job growth is actually not that much higher than that necessary to hold the unemployment rate constant. Moreover, progress toward reducing unemployment has slowed or stalled:


And while wage gains are accelerating, the pace remains tepid, roughly 100bp below the pre-recession rates:


It would be disappointing if wage growth stalled out here. Note also that the long-leading indicator of temporary help employment is tracking sideways to slightly down:


All of these indicators may be headed for upside breakouts in the months ahead, but at the moment I sense some loss of momentum in labor market improvement. This, I think, places the Fed on some precarious ground, something that the bulk of the FOMC likely recognizes. It's not that the fundamentals of the economy have necessarily broken down; it's that the Fed needs to maintain a sufficiently accommodative policy to allow those fundamentals to exert themselves.

2.) Influential policymakers urge patience. Federal Reserve Governor Dan Tarullo came out strongly against additional rate hikes at this time. Via MarketWatch:

“Inflation is not at our stated target, not near our stated target, and hasn’t been so in quite some time,” Tarullo said in a conversation at a Wall Street Journal breakfast.

“This is not an economy that is running hot,” he added.

“For some time now I thought it was the better course to wait to see more convincing evidence that inflation is moving toward and would remain around the 2% target,” Tarullo said.

“To this point, I have not seen that type of evidence,” he said.

It seems to me that Tarullo is looking for something close to the proposed Evans Rule 2.0 - no rate hikes until core-inflation hits 2 percent year-over-year. Even more interesting is this:

Tarullo said he didn’t think that the worry that low interest rates may fuel asset bubbles was an “immediate concern.”

The Fed governor, who is the quarterback of the Fed’s efforts to regulate banks, questioned whether raising rates would ease financial stability concerns in an environment where the market was pessimistic about the economic outlook.

“If markets do regard economic prospects as only modest or moderate going forward, then raising short-term rates is almost surely going to flatten the yield curve, which generally speaking is not good for financial intermediation, and in some sense could exacerbate financial stability concerns,” Tarullo said.

When rates are low, regulators should pay more attention to financial stability issues “but it doesn’t translate into ‘therefore raise rates and all will be well,’” he added.

Tarullo is obviously not pleased that the yield curve continues to flatten


and is not interested in hiking into such an environment. New York Federal Reserve President William Dudley echoes this concern:

Federal Reserve Bank of New York President William Dudley voiced concern Wednesday about very low yields on 10-year Treasury notes, which could be a sign that investor expectations for growth and inflation are waning. Mr. Dudley, who had been meeting with local leaders at Binghamton University in New York, said low yields weren’t “completely good news.”

This suggests these two policymakers would prefer to hike if long-term yield were rising, pulling the Fed along for the ride. Low yields are only feeding into the Fed's suspicion that their expectations of where rates are headed are wildly optimistic.

3.) Williams interview. Gregg Robb of MarketWatch has a long interview with San Francisco Federal Reserve President John Williams. The whole interview is worth a read. Two points. First, Williams is in the camp that the Fed need to act sooner than later to forestall the growth of imbalances:

The risk I think we face in waiting too long, or waiting maybe as long as some of these market expectations are, is that the economy is already pretty strong and if we wait too long in further removal of accommodation I do think imbalances will form more generally. It could show up as more inflation pressures down the road, we’re not seeing those yet, but I think that you do see some of this in terms of real-estate markets and other asset markets which are being priced to perfection based on an outlook of very low interest rates. You are seeing extremely high asset valuations in real estate, commercial real estate, the stock market is very strong relative to fundamentals. That is a natural result from low interest rates, that’s one of the ways monetary policy affects the economy. But if asset prices, real estate prices, continue to go further and further away from longer-term fundamentals I think that creates risk for the economy, I think it creates risks eventually for the financial system.

Note that this runs counter to Tarullo, who argued that the flattening yield curve could worsen, not improve, the financial stability situation. The need to rates rates in the name of financial stability is a growing fault line within the Fed.

Second, Williams gives his view of the disconnect between financial markets and the Fed:

In term of the private-sector forecasts, I think it’s very hard to fully understand what the Fed’s decision-making is given that we haven’t done many active policy steps in the last few years. I mean we did obviously as I mentioned the asset purchases during that period, but since we’ve ended that, we talked a lot about raising rates, we’ve given a lot of “dot plots” about raising rates, we did one rate increase in December, but then it has been over six whole months since then, and - I try to put myself in the shoes of a private sector forecaster - one of the hard things to do is kind of see what is our reaction function. What is it that is driving our decision?...

...Right now we’re just in a situation where there is just not a lot of data on actual actions because, for various reasons we’ve held off a long time on our first rate increase and then we held off so far on a second rate increase.

This I think is wrong; lack of action is a policy choice as much as action. Williams seems to think the only useful information about the Fed's reaction function comes when the Fed changes rates. This implies that holding policy steady conveys no information. I would argue that steady policy is in fact signaling the Fed's reaction function, and hence, in combination with the data flow, financial market participants are concluding that the Fed will continue at a glacial pace regardless of what the "dots" say. Indeed, I would say that financial market participants are signaling that the Fed's stated policy path would be a policy error, an error that they don't expect the Fed to make. I guess you could argue that the market doesn't think the Fed understands it's own reaction function. And given the path of policy versus the dots, the market appears to be right.

4.) Mester, seriously? Cleveland Federal Reserve President Loretta Mester dropped this line in a July 1 speech (emphasis added):

But there are also risks to forestalling rate increases for too long when we are continuing to make cumulative progress on our policy goals. Waiting too long increases risks to financial stability and raises the chance that we would have to move more aggressively in the future, which poses its own set of risks to the outlook. I believe waiting too long also jeopardizes our future ability to use the nontraditional monetary policy tools that the Fed developed to deal with the effects of the global financial crisis and deep recession. If we fail to gracefully navigate back toward a more normal policy stance at the appropriate time, then I believe there is a non-negligible chance that these tools will essentially be off the table because the public will have deemed them as ultimately ineffective. This is a risk to the outlook should we ever find ourselves in a situation of needing such tools in the future. Of course, such a risk is hard to measure and is not one we typically consider. But we live in atypical times, and we need to take the whole set of risks into account when assessing appropriate policy.

The part about low rates and financial instability is, as I noted earlier, a growing fault line within the Fed. But the next part about needing to "gracefully" return to a normal policy stance to regain policy effectiveness of nontraditional tools was unexpected. This a variation on a theme. There is a common misperception that policymakers need to raise rates not because the economy needs it, but because it needs tools to fight a future recession. Completely backwards logic, of course. Premature rate hikes only speeds up the arrival of next recession and ensures that policymakers lack room to maneuver. They don't, as Mester suggests, preserve your options. A central banker should know this.

5.) The minutes. My short takeaway from the minutes is that the divide among FOMC participants is greater than the divide among FOMC members. In other words, a larger percentage of participants are looking to hike rates sooner than members. Until the balance on the FOMC shifts, discount hawkish Fedspeak.

Bottom Line: I am keeping an eye on Tarullo; he has been more public on his monetary policy views in recent months. And those views are fairly dovish. My guess is that he and other doves regret taking one for the team last December and falling in line with a rate hike. They won't go down so easily this time around.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Fed Watch: Powell First Out Of The Gate

Tim Duy:

Powell First Out Of The Gate, by Tim Duy: The first Fed speaker of the post-Brexit era delivered a decidedly dovish message. Confirming the expectations of market participants, Federal Reserve Governor Jerome Powell made clear that the Fed was in a holding pattern until the dust settles. Much of the material is similar in content to his May speech, but the shift in emphasis and nuance indicate a substantially policy path.

Powell summarizes the economic situation as:

How should we evaluate our current performance against the dual mandate? I would say that we have made substantial progress toward maximum employment, although there is still some room for improvement. We have more work to do to assure that inflation moves back up to our 2 percent goal.

Both points are important. On the first point, Powell sees evidence of labor market slack in low participation rates, high numbers of part-time workers, and low wage growth. Recent labor reports concern him:

While I would not want to make too much of two monthly observations, the strength of the labor market has been a key feature of the recovery, allowing us to look through quarterly fluctuations in GDP growth. So the possible loss of momentum in job growth is worrisome.

My guess is that they will want to see a string of 2 or 3 solid labor reports before they breathe easier. Still, by acknowledging that the economy is operating near full employment, does he open the door to concerns about inflation? No:

When I was first exposed to macroeconomics in college, more than four decades ago, the view was that inflation was strongly influenced by the amount of slack in the economy. But the relationship between slack and inflation has weakened substantially over the years.

Or, in other words, the Phillips Curve is flat. Not quite flat as a pancake, but pretty darn flat. More important:

In addition, inflation depends importantly on the inflation expectations of workers and firms. A widely shared view among economists today is that, unlike during the 1970s, expectations are no longer heavily influenced by fluctuations in inflation, but are fairly constant, or anchored. For both these reasons, inflation has become less responsive to cyclical changes in the economy.

And what is happening to inflation expectations:

We measure inflation expectations through surveys of forecasters and the general public, and also through market readings on inflation swaps and "breakevens," which represent inflation compensation as measured by the difference between the return offered by nominal Treasury securities and that offered by TIPS. Since mid-2014, these market-based measures have declined significantly to historically low levels. Some of this decline probably represents lower risk of high inflation, or an elevated liquidity preference for much more heavily traded nominal Treasury securities, rather than expectations of lower inflation. Some survey measures of inflation expectations have also trended down.

The signs are worrisome:

Given the importance of expectations for determining inflation, these developments deserve, and receive, careful attention. While inflation expectations seem to me to remain reasonably well anchored, it is essential that they remain so. The only way to assure that anchoring is to achieve actual inflation of 2 percent, and I am strongly committed to that objective.

By downplaying the importance of slack while emphasizing the importance of inflation expectations, he is neutering the primary argument of Fed hawks who insist that approaching full employment necessitates higher interest rates to stay ahead of inflationary pressures. The line about achieving actual inflation of 2 percent could be a nod toward Evans Rule 2.0. Something to keep an eye on.

The impact of Brexit and the subsequent market turmoil is straightforward:

These global risks have now shifted even further to the downside, with last week's referendum on the United Kingdom's status in the European Union. The Brexit vote has the potential to create new headwinds for economies around the world, including our own. The risks to the global outlook were somewhat elevated even prior to the referendum, and the vote has introduced new uncertainties.

And the implication for monetary policy:

It is far too early to judge the effects of the Brexit vote. As the global outlook evolves, it will be important to assess the implications for the U.S. economy, and for the stance of policy appropriate to foster continued progress toward our objectives of maximum employment and price stability.

Notice that he does not warn that rate hikes are coming! Compare to his May speech:

If incoming data continue to support those expectations, I would see it as appropriate to continue to gradually raise the federal funds rate. Depending on the incoming data and the evolving risks, another rate increase may be appropriate fairly soon.

He is wisely now mum on the timing of the next rate hike. More Fed speakers will follow him than not.

But Brexit alone is not the only factor depressing the rate outlook:

I am often asked why rates remain so low now that we are near full employment. A big part of the answer is that, at least for the time being, the appropriate level of rates is simply lower than it was before the crisis. As a result, policy is not as stimulative as it might appear to be. Estimates of the real interest rate needed to keep the economy on an even keel if it were operating at 2 percent inflation and full employment--the "neutral rate" of interest--are currently around zero. Today, the real short term interest rate is about negative 1-1/4 percent, so policy is actually only moderately stimulative. I anticipate that the neutral rate will move up over time, as some of the headwinds that have weighed on economic growth ease.

The Fed increasingly recognizes that policy is not highly accommodative simply because rates are zero. The stance of policy is relative to the real interest rate, and a lower real rate means that policy is actually only "moderately" stimulative. Translation: There is no need to hike rates soon because policy is not particularly accommodative.

Missing now is this warning from May:

There are potential concerns with such a gradual approach. It is possible that monetary policy could push resource utilization too high, and that inflation would move temporarily above target. In an era of anchored inflation expectations, undershooting the natural rate of unemployment should result in only a small and temporary increase in the inflation rate. But running the economy above its potential growth rate for an extended period could involve significant risks even if inflation does not move meaningfully above target. A long period of very low interest rates could lead to excessive risk-taking and, over time, to unsustainably high asset prices and credit growth. Macroprudential and other supervisory policies are designed to reduce both the likelihood of such an outcome and the severity of the consequences if it does occur. But it is not certain that these tools would prove adequate in a financial system in which much intermediation takes place outside the regulated banking sector. Thus, developments along these lines could ultimately present a difficult set of tradeoffs for monetary policy.

By not reiterating this risk, Powell removes an argument to raise rates even inflation remains below target, the financial stability risk. But how much of a risk is it? If the natural rate of interest is lower, than the potential for financial market instability is also lower for a given interest rate. Or, in other words, since monetary policy is not as accommodative as previously believed, the risk of financial instability is lower.

Bottom Line: Powell embraces the lower real interest rate story as a reason that monetary policy is only moderately accommodative, warns that downside risks are rising, replaces expectations of a rate hike in the imminent future with only guidance that rates will be appropriate to foster economic growth, and drops concerns about the risks of a sustained low rate environment. The key takeaway - no expectation that an imminent rate hike will be needed. Gradual to glacial to just nothing.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Fed Watch: Fed Once Again Overtaken By Events

Tim Duy:

Fed Once Again Overtaken By Events, by Tim Duy: With global financial markets reeling in the wake of Brexit - Britain's unforced error as a political gamble went too far - the Fed is back on the sidelines. A July hike was already out of the question before Brexit, while September was never more than tenuous, depending on the data falling in place just right. Now September has moved from tenuous to "what are you thinking?" Indeed, the debate has shifted in the opposite direction as market participants weigh the possibility of a rate cut. The Fed is probably not there yet, but internally they are probably increasingly regretting the unforced error of their own - last December's rate hike.

The primary economic challenge now is the uncertainty created by the British decision. No one knows what the ultimate end game will be, and how long it will take to get there. Indeed, given the political vacuum in the UK, it appears that pro-Leave politicians really had no plan because they never thought it would actually happen. At lest partially in consequence, any exit promises to be a long process that if recent European history is any guide will prove to be repeated games of chicken between the UK and the EU.

So uncertainty looks to dominate in the near term. And market participants hate uncertainty. The subsequent rush to safe assets - and with it a tightening of financial conditions - is evident in plunging government bond yields and a resurgent dollar. The Fed's initial response was a fairly boilerplate statement:

The Federal Reserve is carefully monitoring developments in global financial markets, in cooperation with other central banks, following the results of the U.K. referendum on membership in the European Union. The Federal Reserve is prepared to provide dollar liquidity through its existing swap lines with central banks, as necessary, to address pressures in global funding markets, which could have adverse implications for the U.S. economy.

More direct action depends on the length and depth of the financial turmoil currently underway. I think the Fed is far more primed to deliver such action than they were a year ago. And that ultimately is good news for the economy as it will minimize the domestic damage from Brexit.

The Fed began 2015 under the direction of a fairly hawkish contingent that viewed rate hikes as necessary to be ahead of the curve on inflation. Better to raise preemptively than risk a sharper pace of rate hikes in the future. In other words, it was important to remove financial accommodation as the headwinds facing the economy receded and labor markets approached full employment. As the year progressed, however, the need for less financial accommodation never became evident. Indeed, I would argue that asset markets were telling exactly the opposite, that there was far less accommodation than the Fed believed. Fed hawks were slow to realize this, and, despite the financial turmoil of last summer, forced through a rate hike in December. I think this rate hike had more to do with a perceived need to be seen as "credible" rather than based in economic necessity. I suspect doves followed through in a show of unity for Chair Janet Yellen. They should have dissented.

Markets stumbled again in the early months of 2016, and, surprisingly, Fed hawks remained undeterred. Federal Reserve Vice Governor Stanley Fischer scolded financial market participants for what he thought was an overly dovish expected rate path. And even as recently as prior to the June meeting, Fed speakers were highlighting the possibility of a June rate hike, evidently with the only goal being to force the market odds of a rate hike higher.

But I think that as of the June FOMC meeting, the hawkish contingent has been rendered effectively impotent. Simply put, had they been correct, the US economy should have been surging ahead by now, with more evident inflationary pressures. The hawks were far too early with such a prediction. It became increasingly apparent that maybe the yield curve was telling an important story they should heed. Low long-term yields were never consistent with the Fed's outlook, and, when combined with tepid activity, suggested that the Fed's long-term guide, the natural rate of interest, was much lower than anticipated.

Consequently, I suspect the Fed will be much more responsive to the signal told by the substantial drop in long-term yields that began last Friday (as I write the 10 year is hovering about 1.46%) then they may have been a year ago. The drop in yields will feed into their current anxiety about the level of the natural rate of interest, and as a consequence they will more quickly realize the need to accommodate financial markets to limit any undesirable tightening of financial conditions. I expect some or all of the following options depending on the degree of financial market and real economic distress:

1.) Forward guidance I. Fed speakers will concur with financial market participants that policy is on hold until the dust begins to settle. Optimally, they will dispense with all talk of rate hikes as it is unnecessary and unhelpful at this juncture.

2.) Forward guidance II. They will reinforce point I in the next FOMC statement. Watch for the balance of risks to reappear - it seems reasonable to believe they have shifted decidedly to the downside.

3.) Forward guidance III. This would be an opportune time for Chicago Federal Reserve President Charles Evans to push through Evans Rule 2.0. No rate hike until core inflation hits 2% year-over-year. The Fed could justify such a move as a response to the uncertainty surrounding the natural rate. Essentially, rather than using an unknown variable as a guide, use a know variable.

4.) Forward guidance IV. A lower path of dots in the next Summary of Economic projections to validate market expectations.

5.) Rate cut. Former Minneapolis Federal Reserve President Narayana Kocherlakota argues that the Fed should just move forward with a rate cut in July. I concur; I continue to believe that the Fed has the best chance of exiting the zero bound at some point in the future by utilizing more aggressive policy now. That said, I don't expect this to be the Fed's first option. Moving beyond forward guidance will require evidence that the US economy is set to slow sufficiently to push the employment and inflation mandates further out of reach.

6.) If all else fails. If some combination of 1 through 5 were to fail, the Fed will turn to more QE and/or negative rates. I think the former before the latter because it is more comfortable for them.

Bottom Line. The Fed will stand down for the moment; where they go down the road depends upon the depth and length of current disruption. I think at this point it goes without saying that if you hear a Fed speaker talking about July being on the table or confidently warning about two or three rate hikes this year, you should ignore them. Perhaps we can have that conversation later with regards to the December meeting, but certainly not now. Most Fed officials will stick to the script and downplay the possibility of a rate hike and instead focus on the Fed moves to the sidelines angle. I still think an interesting scenario is one in which the Fed needs to accept above target inflation because global financial stability will depend on a very accommodative Federal Reserve, but that hypothesis will only be tested once inflation actually hits target.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Fed Watch: Janet Yellen's Inflation Problem

Tim Duy:

Janet Yellen's Inflation Problem, by Tim Duy: Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen has been vexed by an inflation problem. Now she is also vexed by an inflation expectations problem. Last week she said (emphasis added):
Uncertainty concerning the outlook for inflation also reflects, in part, uncertainty about the behavior of those inflation expectations that are relevant to price setting. For two decades, inflation has been relatively stable, reacting less persistently than before to temporary factors like a recession or a swing in oil prices. The most convincing explanation for this stability, in my view, is that longer-term inflation expectations have remained quite stable. So it bears noting that some survey measures of longer-term inflation expectations have moved a little lower over the past couple of years, while proxies for these expectations inferred from financial market instruments like inflation-protected securities have moved down more noticeably. It is unclear whether these indicators point to a true decline in those inflation expectations that are relevant for price setting; for example, the financial market measures may reflect changing attitudes toward inflation risk more than actual inflation expectations. But the indicators have moved enough to get my close attention. If inflation expectations really are moving lower, that could call into question whether inflation will move back to 2 percent as quickly as I expect.
Subsequently, the University of Michigan's read on long-run inflation expectations plunged to a series low: INFEXP0616
Just for reference, consider the behavior of the inflation expectations during the last three tightening cycles:


Spot the odd man out.
This, one would think, should grab Yellen's attention. There is speculation of what this means for this week's FOMC statement. For example see here:
“The key thing to watch will be whether the Fed changes its language on inflation expectations” in the statement it publishes after its meeting, said Neil Dutta, head of U.S. economics at Renaissance Macro Research in New York.
They should change the language, but I don't think the will. The problem is that if the Fed acknowledges serious concern about declining inflation expectations, they have to deal with this line from the FOMC statement:
The Committee expects that economic conditions will evolve in a manner that will warrant only gradual increases in the federal funds rate; the federal funds rate is likely to remain, for some time, below levels that are expected to prevail in the longer run.
It makes no sense to show concern with the possibility of unanchored inflation expectations to the downside while at the same time stating that you anticipate the next policy action will be a hike. If inflation expectations are no longer stable, then any rational central banker must act accordingly, and this this case that means easing policy. Anything else is simply irrational, and the Fed should be called out for it.
Do any of us believe the Fed is about to ease policy?
Chicago Federal Reserve President Charles Evans opened the door to an easier policy stance by offering Evans Rule 2.0: Commit to holding steady on rates until core inflation has reached the Fed's inflation target. But think of how big of a leap that would be for the Fed. The Chair just gave a relatively optimistic outlook for the US economy, reiterating her belief that higher rates were coming. Up until the May employment report (a report that Yellen downplayed), policy makers were falling over each other to put the June meeting in play, pushing the message that was eventually revealed in the minutes of the April meeting. Unemployment is at 4.7 percent, a level generally believed within the Fed as consistent with full employment. Second quarter growth looks to be respectable in the 2.0-2.5 percent range. Financial markets stabilized after a tumultuous first quarter. Oil prices moved higher. In short, there is a reason Fed officials put June into play.
It's hard to see the Fed moving from "we plan to hike rates as early as June" to "rate hikes are off the table until inflation hits 2 percent" in just a few weeks. Moreover, adopting Evans Rule 2.0 would dramatically jack up the odds that the Fed would subsequently need to hit the inflation target from above. But the Fed has shown little willingness to consider anything other than hitting the target from below. A shift to Evans Rule 2.0 would take a sea change of sentiment at the Fed. I don't see it happening in just a few weeks on the basis of essentially one number.
So my expectation is that the Fed does not change its inflation expectations language in this week's FOMC statement. If they do, they have to understand that they market participants will price out rate hikes until 2017. I don't think they want this; I think instead the Fed will be working to keep July in play (a tall order in my opinion).
There is now a natural press conference question to add to my existing list:
Chair Yellen, last week you said that inflation expectations were low enough to be on your radar. Now they have turned even lower, but the FOMC declined to acknowledge the weakness in this FOMC statement. Just how low do inflation expectations need to be before the Fed acts?
I would guess that this is the first question for Yellen.
Bottom Line: It is reasonable to think that the Fed will change their inflation expectations language at this week's FOMC meeting. Completely rational considering Yellen's comment last week. A comment that I suspect she now regrets. But a change to the language requires a policy response I don't think the Fed is ready to make. If I am wrong, if the Fed is much more dovish than recent comments, or the most recent minutes, suggest.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Five Questions for Janet Yellen

Tim Duy:

Next week's meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) includes a press conference with Chair Janet Yellen. These are five questions I would ask if I had the opportunity to do so in light of recent events.
1. What's the deal with labor market conditions?
You advocated for the creation of the Federal Reserve's Labor Market Conditions Index (LMCI) to serve as a broader measure of the labor market and as an alternative to a narrow measure such as the unemployment rate...
Continues at Bloomberg....

Monday, June 06, 2016

Fed Watch: Employment Report, Yellen, and More

Tim Duy:

Employment Report, Yellen, and More, by Tim Duy: Lot's of Fed news over the past few days that add up to a simple takeaway: June is off the table (again), the stars have to align just right for a July rate hike (not likely), and September is coming into focus as the next possible rate hike opportunity. September, however, assumes that the employment report is more of an outlier than part of a trend. that's what the Fed will be taking out of the data in the coming months.
Nonfarm payrolls grew by a disappointing 38K in May, low even after accounting for the Verizon strike. Downward revisions struck previous months, leaving behind a marked deceleration in job growth:


Slowest three-month average since 2011. Perversely, the unemployment rate dropped to 4.7 percent, breaking a long period of stagnate readings. The decline, however, was driven by an exit from the labor force - not exactly the improvement we were hoping for. Measures if underemployment continue to track generally sideways at elevated levels:


By these metrics, progress toward full employment has slowly noticeably. Wage growth, however, is showing signs of improvement, and should get a boost next month from base year effects:


How should we interpret the mess that is the May employment report? One take is to treat it as an anomaly, simply a bad draw. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen leaned in this direction in today's speech. After characterizing the economy as near full employment, she added:
So the overall labor market situation has been quite positive. In that context, this past Friday's labor market report was disappointing...Although this recent labor market report was, on balance, concerning, let me emphasize that one should never attach too much significance to any single monthly report. Other timely indicators from the labor market have been more positive. For example, the number of people filing new claims for unemployment insurance--which can be a good early indicator of changes in labor market conditions--remains quite low, and the public's perceptions of the health of the labor market, as reported in various consumer surveys, remain positive...
Still, the data disappointed sufficiently to push her to the sidelines:
That said, the monthly labor market report is an important economic indicator, and so we will need to watch labor market developments carefully.
Later she adds:
Over the past few months, financial conditions have recovered significantly and many of the risks from abroad have diminished, although some risks remain. In addition, consumer spending appears to have rebounded, providing some reassurance that overall growth has indeed picked up as expected. Unfortunately, as I noted earlier, new questions about the economic outlook have been raised by the recent labor market data. Is the markedly reduced pace of hiring in April and May a harbinger of a persistent slowdown in the broader economy? Or will monthly payroll gains move up toward the solid pace they maintained earlier this year and in 2015? Does the latest reading on the unemployment rate indicate that we are essentially back to full employment, or does relatively subdued wage growth signal that more slack remains? My colleagues and I will be wrestling with these and other related questions going forward.
Will Yellen be able to answer these questions with enough confidence to hike in July? Doubtful, in my opinion. A strong report for May would have been sufficient to put them on track for a July hike. But now a July hike requires a sharp rebound in June payroll growth plus substantial upward revisions to the May numbers (in addition to the rest of the data falling into place). That is not likely, and may account for Yellen dropping the "coming months" language when referring to the expected policy path. June or July looked like reasonable possibilities last week, but not so much now.
A second interpretation, however, is more ominous. In this interpretation, the employment data is finally catching up with the slower pace of GDP growth:


The acceleration that began in 2013 looks to have played itself out by the middle of last year. Job growth remained strong, however, pushing productivity growth into negative territory. This, as David Rosenberg explains at Business Insider, was not sustainable. Something had to give, and the labor market finally gave. Similarly, wage growth is a lagging indicator - if the labor market is faltering, the current pace of gains will not be sustainable.
Similarly, note that the ISM services data looks to be catching up to this story as well:


In addition, temporary employment payrolls is flashing a yellow light:


If this is the story, the the Fed will move to the sidelines for an extended period of time, pushing out any hope of a rate hike until December. That assumes the Fed does not make a policy error by rushing to raise rates in these circumstances.
In other news, Federal Reserve Governor Daniel Tarullo, who rarely speaks publicly on monetary policy, defined the current dynamic within the FOMC as those looking to hike versus those looking not to hike. Via MarketWatch:
In an interview with Bloomberg TV, Tarullo said he is in the camp of Fed officials that backs further, gradual, rate hikes but said he is more cautious about a move than some others in that camp.
One group favoring gradual rate hikes wants to hike “unless there is a reason not to” in order to avoid problems with inflation later on, he said.
The other camp, where he sits, wants “an affirmative reason to move” and asks “why do we need” an interest rate hike. Tarullo said.
“The second approach I’ve been a little bit more inclined towards is to say ‘gee, you know, it is not clear what full employment is, we’re in a global environment that is not inflationary, we can perhaps get some more employment and some higher wages which will be particularly useful to those more on the margins of the labor force,’” Tarullo said.
Positioning himself ahead of the FOMC meeting as opposing a rate hike. And this was before the employment report.
Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard also put down her marker ahead of the meeting:
Prudent risk-management would suggest the risks from waiting until the totality of the data provides greater confidence in a rebound in domestic activity, and there is greater certainty regarding the "Brexit" vote, seem lower than the risks associated with moving ahead of these developments. This is especially true since the feedback loop through exchange rate and financial market channels appears to be elevated. In light of this amplified feedback loop, when conditions are appropriate for a policy move, it will be important that it be understood that any subsequent moves would be conditioned on further evidence confirming continued progress toward our objectives and not as inevitable steps on a preset course.
I think these are both key influencers within the FOMC; Brainard's resistance to rate hikes in particular is something that hawks would need to overcome to get their way. I don't think that will be easy.
Chicago Federal Reserve President Charles Evans called for an Evans Rule 2.0:
The question is whether such upside risks would increase substantially under a policy of holding the funds rate at its current level until core inflation returned to 2 percent. I just don’t see it. Given the shallow path of market policy expectations today, there is a good argument that inflationary risks would not become serious even under this alternative policy threshold. And when inflation rises above 2 percent, as it inevitably will at some point, the FOMC knows how to respond and will do so to provide the necessary, more restrictive financial conditions to keep inflation near our price stability objective.
So one can bet he would oppose a rate hike in June. Or July. And even St. Louis Federal Reserve President James Bullard has lost his appetite for a near-term rate hike. Via the Wall Street Journal:
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis President James Bullard said in an interview Monday that he is leaning against supporting a rate rise at the central bank’s coming meeting.
If the Fed is going to raise its short-term interest-rate target, “I’d rather move on the back of good news about the economy,” Mr. Bullard told The Wall Street Journal. And since the Fed will be meeting following the release of the underwhelming May jobs data, it is a “fair assessment” the argument for raising rates is now considerably weaker than it had been
Meanwhile, Atlanta Federal Reserve President Dennis Lockhart worked to keep July in play:
“I don’t personally see a lot of cost to being patient to the July meeting at least,” Lockhart said Monday in a Bloomberg Television interview with Michael McKee in New York. “I think we can be watchful and see how things develop over the next few weeks.”
There will be resistance to letting the markets price out July. That will play into the FOMC's crafting of their statement next week as well as Yellen's press conference.
Bottom Line: The May employment report killed the chances of a rate hike in June. And it was weak enough that July no longer looks likely as well. I had thought that, assuming a solid May number they would set the stage for a July hike. That seems unlikely now; they will probably need two months of good numbers to overcome the May hit. The data might bounce in the direction of July, to be sure. Hence Fed officials won't want to take July off the table just yet, so expect, in particular, the more hawkish elements of the FOMC to keep up the tough talk.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Fed Watch: Waiting For The Employment Report

Tim Duy:

Waiting For The Employment Report, by Tim Duy: Last week Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen gave the green light for a rate hike this summer. Via the Wall Street Journal:
“It’s appropriate…for the Fed to gradually and cautiously increase our overnight interest rate over time, and probably in the coming months such a move would be appropriate,” she said during a panel discussion at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.
This follows on the back numerous Fed speakers, as well as the minutes of the last meeting, that helped place June into play. Of course, Yellen's "coming months" could easily be beyond June, and I suspect that her concern about underemployment and low wage growth will induce her to proceed cautiously and take a pass on June. That said, the meeting is clearly in play and the bar for the next rate hike appears relatively low.
The personal income and spending report bolstered the hawkish position that first quarter economic jitters were much ado about nothing. Real spending jumped 0.6 percent on the back of a lower savings rate, helping to put a floor under the year-over-year numbers:


The consumer stubbornly refuses to believe that a recession is underway.
Inflation firmed somewhat for the month:


Two of the last three monthly readings on the core were just above 2 percent annualized, something that will also give confidence to Fed hawks that their inflation forecast will play out (they will assume headline will head in that direction). Compared to a year ago, however, core inflation continues to languish below target.
The ISM report came in somewhat better than expected considering weak regional surveys. Most of the action was in suppliers delivers (slower), customers' inventories (flat), and prices (higher). New orders held up well; employment still a touch below 50:


On net, neither a great relief nor a disaster. But then it is probably too early to expect the healing touch of a weaker dollar and stronger oil to be evident in the manufacturing data.
In addition, construction spending was down (see Calculated Risk), which, in addition to the ISM report brought the Atlanta Fed estimate of Q2 GDP growth down to a still respectable 2.5 percent from 2.8 percent. If the Fed could be confident in the number, they would have a strong incentive to hike. But I suspect they will wanted an even clearer picture that won't be available until the July meeting at the earliest.
The Beige Book was fairly uneventful on most accounts. Growth was still just "modest" but with an optimistic outlook:
Information received from the 12 Federal Reserve Districts mostly described modest economic growth since the last Beige Book report. Economic activity in April through mid-May increased at a moderate pace in the San Francisco District, while modest growth was reported by Philadelphia, Cleveland, Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis, and Minneapolis. Chicago noted that the pace of growth slowed, as did Kansas City. Dallas reported that economic activity grew marginally, while New York characterized activity as generally flat since the last report. Several Districts noted that contacts had generally optimistic outlooks, with firms expecting growth either to continue at its current pace or to increase.
There was some anecdotal evidence that hawks will use to justify a rate hike:
Employment grew modestly since the last report, but tight labor markets were widely noted; wages grew modestly, and price pressure grew slightly in most Districts.

In my opinion, modest wage growth and slight price pressures do not sound particularly worrisome.

Auto sales ran at estimated 17.4 million annual rate in May. Bloomberg suggested that the numbers might scare the Fed straight:
U.S. auto sales were softer than predicted in May, a bellwether month that may help Federal Reserve decision makers determine whether the economy can handle an interest-rate hike this summer.
My guess is that the Fed already knows that auto sales are leveling out and are not likely to be a significant source of growth going forward. In other words, I have to imagine it is already in the forecast.

Another Bloomberg story to keep an eye on:

Softening apartment rents in New York and San Francisco have forced landlord Equity Residential to lower its revenue forecast for the second time this year, as newly signed leases aren’t meeting the company’s expectations.
Equity Residential said it expects revenue growth from properties open at least a year to be no higher than 4.5 percent this year, according to a statement Wednesday. The reduction follows one made in April, when the Chicago-based real estate investment trust set the upper limit at 5 percent, down from a previous estimate of 5.25 percent.
Two thoughts. First is that maybe multifamily construction has finally caught up with demand, thus rent growth will slow and so will its impact on inflation. Second thought is that if demand for apartments is tapering off, then it may be that millennials are growing out of apartments and into single family housing. This handoff is thus likely to continue:


Look for softer underwriting conditions and marketing campaigns to help encourage this shift.
The Verizon strike likely negatively impacted the headline nonfarm payrolls numbers in the May employment report, so adjust your expectations accordingly. I would pay special attention to the unemployment rate and metrics of underemployment; the Fed would be more inclined to hike rates if progress on these from resumed.
Bottom Line: Nothing here suggests to me that the Fed will soon reject their expectation of a rate hike in the "coming months."

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Fed Watch: Powell, Data

Tim Duy:

Powell, Data, by Tim Duy: Federal Reserve Governor Jerome Powell kept the prospects for a near-term rate hike alive and well in a speech today:

For the near term, my baseline expectation is that our economy will continue on its path of growth at around 2 percent. To confirm that expectation, it will be important to see a significant strengthening in growth in the second quarter after the apparent softness of the past two quarters. To support this growth narrative, I also expect the ongoing healing process in labor markets to continue, with strong job growth, further reductions in headline unemployment and other measures of slack, and increases in wage inflation. As the economy tightens, I expect that inflation will continue to move over time to the Committee's 2 percent objective.
If incoming data continue to support those expectations, I would see it as appropriate to continue to gradually raise the federal funds rate. Depending on the incoming data and the evolving risks, another rate increase may be appropriate fairly soon.
Will these conditions be met for Powell by the time of the next FOMC meeting in June? On one hand, the Atlanta Fed tracking estimate for Q2 is up solidly:


That said, the tracking estimate is famously volatile and could easily collapse after the June meeting. So while a hopeful sign, I would not take it for granted yet that Q2 GDP will come in at a 3 percent pace. And given that Powell views this rebound as an "important" signal, I suspect he will want to be more certain of the Q2 results than allowable by the data available on June 14-15.
Note also he is expecting "further reductions in headline unemployment and other measures of slack" to justify a rate hike. This echoes my recent theme that stagnating progress toward full employment should be something that stays the Fed's hand for the moment. Powell also identifies evolving risks as an important factor in the timing of the next rate hike. As I said earlier this week, I think FOMC members need to shift to a balanced risk assessment prior to hiking. They were closer in April than March on that point, but I still think will fall short in June. Or at best are balanced in June and thus can justify setting the stage for a July hike. Either way, Powell made clear that if the data holds, he would support a rate hike in the near-term.
Powell tempers the rate hike message with a reminder that the path forward is likely to be very, very slow:
Several factors suggest that the pace of rate increases should be gradual, including the asymmetry of risks at the zero lower bound, downside risks from weak global demand and geopolitical events, a lower long-run neutral federal funds rate, and the apparently elevated sensitivity of financial conditions to monetary policy. Uncertainty about the location of supply-side constraints provides another reason for gradualism.
Earlier in the speech Powell, while commenting on slow productivity growth, said:
Lower potential growth would likely translate into lower estimates of the level of interest rates necessary to sustain stable prices and full employment. Estimates of the long-run "neutral" federal funds rate have declined about 100 basis points since the end of the crisis. The real yield on the 10-year Treasury is currently close to zero, compared with around 2 percent in the mid-2000s. Some of the decline in longer-term rates is explained by lower estimates of potential growth, and some by other factors such as very low term premiums.
I suspect that ongoing low productivity growth will lead to further reductions in the Fed's estimates of the longer run federal funds rate. I further suspect that this, combined with Powell's other concerns that limit the pace of rate hikes, means the likely medium-term path forward will be more shallow than the Fed anticipates. In other words, given current conditions, the Fed is still likely to move to the markets over the medium-term even if markets have moved somewhat toward the Fed in the near-term.
Housing data came in strong this week, including a jump in home home sales:


The shift from multifamily to single family looks well underway. While I wouldn't exactly expect sales to climb back up to 1.4 million units, there is clearly room for more upside here given a long period of under-building and high demand for housing. The latter was confirmed by the strong numbers in existing home sales. See Calculated Risk for more.
Initial unemployment claims was once again your weekly reminder that if you are looking for recession, you need to look somewhere else:


But the durable goods data was mixed, with an OK-ish headline but a weak core:


This weakness is consistent with soft regional ISM survey data that foreshadow a soft national ISM manufacturing number for May (to be released next week). Manufacturing data is likely to remain weak until the impacts of lower oil prices and a stronger dollar (both reversing this year) work their way through the sector, hopefully (keep your fingers crossed) by later this year.
While I do not believe current manufacturing numbers are indicative of a US recession, I would not be eager to hike rates into manufacturing weakness either. Moreover, if I were concerned about low productivity, like Powell and other FOMC participants, I would not be eager to hike into the low business investment numbers suggested by the core durable goods figures. Tend to think that this argues against June.
Bottom Line: Fed officials believe the data is lining up for a rate hike in the near future. Ultimately, I think they pass on June. Strategically, July offers a lot to like. They can wait for a more clear view of the 2nd quarter. They can use the June meeting and press conference to set the stage for July. They can broker a compromise between hawks and doves. The former should be happy because a strong signal in June is effectively a rate hike, the latter because it becomes an easily reversed rate hike (by skipping July if necessary) and they can bolster their case for gradualism. And a July hike will end the belief that the Fed can only hike on meetings with press conferences. My personal preference is to delay until September, but I don't run the show. All of the above assumes, of course, that data and financial conditions hold.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Fed Watch: Should The Fed Tolerate 5% Unemployment?

Tim Duy:

Should The Fed Tolerate 5% Unemployment?. by Tim Duy: In recent posts I highlighted the stagnant unemployment rate. I believe the Fed is on thin ice by raising rates when unemployment is moving sideways, especially when there exists evidence of substantial underemployment (see also this FEDS note). But there is also evidence of growing wage pressures, in particular the Atlanta Fed wage measure:


Would wage growth continue to accelerate if unemployment persisted at current levels? If so, would this mean the Fed had reached a tolerable equilibrium? My answers are "possibly" to the former question, and "probably not" to the latter.
Another way to consider the data is via a wage Phillips curve:


I suspect the black dots around 4 percent unemployment are effectively incompatible with a 2 percent inflation target given current productivity growth. The economy is currently operating at the light blue dot. My expectation is that when when conditions are sufficiently tight to raise wage growth to the 4 percent range, they will also be sufficiently tight to raise inflation to the Fed's target. It is possible that this occurs near 5 percent unemployment - essentially a vertical move from the current position.
But while this might be possible (wage growth might just stall out at current levels of unemployment), I hesitate to say that it was optimal. Points up and to the left - lower unemployment but the same wage growth are likely consistent with the Fed's inflation target and thus obviously preferable as they entail higher levels of employment.
Getting to such points, however, includes a higher possibility of overshooting the inflation target (although I would suggest that the magnitude of the overshooting would be no more excessive than the magnitude of undershooting the Fed is currently willing to tolerate). So, and this is reiterating a point from yesterday, I would say that if the Fed slows activity now, they risk settling the economy into a suboptimal outcome with lower employment and, maybe, lower inflation than their mandate. This would seem to be the policy approach of a central bank hell-bent on approaching the inflation target from below. By avoiding further rate hikes until it is clear that activity is in fact sufficient to induce further declines in the unemployment rate, the Fed will maximize its odds of meeting its mandates, but at the cost of some risk of overshooting its inflation target.
It seems to me then that a central bank with a symmetric inflation target would choose to refrain from further rate hikes when progress toward full employment had clearly decelerated:


(or even stalled):


and inflation remains below target:


We will soon see if the Fed agrees.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Fed Watch: Curious

Tim Duy:

Curious, by Tim Duy: I find the Fed's current obsession with raising interest rates curious to say the least. The basic argument for rate hikes is that the economy, and in particular the labor market, sustained its momentum in the last two quarters better than market participants believe. Given that the economy is near or beyond full employment, the lack of excess slack will soon manifest itself in the form of inflationary pressures. Hence, to remain ahead of the inflation curve and maximize the chance that rate hikes will be gradual, they need to soon raise rates.
For instance, St. Louis Federal Reserve President today, from his press release:
“By nearly any metric, U.S. labor markets are at or beyond full employment,” Bullard said. For example, he noted that job openings per available worker are at a cyclical low, unemployment insurance claims relative to the size of the labor force are at a multi-decade low, and nonfarm payroll employment growth has been above longer-run trends. In addition, the level of a labor market conditions index created by staff at the Board of Governors continues to be well above average.
In a recent speech, Boston Federal Reserve President Eric Rosengren argued that employment was close to entering the danger zone:
However, the unemployment rate is now at 5 percent – relatively close to my estimate of full employment, 4.7 percent – and net payroll employment growth is averaging over 200,000 jobs per month over the past quarter. My concern is that given these conditions, an interest rate path at the pace embedded in the futures markets could risk an unemployment rate that falls well below the natural rate of unemployment. We are currently at an unemployment rate where such a large, rapid decline in unemployment could be risky, as an overheating economy would eventually produce inflation rising above our 2 percent goal, eventually necessitating a rapid removal of monetary policy accommodation. I would prefer that the Federal Reserve not risk making the mistake of significantly overshooting the full employment level, resulting in the need to rapidly raise interest rates – with potentially disruptive effects and an increased risk of a recession.
Both these claims appear to me to be hasty. I think this narrative rang true through last summer. But, by my read of the data, since then progress toward full employment has stalled. For instance:


Part-time employment and long-term unemployment look to be moving sideways since the middle of last year, while progress in the U6 unemployment rate has decelerated markedly. And these shifts in momentum are occurring while at levels above those prior to the recession. Moreover, U3 unemployment is now moving sideways at a level above the Fed's estimate of full employment:


I understand that this flattening is attributable to rising labor force participation. That fact, however, should not induce the Fed to tighten. Quite the opposite in fact, as it suggests that available slack is deeper than imagined and hence requires an even longer period of low rates.
To me then, it appears that by raising rates now the Fed is risking falling short on its employment mandate at a time when the price mandate is also challenged. And falling short on the employment mandate now suggests an economy with sufficient slack to prevent reaching that price mandate. And that is without considering neither the balance of risks to the outlook nor the possibility that escaping the zero bound requires approaching the inflation target from above rather than below. Consequently, it seems that the case for a rate hike in June should be quite weak.
I would think that Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen should also find it quite weak. But the minutes of the April FOMC meeting and recent Fedspeak indicate that a large number of monetary policymakers find the case for a rate hike quite compelling. Given her past concerns regarding underemployment, I would have expected Yellen to lean stronger in the opposite direction. But I don't know that she is in fact leaning against the logic driving a rate hike. I am hoping we learn as much via her upcoming speaking engagements.
But, Yellen aside, what is driving so many FOMC participants to the rate hike camp? I think they are driven in part by two ideas that I believe to be erroneous. First, they believe that tapering and ending QE was not tightening, and hence essentially they have removed no accommodation. I think tapering was tightening as it reduced expectations about the ultimate size of the Fed's balance sheet and signaled a tighter future path of monetary policy. One place to see the tighter stance of policy is the Wu-Xia shadow rate:


Second, the Fed may be too enamored with the end game, the idea of normalization itself, as reflected in the dot-plot. They have already decided that the equilibrium fed funds rate is north of 3 percent, and hence assume that the current rate is highly accommodative. They thus see a large distance that needs to be covered, and feel an urge to start sooner than later.
Bottom Line: I don't find it surprising that some Fed policymakers are eager to hike rates. I am surprised that such sentiments are widespread throughout FOMC participants. It does not seem consistent with my understanding of the Fed's reaction function. They seem to be dismissing the recent lack of progress in reducing underemployment. This I think also might help explain the previously wide distance between financial market participants and the policymakers. And that might perhaps be why financial market participants largely ignored the warnings that rate hikes were likely until the release of the April minutes.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Fed Watch: This Is Not A Drill. This Is The Real Thing.

Tim Duy:

This Is Not A Drill. This Is The Real Thing, by Tim Duy: The June FOMC meeting is live. That message came through loud and clear in the minutes, and was subsequently confirmed by New York Federal Reserve President William Dudley. Last week, via Reuters:

"We are on track to satisfy a lot of the conditions" for a rate increase, Dudley said. He added, though, that a key factor arguing for the Fed biding its time a little was the potential for market turmoil around Britain’s vote in late June about whether to leave the European Union...

..."If I am convinced that my own forecast is sort of on track, then I think a tightening in the summer, the June-July time frame is a reasonable expectation," said Dudley, a permanent voting member of the Fed's rate-setting committee.

Boston Federal Reserve President Eric Rosengren, the canary in the coal mine that was long ago alerting markets that they were underestimating June, subsequently gave a strong nod to June in his interview with Sam Fleming of the Financial Times:

We are still a month away from the actual meeting. We are going to get another employment rate in early June. We are going to get a second retail sales report. So I want to be sensitive to how the data comes in, but I would say that most of the conditions that were laid out in the minutes as of right now seem to be . . . on the verge of broadly being met...

Clearly, the Fed will be debating a rate hike at the next FOMC meeting. Will they or won't they? To answer that question, I need to begin with my main takeaways from the minutes:

1.) The Fed broadly agrees that the economic recovery remains intact. Overall there is broad agreement at the Fed that outside of manufacturing (for both domestic and external reasons), economic activity has moderated but remains near or somewhat below their estimates of potential growth and hence is sufficient to drive further improvement in labor markets. The weak first quarter numbers were largely statistical noise attributable to faulty seasonal adjustment mechanisms. Data since the April meeting generally supports this story. The economy is not falling over a cliff, recession is not likely, nothing to see here, folks.

2.) A contingent, however, disagreed with the benign scenario:

However, some participants were concerned that transitory factors may not fully explain the softness in consumer spending or the broad-based declines in business investment in recent months. They saw a risk that a more persistent slowdown in economic growth might be under way, which could hinder further improvement in labor market conditions.

This group will want fairly strong evidence that the first quarter was an anomaly before the sign off on the next rate hike.

3.) There was broad agreement of the obvious - global and financial market threats waned since the previous meeting. The Fed recognized that their hesitation to hike rates helped firm markets. It's important that they recognize that if the economy weathers a bout of financial market turbulence, it is often with the aid of easier Fed policy. Some Fed speakers appeared not to recognize this relationship earlier this year.

4.) Still, the risks are either balanced or to the downside. Apparently, none of the participants saw risks weighed to the upside. While some participants believe the threats had lessened sufficiently to justify a balanced outlook:

Several FOMC participants judged that the risks to the economic outlook were now roughly balanced.

the view was not widely shared:

However, many others indicated that they continued to see downside risks to the outlook either because of concerns that the recent slowdown in domestic spending might persist or because of remaining concerns about the global economic and financial outlook. Some participants noted that global financial markets could be sensitive to the upcoming British referendum on membership in the European Union or to unanticipated developments associated with China's management of its exchange rate.

It seems reasonable that this large group will need to see further diminishment of downside risks to justify a hike in June. Brexit doesn't derail a June hike unless it looks to be negatively impacting financial markets.

5.) The question of full employment deeply divides the Fed. Who wins this debate is critical to defining the policy path going forward. One group thinks the economy is not at full employment:

Many participants judged that labor market conditions had reached or were quite close to those consistent with their interpretation of the Committee's objective of maximum employment. Several of them reported that businesses in their Districts had seen a pickup in wages, shortages of workers in selected occupations, or pressures to retain or train workers for hard-to-fill jobs.

But others saw room for further improvement:

Many other participants continued to see scope for reducing labor market slack as labor demand continued to expand.

The Fed's plan had been to let the economy run hot enough for long enough to eliminate underemployment. One sizable camp within the Fed thinks this largely been accomplished. This is the group that is itching for more hikes earlier. This is a place where Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen should have an opinion and be willing to guide on that opinion. In the past, she has sided with the "still underemployment" camp.

6.) The Fed is also split on the inflation outlook but most believe inflation is set to trend toward target. A nontrivial contingent saw downside risks to the inflation outlook due to soft inflation expectations:

Several commented that the stronger labor market still appeared to be exerting little upward pressure on wage or price inflation. Moreover, several continued to see important downside risks to inflation in light of the still-low readings on market-based measures of inflation compensation and the slippage in the past couple of years in some survey measures of expected longer-run inflation.

But the majority were either neutral or dismissive of the signal from expectations:

However, for many other participants, the recent developments provided greater confidence that inflation would rise to 2 percent over the medium term.

7.) June is on the table. I have long warned that market participants were underestimating the odds of a rate hike in June. This came across loud and clear in the minutes:

Participants agreed that their ongoing assessments of the data and other incoming information, as well as the implications for the outlook, would determine the timing and pace of future adjustments to the stance of monetary policy. Most participants judged that if incoming data were consistent with economic growth picking up in the second quarter, labor market conditions continuing to strengthen, and inflation making progress toward the Committee's 2 percent objective, then it likely would be appropriate for the Committee to increase the target range for the federal funds rate in June.

Consider that the Fed's modus operandi is to delay an expected policy change for two meetings in the face of market turmoil. Hence given calmer financial markets, June could not be so easily dismissed. But it was not just the financial markets that stayed the Fed's hand. It was also softer Q1 data. As of April, participants had not concluded that they would see what they were looking for to justify a rate hike.

Participants expressed a range of views about the likelihood that incoming information would make it appropriate to adjust the stance of policy at the time of the next meeting. Several participants were concerned that the incoming information might not provide sufficiently clear signals to determine by mid-June whether an increase in the target range for the federal funds rate would be warranted. Some participants expressed more confidence that incoming data would prove broadly consistent with economic conditions that would make an increase in the target range in June appropriate.

Moreover, these are participants, not committee members. The actual voters members appeared less committed to June, saying only:

Regarding the possibility of adjustments in the stance of policy at the next meeting, members generally judged it appropriate to leave their policy options open and maintain the flexibility to make this decision based on how the incoming data and developments shaped their outlook for the labor market and inflation as well as their evolving assessments of the balance of risks around that outlook.

Here are my thoughts, assuming of course the data and the financial markets hold up over the next few weeks:

A.) There is a rate hike likely in the near-ish future. There seems to be broad agreement that, at a minimum, the pace of activity remains sufficient to bring the Fed's goals - both maximum employment and price stability - closer into view. Close enough that most voters will soon think another rate hike is appropriate. The doves can't push it off forever.

B.) The Fed will consider June, and there is likely some support among the voting members for a June hike. But ultimately, I think most will want a more complete picture of the second quarter before hiking rates. Also, the contingent that remains less convinced by the inflation outlook will press for more time. Moreover, they will also need broad agreement that the risks to the outlook are at least balanced. It would indeed be silly to plow forward with rate hikes if most members thought the risks were still weighted to the downside, even if the data were broadly consistent with the Fed's forecast. That agreement of balanced risks just might not be there by June.

C.) Fed doves might, however, need to strike a compromise to hold the line on June and avoid more than one or two dissents. That compromise could be a strong signal about the July meeting via the statement, the press conference, or, most likely, both. A July hike would also serve to end the idea that the Fed can't hike rates without a press conference.

D.) The reason compromise might be necessary is the possibility of a fairly stark divide between voting members. Assume Esther George, Eric Rosengren, and James Bullard will push for a rate hike in June. Furthermore, assume that Lael Brainard opposes a rate hike, and has sufficient leverage to pull Dan Tarullo and William Dudley to her side. Janet Yellen might prefer to negotiate a compromise rather than face the prospect of multiple dissents from either camp.

E.) Of all the divisive points above, I think the most important is the debate over the level of full employment. The ability of the doves to slow the pace of subsequent rate hikes will hinge on their willingness to push for below NAIRU unemployment to alleviate underemployment. If the doves maintain the upper hand, the path of subsequent rate hikes will be very, very shallow. I cannot emphasize enough that this is a debate in which Janet Yellen has the opportunity to take leadership that fundamentally defines her preferred rate path going forward. Does she stick with the bottom dots?

Bottom Line: This is not a drill. This meeting is the real thing - an undoubtedly lively debate that could end with a rate hike. I think we narrowly avoid a rate hike, but at the cost of moving forward the next hike to the July meeting.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Fed Watch: Minutes Say June Is On The Table

Tim Duy:

Minutes Say June Is On The Table, by Tim Duy: There is quite a bit of material in the minutes of the April 2016 FOMC meeting to work with, more than I have time for tonight.

The central message of the minutes was that financial market participants were too complacent in their expectations that the Fed would stand pat in June. The Fed clearly made no such decision in April. Instead, meeting participants hotly debated the likelihood that a rate hike would be appropriate in June:

Participants agreed that their ongoing assessments of the data and other incoming information, as well as the implications for the outlook, would determine the timing and pace of future adjustments to the stance of monetary policy. Most participants judged that if incoming data were consistent with economic growth picking up in the second quarter, labor market conditions continuing to strengthen, and inflation making progress toward the Committee's 2 percent objective, then it likely would be appropriate for the Committee to increase the target range for the federal funds rate in June.

Most participants, but not necessarily most voting members, thought a June hike would be appropriate if the economy firms as anticipated. Still, it was not clear to participants that the economy would evolve as expected:

Participants expressed a range of views about the likelihood that incoming information would make it appropriate to adjust the stance of policy at the time of the next meeting. Several participants were concerned that the incoming information might not provide sufficiently clear signals to determine by mid-June whether an increase in the target range for the federal funds rate would be warranted.

This has been essentially my position - that the Fed would not have sufficient data on Q2 at the time of the June meeting to justify a rate hike. Other were more optimistic:

Some participants expressed more confidence that incoming data would prove broadly consistent with economic conditions that would make an increase in the target range in June appropriate.

Note that "several" is greater than "some." Those same "some" were also likely those that expressed this concern:

Some participants were concerned that market participants may not have properly assessed the likelihood of an increase in the target range at the June meeting, and they emphasized the importance of communicating clearly over the intermeeting period how the Committee intends to respond to economic and financial developments.

This should have come as no surprise. Policymakers have repeatedly said as much in recent weeks. Too many participants in April felt June was a real possibility if the data cooperated - and it largely has cooperated - to so easily dismiss the possibility of a June hike.

Committee members were a bit more circumspect with respect to action in June:

Regarding the possibility of adjustments in the stance of policy at the next meeting, members generally judged it appropriate to leave their policy options open and maintain the flexibility to make this decision based on how the incoming data and developments shaped their outlook for the labor market and inflation as well as their evolving assessments of the balance of risks around that outlook. It was noted that communications could help the public understand how the Committee might respond to incoming data and developments over the upcoming intermeeting period. Some members expressed concern that the likelihood implied by market pricing that the Committee would increase the target range for the federal funds rate at the June meeting might be unduly low.

But it is clearly under consideration.

My initial reaction to the minutes was to call the June meeting a toss-up. Via Sam Fleming at the FT:

Hazards are still lurking overseas, and the minutes made it clear they are weighing on the inflation prospects in the minds of a number of policymakers. Tim Duy, a close Fed watcher who is a professor at the University of Oregon, still puts the odds of a move in June at just 50-50.

On further thought, I should have said toward 50-50. I don't like saying 50-50, because that just means you can't make a decision. And re-reading the minutes, I think the odds given the current data are less than 50% but more than 30%. Ultimately, the decision will depend on the willingness of the committee to move with only a partial view of Q2. I think that ultimately the partial view will not be sufficient.

Instead, I see a strong possibility that sufficiently good data makes a July hike probable. I had been thinking they would pass on July due to the lack of press conference, favoring September instead. But a strong signal about July might represent the compromise position between those members ready to hike and those that want a more complete picture of Q2 before acting. The press conference could then be used to clear the way for July. And it would have the added bonus of ending the idea that the Fed can only hike rates at a meeting with a press conference.

One final note. Consider this paragraph:

Labor market conditions strengthened further in recent months. Increases in nonfarm payroll employment averaged almost 210,000 per month over the first three months of 2016. Although the unemployment rate changed little over that period, the labor force participation rate moved up and the pool of potential workers, which includes the unemployed as well as those who would like a job but are not actively looking, continued to shrink. Many participants judged that labor market conditions had reached or were quite close to those consistent with their interpretation of the Committee's objective of maximum employment. Several of them reported that businesses in their Districts had seen a pickup in wages, shortages of workers in selected occupations, or pressures to retain or train workers for hard-to-fill jobs. Many other participants continued to see scope for reducing labor market slack as labor demand continued to expand. In that regard, a number of participants indicated that the recent rise in the participation rate was a positive development, suggesting that a tighter labor market could potentially draw more individuals back into the workforce on a sustained basis without adding to inflationary pressures and thus increase the productive capacity of the economy. It was also noted that businesses might satisfy increases in labor demand in part by converting involuntary part-time jobs to full-time positions.

There are two clear views here: One group feels the economy is near full employment, while another sees room for further improvement. The former group will want more hikes sooner, the latter fewer hikes later. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen should be taking a side in this critical debate and thus driving the direction of policy. Watch for her to provide guidance on this and inflation when she speaks on June 6.

Bottom Line: June is a live meeting. Really. Many Fed officials think the US economy has proven sufficiently resilient to resume hiking rates and would like to retain the option for 3 gradual hikes this year. That leaves June in play. Ultimately, I think they pass on June, but harmony is maintained only by placing a bullseye on July. Meeting participants will be positioning themselves ahead of the meeting. A divided Fed leaves Yellen with a new challenge. Will she lead the FOMC, or will it lead her?

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Fed Watch: Fed Officials Come Looking For A Fight

Tim Duy:

Fed Officials Come Looking For A Fight, by Tim Duy: Incoming data continues to support the narrative that the US economy is not, I repeat, not, slipping into recession. Instead, the US economy is most likely continuing to chug along around 2 percent year over year. Not exciting, but not a disaster by any means. Indeed, for Fed officials thinking the rate of potential growth is hovering around 1.75 percent, it is enough to keep upward pressure on labor markets, pushing to economy further toward full employment.
And if you think you want to hit the inflation target from below, then you need to hit the employment target from above. Which means a non-trivial contingent of the Fed does not want to leave June off the table. That is a message that came thorough loud and clear today.
Industrial production surprised on the upside, gaining 0.7 percent. Still down on a year over year basis, but it is worth repeating that the weakness is narrowly concentrated:


In a recession, the weakness is broadly concentrated. Hence the softness in manufacturing is still best described as a sector specific shock, not an economy-wide shock.
Housing starts for April were also above expectations. The upward grind since 2011:


Notably, the housing market is transitioning from multifamily to single family construction:


Plenty of room to run in that direction, providing underlying support for the US economy. See Calculated Risk for more.
Inflation rose on the back of higher gas prices. Headline CPI gained 0.4 percent, although core rose a more modest 0.2 percent. Core CPI inflation is hovering just above 2 percent:


Fed hawks will be nervous that rising gas prices will quickly filter through to core inflation; doves will remind them that the Fed's target is PCE inflation, which remains well below 2 percent.
Fedspeak was decidedly hawkish today, with both Atlanta Federal Reserve President Dennis Lockhart and San Fransisco Federal Reserve President John Williams insisting that market participants are wrong to assume the Fed will pass on the June meeting. Via Greg Robb at MarketWatch:
Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart and San Francisco Fed President John Williams, in a joint appearance at a lunch sponsored by the news site Politico, said that the decision on whether to raise rates at the June 14-15 meeting depends on the data.
June “certainly could be a meeting at which action could be taken,” Lockhart said.
“I think it is a little early at second-quarter data to draw a conclusion, so I am at this stage inconclusive about how I am going to be thinking about June, but I wouldn’t take it off the table,” Lockhart said.
He said he assumes there will be two to three rate hikes this year...
...Williams said he agreed with Lockhart and said he thought the economy was “doing great.”
“I think the incoming data have actually been quite good and reassuring in terms of policy decisions, so, in my view, June is a live meeting,” Williams said.
He added that there will a lot more data reported before the meeting.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal prior to the Politico lunch, Williams said raising rates two or this times this year “makes sense.”
Separately, Dallas Federal Reserve President Robert Kaplan argued for a rate hike in June or July. Via Ann Saphir at Reuters:
"Whether that’s June or July, I can’t say right now," Kaplan told reporters after a speech. He said would prefer to pause after that first 2016 rate hike to assess conditions, and while he would "hope" to continue to normalize rates thereafter, the pace of rate hikes will depend on incoming economic data.
None of these three are voters. Still, there is a message here - many FOMC participants want to go into the June meeting with a reasonable chance that they will hike rates. They don't want the outcome of this meeting to be a foregone conclusion. Two other thoughts:
1.) The more hawkish Fedspeak could be foreshadowing that the minutes of the April FOMC meeting will have a hawkish tilt.
2.) Kaplan puts July on the table. I had been thinking that July was off the table due to the lack of a press conference. That said, I should be open to the possibility that they use the June press conference to clear the way for July.
Market participants raised the probability of a June rate hike to 15% today. Still probably less than the probability assigned by the median FOMC participant. Meanwhile, the yield curve flattened further - signaling that the Fed needs to move very cautiously. At the moment, the Fed doesn't have much room before they invert the yield curve. In my opinion, the bond market continues to signal that Fed's expectation of normalizing short rates in the 3.5 - 4.0 percent range are wildly - and dangerously - optimistic.
Bottom Line: Today's Fed speakers came looking for a fight with financial market participants. They don't like the low odds assigned to the June meeting. I don't think June is a go; the data isn't quite there yet. But odds are greater than 15%, in my opinion.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Fed Watch: Fed Not As Convinced About June As Markets

Tim Duy:

Fed Not As Convinced About June As Markets, by Tim Duy: Market participants place less than 10 percent chance of a rate hike in June. In contrast, San Francisco Federal Reserve President John Williams continues hold out hope for a third. Via Reuters:
Two to three rate increases this year "definitely still makes sense," he said...
Williams, a centrist whose views are generally in line with those of Fed Chair Janet Yellen, said he has not yet conferred with his staff economists over whether the next rate increase would be best made in June, July or September...
...With most gauges of the labor market suggesting the United States is at or nearly at full employment, he said, and inflation set to rise to the Fed's 2 percent target in two years, "things are definitely looking good."
Delaying rate hikes for months, he said, "would force our hands a little bit to move much more quickly in 2017."
Williams follows on the heels of Kansas City Federal Reserve President Esther George and Boston Federal Reserve President Eric Rosengren. The former clearly wants a rate hike, the latter, like Williams, not convinced that June is off the table. Williams adds the possibility that market participants are in for a rude awakening come June:
"Hopefully, if the markets understand our strategy, understand the data the way we do, then they won’t be too surprised by what we do," Williams said. "I definitely don’t think we need to go into a meeting with the markets convinced that we are going to raise rates in order for us to raise rates."
I think the Fed increasingly believes the data is lining up in their favor. Friday's retail sales report likely went a long-way toward dispelling any lingering concerns they might have over the strength of the consumer. The tenor of that data has picked up markedly in the last few months:


Note that one should not read much into the problems of department store retailers like Macy's. They are simply playing a losing game:


This among other data, is pulling upward the Atlanta Fed's estimates of Q2 growth:


Here though I would urge caution - this estimate can come down as quickly as it went up. If the Fed were confident that growth was in fact 2.8% in Q2, then they would move in June. But the reality is they are not likely to have sufficient data to justify that degree of confidence. That leaves me concluding that June is still not likely to happen.
But given the direction of the data, the improvement in financial markets, and the predisposition of a significant number of policymakers to raise early to raise slow, I would not be surprised that market participants revise their expectations that June is a sure thing. Remember that if we assume July and October are off the table (lack of press conferences and/or proximity to election), then retaining the option to hike three times requires a hard look at June. I think that will lead to a much more extensive discussion of a rate hike at the June meeting than many market participants appear to expect.
In the meantime, despite an improving Q2 outlook and healthier financial markets, the yield curve flattened further:


The 10-2 spread was just 95bp at the end of last week. Now, before anyway panics and screams that this implies slow growth, it is worth remembering that the spread was consistently below 100bp in the last half of the 1990s. And that was not exactly a slow growth period.
So why is the curve flattening? My story is this: The yield curve flattens whenever the Fed is in a tightening cycle. And the Fed most assuredly remains in a tightening cycle. They have not backed off their fundamental story that rates are headed higher. They see normalized interest rates on the short end as well above the current yield on the long-end. This seems entirely inconsistent with signals from the bond market and the global zero interest rate environment. In my opinion, the Fed continues to send signal that they intend to error on the side of excessively tight monetary policy.
That is the message of the dot plot. There is absolutely no reason the Fed needs to take stand on the level of short-term interest rates three years hence. They don't know any better than anyone else. So why pretend otherwise? Why not do as William's suggests and trust the markets to reach the right conclusion? In my opinion, the Fed's insistence on signaling an interest rate well above anything consistent with long-run rates isn't just bad policy. It is just plain stupid policy.
To expect the curve to steepen at this juncture, I think at a minimum you need the Fed to more aggressively commit to approaching the inflation target from above. You need to overshoot. That I think would be essentially an easing at this point. Chicago Federal Reserve President Charles Evans is already there. I think that Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen is getting there, but can't say it.
And even then, I don't know that approaching the target from above is enough. The dominance of the dollar in international finance means the Fed has a preeminent role in fostering global financial stability. A 2 percent US inflation target may not be consistent with global financial stability. And if not consistent with global financial stability, then not with US financial stability and thus not solid US economic performance. Which means if the Fed is the world's central bank, they need to adopt an inflation target consistent with maintaining global growth. That might be higher than 2 percent. And they aren't going down that road without a long and nasty fight.
Bottom Line: I don't think the data lines up to support a June rate hike. But I don't think the case will be as clear-cut as signaled by the low odds financial market participants place on a hike.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Fed Watch: Fed Speak, Claims

Tim Duy:

Fed Speak, Claims, by Tim Duy: The Fed is not likely to raise rates in June. But not everyone at the Fed is on board with the plan. Serial dissenter Kansas City Federal Reserve President Esther George repeated her warnings that interest rates are too low:
I support a gradual adjustment of short-term interest rates toward a more normal level, but I view the current level as too low for today’s economic conditions. The economy is at or near full employment and inflation is close to the FOMC’s target of 2 percent, yet short-term interest rates remain near historic lows.
Her motivation stems primarily from concerns about financial imbalances:
Just as raising rates too quickly can slow the economy and push inflation to undesirably low levels, keeping rates too low can also create risks. Interest-sensitive sectors can take on too much debt in response to low rates and grow quickly, then unwind in ways that are disruptive. We witnessed this during both the housing crisis and the current adjustments in the energy sector. Because monetary policy has a powerful effect on financial conditions, it can give rise to imbalances or capital misallocation that negatively affects longer-run growth. Accordingly, I favor taking additional steps in the normalization process.
Separately, Boston Federal Reserve President Eric Rosengren, currently in a post-dove phase, reiterated his warning that financial markets just don't get it:
In my view, the market remains too pessimistic about the fundamental strength of the U.S. economy, and the likelihood of removing monetary accommodation is higher than is currently priced into financial markets based on current data.
He does see benefits from the current stance of policy:
I believe that one of the benefits of our current accommodative monetary policy, even as we approach full employment, is that it fosters continued gradual improvement in labor markets. As I have noted in the past, it is quite appropriate to probe on the natural rate of unemployment to see how low it might be, given the benefit to workers. We have seen workers rejoin the labor force, many of them previously having given up looking for work.
But, like George, the risks of imbalances are growing too large for his liking:
However, there can be potential costs to accommodation if rates stay too low for too long. One cost involves the potential of very low interest rates encouraging speculative behavior. One area where I have some concern in this regard is the commercial real estate market.
In addition, he worries that unemployment threatens to descend too far below the natural rate:
A second possible cost of keeping rates too low for too long relates to the limits we see in monetary policy’s ability to “fine tune” the economy...Once unemployment has reached its low point in the economic cycle, it is unusual for it to proceed smoothly back to the natural rate...There are no episodes in which unemployment rose a bit and remained stable at its natural employment rate. Instead, relatively soon after the periods shown here with red highlighting, unemployment rises significantly – that is, we experience a recession, as indicated by the gray shading.
The chart strongly suggests that it has proven difficult to calibrate policy so as to gradually increase the unemployment rate, gently nudging it back toward full employment. The lesson is that policymakers should avoid significantly overshooting their best estimates of the natural rate of unemployment.
Here I would suggest that the failure of policymakers to better manage the economy at turning points is not because it is impossible, but because they have overtightened in the latter stage of the cycle, forgetting to pay attention to the lags in policy they think are so important during the early stages of the cycle. He continues:
Today, the unemployment rate is still somewhat above my estimate of the natural rate, 4.7 percent. But waiting too long to have more normalized rates risks possibly overshooting on the unemployment rate, and needing to tighten more quickly than would be desirable.
Note that Rosengren is not deterred by the flattening of the unemployment rate:


because he pegs his estimate of sustainable job growth at 80-100k per month, well below current rates of growth. Thus he expects the unemployment rate will soon resume its decline. I would say that he should be cautious of that estimate when labor force participation is rising.
I think it likely George will dissent again in June while Rosengren, a nonvoter, at a minimum would like to keep the June meeting alive. In an important difference from George and Rosengren, New York Federal Reserve President William Dudley is less concerned with potential financial imbalances at this point (be sure to read Gavyn Davies for more on Dudley):
I would say at this point I don’t see a lot of things that disturb me. The things that would disturb me would be things that are very excessive in terms of valuation and very large in terms of the weight that they carry for the economy. If you think back to the financial crisis, you had a big bubble for the U.S. housing sector which was very large and affects lots of people, so that was a huge bubble in terms of the consequences for the economy. Obviously it was magnified by the fact that there were structural weaknesses in the financial system that, rather than dampen the impact of the decline in housing, actually tended to amplify it. I don’t see anything like that today. There are some areas you might point to and say that those look excessive, but some of the areas you might have pointed to six months ago, they’ve actually sort of self-corrected.
Hence, Dudley remains more cautious on raising rates. His view is actually fairly optimistic:
My view is still that we’re looking for 2 percent real G.D.P. growth over the next year. If that’s right, the labor market should continue to improve. We should continue to see tightening of the U.S. labor market, probably a gradual acceleration in wages as the labor market gets tighter. And if that’s how the economy plays out, then I think we’re going to see further moves by the Fed to gradually normalize interest rates.
Note that 2 percent is above his estimate of potential growth (and Rosengren's, who puts it at 1.75 percent), and hence if he gets that as expected, it is reasonable to expect two rates hikes:
The expectations that were shown in the March summary of economic projections, the median of two rate hikes, seems like a reasonable expectation. But it depends on how the economy evolves. Two seems like a reasonable number sitting here today, but it could be more if the economy is stronger and inflation comes back more quickly, or it could be less if the economy disappoints.
Two is of course greater than market expectations, hence he is not inconsistent with Rosengren. But he doesn't feel the need to warn on this as strongly as Rosengren, nor does he share the concern regarding the financial imbalances. And Dudley still sees value in letting the economy somewhat "hot," suggesting more willingness to embrace a modest decline in unemployment below the natural rate. Hence he is less eager to raise rates. 
Finally, an bit on initial claims. Claims rose to their highest level in a year, but this was driven by a bump in New York that appears related to the Verizon strike and spring break schedules. Dispersion of claim weakness remains very low overall:


In other words, move along, nothing to see here.
Bottom Line: Ultimately, I suspect the FOMC will not find sufficient reason in the data before June to convince the Fed that growth is sufficiently strong to justify a hike. Hence I anticipate that they will pass on that opportunity to raise rates. Look for an opportunity in September, assuming that growth firms to 2% and the unemployment rate resumes its decline over the summer. I doubt, however, that most on the Fed are pleased that market participants have already priced out a June hike on the basis of the April employment report. Even Dudley claims it did little to change his expectations. While they won't raise rates in June, they do not see the outcome as already preordained.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Fed Watch: June Fades Away

Tim Duy:

June Fades Away, by Tim Duy: At the beginning of last week, monetary policymakers were trying to keep the dream of June alive. Via Bloomberg:
“I would put more probability on it being a real option,” Lockhart told reporters at the Atlanta Fed’s financial markets conference at Amelia Island, Florida, when asked about the low implied odds of a move next month. “The communication of committee participants and members between now and mid-June obviously should try to prepare the markets for at least a realistic range of possibilities” for the next policy meeting...
...Williams, a former head of research to Fed Chair Janet Yellen, said he would support raising rates at the next meeting, provided the economy stayed on track.
“In my view, yes, it would be appropriate, given all of the things that we’ve talked about, to go that next step,” Williams told Kathleen Hays in an interview on Bloomberg Radio. “But you know, a lot can happen between now and June.” Williams is also not an FOMC voter this year.
Later in the week, however, financial market participants took one look at the employment report and concluded the Fed was all bark and no bite. Markets see virtually no possibility of a Fed rate hike in June.
That - a desire to keep June in play coupled with insufficient data to actually make June happen - all happened faster than I anticipated. But don't think the Fed will go down without a fight. New York Federal Reserve President William Dudley played down the April employment numbers. Via his must-read interview with Binyamin Applebaum of the New York Times:
I wouldn’t make too much about the headline payroll number being a little softer, because there’s other things in the report that are more positive. For example, total hours worked were up quite a bit; average hourly earnings were up quite a bit. So there’s actually a lot of income being generated from the labor market. And the data on payrolls is quite volatile month to month — 160,000 sounds like a lot weaker than the 200,000 people were expecting, but it’s actually well within what you’d expect in terms of normal volatility. It’s a touch softer, maybe, than what people were expecting, but I wouldn’t put a lot of weight on it in terms of how it would affect my economic outlook.
I would agree that the report is within the bounds from normal volatility. From my tweet ahead of the report:


The pace of job growth has softened, though only modestly so:


But if we view the labor report through Janet Yellen's eyes, the picture becomes somewhat murkier:



Generally solid numbers, but I can't help but notice the unemployment rate is flattening out, and so too has progress on part-time employment and long-term unemployment. Indeed, I found this from Dudley somewhat odd:
The news from this latest payroll unemployment report was actually quite positive in terms of the long-term unemployed. I think what’s happening is, as we’ve run the labor market to a higher degree of utilization, the long-term unemployed are getting picked up and getting more employment opportunities.
He appears to be focusing on just the last month of data while ignoring the trend over the last year. But someone at the next FOMC meeting will surely draw that trend to his attention.
Note that unemployment is settling into a level slightly above the Fed's estimate of the natural rate of unemployment:


For Yellen, this should be something of a red flag. The plan was to let the economy run hot enough that unemployment sank somewhat below the natural rate, thereby more aggressively reducing underemployment. Now, you can argue that this plan has faltered for a good reason - the labor participation rate rose, placing upward pressure on the unemployment rate. That however gets you to the same place as a more negative story. It reveals that there is substantial excess capacity in the labor market, and consequently the Fed should not be in a rush to raise rates. Indeed, because they have underestimated the slack in the economy, they need to let the economy run hot for even longer if they wish to push inflation back up to target - of which it remains woefully below:


Bottom Line: The Fed breathed a sigh of relief after financial markets stabilized. That opened up the possibility that June would still be on the table, leaving them the option for three rate hikes this year. I don't think that policymakers will abandon June as easily as financial market participants. My sense is that they will remain coy, implying odds closer to 50-50. But the data are not in their favor. The employment report was by no means a disaster, but nor was it a blowout. Moreover, I think they will be wary to hike rates until unemployment resumes its decline or underemployment more broadly improves. And we won't have enough data to see such a trend until September.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Fed Watch: Warning: Hawkishness Ahead

Tim Duy:

Warning: Hawkishness Ahead, by Tim Duy: The Fed has proven very dovish since their December rate hike. Tumultuous financial markets gave the Fed doves the upper hand, leading the Fed to pause in it’s “normalization” campaign and cut in half the expected pace of rate hikes this year.
But be prepared for the tenor of the song to change. I would not be surprised to see doves shedding their feathers to reveal the hawk underneath.
Boston Federal Reserve President Eric Rosengren exemplifies this shift. Twice in recent weeks, Rosengren, typically considered a notable dove, warned that financial markets were underestimating the odds of rates hikes this year. The Fed made clear in the dots they expect at least two hikes; financial markets anticipate only one.
What is going on here? First, as I said earlier this week, the Fed is not happy that markets wrote of a June rate hike. I am wary that the data arrives to support a rate hike, but don’t think the Fed is ready to give up on that hike just yet.
One thing to remember is that the Fed still prefers to hike early and slowly if possible. They are more aware of the asymmetric risks they face than in December, and hence recognize that they should error on the side of looser policy in an uncertain environment. Hence skip March and April. But once the risk subsides, they will return to old habits. And old habits in this case mean a return to quarterly rate hikes.
My assumption is that they want the option to both hike quarterly and hike three times should the economic environment shift. That means they are thinking June-September-December is a possibility still (the dots are just a forecast, they are not committed to just two rate hikes). So they really need to keep the June option open, otherwise they run a greater risk of bunching up the next few hikes. Which means they want to raise the odds of a June hike to something closer to 50-50. The recent FOMC statement, in which declined to mention the risks, was an early signal of the direction they want to move.
And note that not mentioning the risks at all is arguably a de facto assessment of balanced risks in the world of central banking. My suspicion is the Fed feared that actually saying “balanced” would be a stronger indicator than they wanted to send. But they still said a lot by saying nothing at all.
Now, why should the Fed have a change of heart? Didn’t Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen just go all dovish? How can they change their story so fast?
They can change their story within the scope of six weeks. Just like they did from the December to January meetings. And they have the one good reason to change the story: The dramatically change in financial market conditions.
The tightening in financial markets during the winter was the proximate cause of a more cautious Fed. The data didn’t help, to be sure, but more on that later. The combination of a surging dollar, collapsing oil, and a stock market headed only south signaled that the Fed’s policy stance has turned too hawkish, too fast. The Fed relented and heeded the market’s warnings.
But things are different now. US stock market rebounded. The dollar is languishing. And oil is holding its gains, despite disappointment with the lack of an output agreement.
This improvement will not go unnoticed on Constitution Ave. Even among the doves.
That brings us to the data story. To be sure, incoming data this quarter has been lackluster. But that might soon be changing. Gavyn Davies, writing for the FT, is spinning a more optimistic tale:
The Fulcrum nowcast suggest that US activity growth fell continuously from the beginning of 2015 to February 2016, by which time it was around 1.0 per cent. However, in a potentially important change, the nowcast moved sharply higher in March and April, and it is now fluctuating around 2.0-2.5 per cent. This change was rapidly reflected in the prices of US risk assets, which recovered slightly before, and then along with, the daily US nowcasts.
Financial markets do not wait for quarterly GDP to be published, and they often ignore it altogether when it does finally appear. We prefer to ignore the noise from quarterly GDP, while focusing attention on the underlying activity factor that is driving the business cycle.
He includes this picture:


Be forewarned: The Fed is primed by financial markets to change their story. If the data shifts as well, they will be looking hard at June. I don’t think the data will line up in time, but the possibility should be on your radar. There is a lot of data between the April and June meetings – two releases of many critical indicators. Too much data to be complacent.
Bottom Line: Remember, the Fed can turn hawkish as quickly as it turned dovish.

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Fed Watch: Dovish Minutes

Tim Duy:

Dovish Minutes, by Tim Duy: The FOMC minutes indicates the Fed is just a dovish as believed. This was somewhat surprising given the tendency of minutes to have a more balanced perspective which would appear to be hawkish relative to current market expectations. But not this time. This time the message was fairly clear: They can't ignore the asymmetry of policy risks any longer. Gradual went to glacial, with April now off the table, leaving June as the next possible data for a rate hike. Expect Fedspeak to sound somewhat hawkish given they will want to keep June on the table - but I am less than certain they will have the data in hand to justify another hike until the second half of the year.

Meeting participants were generally confident in the outlook:

With respect to the outlook for economic activity and the labor market, participants shared the assessment that, with gradual adjustments in the stance of monetary policy, real GDP would continue to increase at a moderate rate over the medium term and labor market indicators would continue to strengthen. Participants observed that strong job gains in recent months had reduced concerns about a possible slowing of progress in the labor market.

But outside of the consumer, all is not rosy:

Many participants, however, anticipated that relative strength in household spending would be partially offset by weakness in net exports associated with lackluster foreign growth and the appreciation of the dollar since mid-2014. In addition, business fixed investment seemed likely to remain sluggish. 

And global concerns loomed large:

Furthermore, participants generally saw global economic and financial developments as continuing to pose risks to the outlook for economic activity and the labor market in the United States. In particular, several participants expressed the view that the underlying factors abroad that led to a sharp, though temporary, deterioration in global financial conditions earlier this year had not been fully resolved and thus posed ongoing downside risks.

Caveats abound, however:

Several participants also noted the possibility that economic activity or labor market conditions could turn out to be stronger than anticipated. For example, strong expansion of household demand could result in rapid employment growth and overly tight resource utilization, particularly if productivity gains remained sluggish.

Is the economy at full employment? Maybe:

Some participants judged that current labor market conditions were at or near those consistent with maximum sustainable employment, noting that the unemployment rate was at or below their estimates of its longer-run normal level and citing anecdotal reports of labor shortages or increased wage pressures.

Maybe not:

In contrast, some other participants judged that the economy had not yet reached maximum employment. They noted several indicators other than the unemployment rate that pointed to remaining underutilization of labor resources; these indicators included the still-high rate of involuntary part-time employment and the low level of the employment-to-population ratio for prime-age workers. The surprisingly limited extent to which aggregate data indicated upward pressure on wage growth also suggested some remaining slack in labor markets.

The climb in the unemployment rate since the March meeting supports the latter over the former. There was mixed views regarding the inflation outlook:

Participants commented on the recent increase in inflation. Some participants saw the increase as consistent with a firming trend in inflation. Some others, however, expressed the view that the increase was unlikely to be sustained, in part because it appeared to reflect, to an appreciable degree, increases in prices that had been relatively volatile in the past. 

But concerns about too low inflation clear dominated:

Several participants indicated that the persistence of global disinflationary pressures or the possibility that inflation expectations were moving lower continued to pose downside risks to the inflation outlook. A few others expressed the view that there were also risks that could lead to inflation running higher than anticipated; for example, overly tight resource utilization could push inflation above the Committee's 2 percent goal, particularly if productivity gains remained sluggish. 

And there was concern that low inflation was bleeding into expectations:

Some participants concluded that longer-run inflation expectations remained reasonably stable, but some others expressed concern that longer-run inflation expectations may have already moved lower, or that they might do so if inflation was to persist for much longer at a rate below the Committee's objective.

Notably, no one was concerned that inflation expectations were trending up. The consensus was stable or deteriorating. One-sided risks.

The primary reason the Fed anticipates stable growth this year is because they marked down interest rate forecasts:

...most participants, while recognizing the likely positive effects of recent policy actions abroad, saw foreign economic growth as likely to run at a somewhat slower pace than previously expected, a development that probably would further restrain growth in U.S. exports and tend to damp overall aggregate demand. Several participants also cited wider credit spreads as a factor that was likely to restrain growth in demand. Accordingly, many participants expressed the view that a somewhat lower path for the federal funds rate than they had projected in December now seemed most likely to be appropriate for achieving the Committee's dual mandate. Many participants also noted that a somewhat lower projected interest rate path was one reason for the relatively small revisions in their medium-term projections for economic activity, unemployment, and inflation.

Altogether, the risks are simply too one-sided to ignore:

Several participants also argued for proceeding cautiously in reducing policy accommodation because they saw the risks to the U.S. economy stemming from developments abroad as tilted to the downside or because they were concerned that longer-term inflation expectations might be slipping lower, skewing the risks to the outlook for inflation to the downside. Many participants noted that, with the target range for the federal funds rate only slightly above zero, the FOMC continued to have little room to ease monetary policy through conventional means if economic activity or inflation turned out to be materially weaker than anticipated, but could raise rates quickly if the economy appeared to be overheating or if inflation was to increase significantly more rapidly than anticipated. In their view, this asymmetry made it prudent to wait for additional information regarding the underlying strength of economic activity and prospects for inflation before taking another step to reduce policy accommodation.

The winter turmoil made the asymmetric risks all-too-real. They need to allow the economy to run hot to justify sufficient rate hikes to drive a wedge between policy and the zero bound. They need to make a choice: Risk inflation, or risk returning to the zero bound? They are coming around to seeing the former as a less costly risk as the latter.

This begs the question of how quick they will be to react to inflation that overshoots 2%. I don't think they will react too quickly - they will need to tolerate some overshooting to avoid cutting the recovery off at the knees. It will still be about the balance of risks until interest rates are much higher.

Finally, the pretty much decided they wouldn't have enough data to hike rates in April:

A number of participants judged that the headwinds restraining growth and holding down the neutral rate of interest were likely to subside only slowly. In light of this expectation and their assessment of the risks to the economic outlook, several expressed the view that a cautious approach to raising rates would be prudent or noted their concern that raising the target range as soon as April would signal a sense of urgency they did not think appropriate. In contrast, some other participants indicated that an increase in the target range at the Committee's next meeting might well be warranted if the incoming economic data remained consistent with their expectations for moderate growth in output, further strengthening of the labor market, and inflation rising to 2 percent over the medium term.

Not clear that they will in June either. First quarter growth numbers are looking weak, so they may want a clear picture of the second quarter before acting. That speaks to July or September.

Bottom Line: The Fed is on hold until they are sufficiently confident they can make a liftoff stick. The bar is higher now given the focus on asymmetric risks. They won't want to take June off the table just yet, so expect them to say that it is still too early to rule it out. April, however, is set to be a yawner.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Fed Watch: Fed Has Little Reason to Hike Rates

Tim Duy:

Fed Has Little Reason to Hike Rates, by Tim Duy: Despite some occasionally hawkish rhetoric from a handful of disaffected Federal Reserve bank presidents, expect the Fed to remain on hold until inflationary threats clearly emerge. In practice, that means the Fed is not likely to raise rates until the unemployment rate resumes its downward trajectory. Soft though generally positive data coupled with market turbulence over the winter scared most policymakers straight with regards to their overly-optimistic plans to normalize policy. The risks to the outlook are simply too one-sided too believe this is anything like the tightening cycles of the past.
Generally positive incoming data continues to defy the predictions of the recessionistas. ISM data, both manufacturing:


and nonmanufacturing:


posted improved headline numbers with general solid internals. The worst of the manufacturing downturn may be behind us. The JOLTS numbers:


have remained fairly stable in recent months, suggesting no significant changes in dynamics in labor flows in and out of firms. Not surprisingly, nonfarm payroll growth remains on its steady path:


The unemployment rate ticked up in March as the labor force grew:


The Fed would like unemployment to settle somewhat below their estimates of the natural rate to promote further reduction of underemployment. So a stagnant unemployment rate at these levels argues for stable policy.
One red flag I see is that temporary employment has stalled, suggesting some loss of momentum:


Nothing to panic about, just something I am watching. Indeed, in many ways the current dynamic is not dissimilar to the mid-90s, when the economy sputtered in the wake of tighter monetary policy. Then, like now, the Fed need to back down in response. The economy subsequently gathered steam.
Moreover, declining estimates of first quarter growth also give the Fed reason to remain on hold. Soft consumption, weaker auto sales, still anemic manufacturing, and a rising trade deficit have all conspired to bring the latest Atlanta Fed estimate of first quarter growth to an anemic 0.4%. To be sure, this might just be the first quarter curse of recent years. As such, the Fed may be confident it does not represent the pace of underlying activity. And they expect that the worst impact of the rising dollar and falling oil prices on manufacturing will soon be behind us. But they don't know these things - and it will take another three months of data at least until they know these things. That pushes that date of another rate hike into the until June at the earliest, but don't be surprised if they want to see a more complete picture of the second quarter before acting.
A steady unemployment rate at or above the Fed's estimate of the natural rate also argues for a substantial policy pause. I am hard pressed to see a reason for the Fed to resume hiking rates until unemployment clearly resumes declining. This holds true even if a growing labor force drives a flattening unemployment rate. The Fed will see that as evidence that excess slack remains in the economy, hence inflationary pressures are less than feared when the unemployment rate was heading steadily lower. 
Note also tamer inflation in February after a spike the previous month:


This supports Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen's caution over reading too much into any one inflation reading. 
Financial indicators have firmed in recent months:



That said, the improvement for most indicators largely just offsets the damage done during the winter. And credit conditions for less than perfect debt remain less than perfect. 
In short, while the data is not indicating a recession it upon us, and supportive of the case for improvement later this year, it also gives little reason to justify a rate hike anytime soon.
Furthermore, the Fed appears to have stopped - at least for the moment - pursuing rate hikes for the sake of hiking rates. The financial market turmoil made them realize that yes, the policy risks are asymmetric, and they need to take the asymmetries seriously. Chicago Federal Reserve President Charles Evans concisely summaries the challenges of being hit with a negative shock while near the zero bound:
Faced with such uncertainty, policymakers could make two potential policy mistakes. The first mistake is that the FOMC could raise rates too quickly, only to be hit by one or more of the downside surprises. In order to put the economy back on track, we would have to cut interest rates back to zero and possibly even resort to unconventional policy tools, such as more quantitative easing. I think unconventional policy tools have been effective, but they clearly are second-best alternatives to traditional policy and something we would all like to avoid. I should note, too, that with the economy facing a potentially lower growth rate and lower equilibrium interest rates, the likelihood of some shock forcing us back to the effective lower bound may be uncomfortably high. The difficulties experienced in Japan and Europe come to mind.
And compares it to the challenges of being hit with a positive shock:
The second (alternative) potential policy mistake the Committee could make is that sometime during the gradual normalization process the U.S. economy experiences upside surprises in growth and inflation. Well, policymakers have the experience and the appropriate tools to deal with such an outcome; we probably could keep inflation in check with only moderate increases in interest rates relative to current forecasts. Given how gradual the rate increases are in the baseline SEP, policy could be made a good deal more restrictive, for example, by simply increasing rates 25 basis points at every meeting — just as we did during the measured pace adjustments of 2004–06. A question for the audience: Who thinks those were fast? So, to me, concerns about the risks of rapid increases in rates in this scenario seem overblown.
Until now, the driving argument for raising rates was that they needed to do so to avoid a faster pace of rate hikes. But as Evans points out, why the rush? Would it really be so bad to raise rates at a "moderate" pace rather than a "gradual" or what has become now a "glacial" place? After all, they have better tools to reduce inflation than to raise it. Clearly, many Fed officials did not appreciate the asymmetry of risks until this past winter. 
Separately, Boston Federal Reserve President Eric Rosengren argued that financial market participants are getting it wrong:
So, while problems could still arise, I would expect that the very slow removal of accommodation reflected in futures market pricing could prove too pessimistic. While it has been appropriate to pause while waiting for information that clarified the response of the U.S. economy to foreign turmoil, it increasingly appears that the U.S. has weathered foreign shocks quite well. As a consequence, if the incoming data continue to show a moderate recovery – as I expect they will – I believe it will likely be appropriate to resume the path of gradual tightening sooner than is implied by financial-market futures.
He seems to have learned little from Federal Reserve Vice-Chair Stanley Fisher's experience in January:
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 .
They would probably be better off just stating their expectations as the baseline rather than appearing to challenge the markets so directly. But they can't seem to help themselves; they seem to view it as their job to warn that rate hikes are coming, that markets are getting it wrong, an unnecessarily hawkish message for a central bank trying to raise inflation while facing an asymmetric balance of risks. Not sure what the point is anyway - if Rosengren is at two rate hikes this year while the market is at one, is that difference really all that significant? Is he just priming us for Fed minutes that will also be more hawkish than current market expectations?
And the implied hawkish message has proven consistently wrong, for that matter. The history of this recovery is that while the Fed always sounds hawkish relative to market expectations, the Fed has consistently moved in the direction of market expectations.
Bottom Line: The Fed is on hold for at least a few months until the data provides a more definite reason to justify another hike. With any luck, if the Fed continues to hold steady now, maybe they will get the chance to chase the long-end of the curve higher later - which is exactly what they need to be able to "normalize" policy. Expect officials to remind us that they expect a faster pace of a rate hikes than markets anticipate. But I think the bar for further hikes has risen since December. An appreciation of the asymmetric policy risks will prod them to seek more definitive signs inflationary pressures are growing to justify the next rate hike.

Friday, April 01, 2016

Fed Watch: Yellen Pivots Toward Saving Her Legacy

Tim Duy:

Yellen Pivots Toward Saving Her Legacy: As 2016 began to evolve, it quickly became apparent that Federal Reserve Chairman Janet Yellen faced the very real possibility that her legacy would amount to being just another central banker who failed miserably in their efforts to raise interest rates back into positive territory. The Federal Reserve was set to follow in the footsteps of the Bank of Japan and the Riksbank, seemingly oblivious to their errors. In September of last year, a confident Yellen declared the Fed would be different. From the transcript of her press conference:

ANN SAPHIR. Ann Saphir with Reuters. Just to piggyback on the global considerations—as you say, the U.S. economy has been growing. Are you worried that, given the global interconnectedness, the low inflation globally, all of the other concerns that you just spoke about, that you may never escape from this zero lower bound situation?

CHAIR YELLEN. So I would be very—I would be very surprised if that’s the case. That is not the way I see the outlook or the way the Committee sees the outlook. Can I completely rule it out? I can’t completely rule it out. But, really, that’s an extreme downside risk that in no way is near the center of my outlook.

Shuddering financial markets in the wake of the Fed’s first rate hike since 2006 certainty tested Yellen’s confidence that failure to exit the zero bound was nothing more than an “extreme” tail risk. Indeed, it looked all too possible, even as policymakers such as Federal Reserve Vice-Chair Stanley Fischer and San Francisco Federal Reserve President John Williams counseled dismissing financial market turbulence as something the economy could withstand as it has in the past (ignoring though the role the Fed play in such resilience).

Luckily for Yellen, she heeded the warnings of Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard, who has since last fall has cautioned that the Fed faced more danger than commonly believed within the confines of the Eccles Building. With her speech this week, Yellen clearly embraced Brainard’s warnings. She is choosing the risk of overheating the economy – and sending inflation above target – over the risk of failing at the one and perhaps only chance to leave the zero bound behind.

While the exit from the zero bound remains uncertain, Yellen’s new path is at least more likely to succeed than blindly ignoring financial market signals by following through with expected rate hikes. And that’s important for more than just Yellen’s legacy. Her legacy is intertwined with the health of the US economy.

There is much to be had in Yellen’s speech this week. Highlights include an awareness that the neutral rate of interest is not rising as quickly as expected, the global economy is a risk that cannot be ignored, the recent uptick in inflation might be less than meets the eye, and a recognition that falling long-rates represent an expectation of easier monetary policy, and the Fed needs to meet that expectation to ensure that financial market remain sufficiently accommodative.

But two points in particular caught me eye. The first was a deeper appreciation of the asymmetric risks facing policymakers. Yellen notes that although the Fed retains a litany of potential unconventional tools:

“…if the expansion was to falter or if inflation was to remain stubbornly low, the FOMC would be able to provide only a modest degree of additional stimulus by cutting the federal funds rate back to near zero.”

If you want to successful pull off the zero bound, you better make sure that you conditions give you some distance from that bound before you need to start cutting again. That distance is effectively almost none, and will likely remain limited for substantial time. Better to move glacially rather than gradually.

But more important was the role of deteriorating inflation expectations in her analysis. Recall that in her September speech, Yellen sought to emphasize her faith in the Phillips curve as a reason to begin rates hikes sooner than later. She noted the importance of anchored inflation expectations in her assessment, saying:

“…the presence of well-anchored inflation expectations greatly enhances a central bank's ability to pursue both of its objectives--namely, price stability and full employment...

… Although the evidence, on balance, suggests that inflation expectations are well anchored at present, policymakers would be unwise to take this situation for granted. Anchored inflation expectations were not won easily or quickly: Experience suggests that it takes many years of carefully conducted monetary policy to alter what households and firms perceive to be inflation's "normal" behavior, and, furthermore, that a persistent failure to keep inflation under control--by letting it drift either too high or too low for too long--could cause expectations to once again become unmoored.”

The stability of inflation expectations is now, however, less certain:

"The inflation outlook has also become somewhat more uncertain since the turn of the year, in part for reasons related to risks to the outlook for economic growth...

… Lately, however, there have been signs that inflation expectations may have drifted down. Market-based measures of longer-run inflation compensation have fallen markedly over the past year and half, although they have recently moved up modestly from their all-time lows. Similarly, the measure of longer-run inflation expectations reported in the University of Michigan Survey of Consumers has drifted down somewhat over the past few years and now stands at the lower end of the narrow range in which it has fluctuated since the late 1990s…

…Taken together, these results suggest that my baseline assumption of stable expectations is still justified. Nevertheless, the decline in some indicators has heightened the risk that this judgment could be wrong."

To be sure, Yellen recognizes that inflation may rebound more quickly than expected, but the overall thrust of her argument is that although labor markets have continues to improve and rising wages suggests the economy is reaching full employment, the risks to stable inflation expectations are now too on the downside. And if expectations become unanchored, the Fed will fail to meet it’s 2 percent inflation target anytime soon. Moreover, the Fed would be faced with trying to re-establish expectations in the absence of their conventional tools. That might be a tall order.

Bottom Line: Rising risks to the outlook placed Yellen’s legacy in danger. If the first rate hike wasn’t a mistake, certainly follow up hikes would be. And there is no room to run; if you want to “normalize” policy, Yellen needs to ensure that rates rise well above zero before the next recession hits. The incoming data suggests that means the economy needs to run hotter for longer if the Fed wants to leave the zero bound behind. Yellen is getting that message. But perhaps more than anything, the risk of deteriorating inflation expectations – the basis for the Fed’s credibility on its inflation target – signaled to Yellen that rates hike need to be put on hold. Continue to watch those survey-based measures; they could be key for the timing of the next rate hike.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Fed Watch: Oil, Inflation Expectations, and Credibility

Tim Duy:

Oil, Inflation Expectations, and Credibility, by Tim Duy: In an IMF blog post, Maurice Obstfeld, Gian Maria Milesi-Ferretti, and Rabah Arezki offer a solution to the "puzzle" of the weak positive macroeconomic response to low oil prices. Specifically, they posit a sharp rise in real interest rates due to falling inflation expectations is the culprit:
Even though oil is a less important production input than it was three decades ago, that reasoning should work in reverse when oil prices fall, leading to lower production costs, more hiring, and reduced inflation. But this channel causes a problem when central banks cannot lower interest rates. Because the policy interest rate cannot fall further, the decline in inflation (actual and expected) owing to lower production costs raises the real rate of interest, compressing demand and very possibly stifling any increase in output and employment. Indeed, those aggregates may both actually fall. Something like this may be going on at the present time in some economies. Chart 3 is suggestive of a depressing effect of low expected oil prices on expected inflation: it shows the strong recent direct relationship between U.S. oil futures prices and a market-based measure of long-term inflation expectations.
Initially, I was a bit enamored with this idea. As I thought on it more, however, I came to see it as a cautionary tale of chart crime. But digging underneath the surface a bit uncovered some interesting questions about monetary policy and credibility. Specifically, how worried should we be that inflation expectations will soon become unanchored?
Obstfeld et al. rely on a version of this widely publicized chart to support their contention:


The first and most obvious problem is that this chart really proves nothing. For example, I could just as easily presented this chart:


Now I can tell a story that the rising dollar (note the inverted scale) is driving down inflation expectations and thus driving up the real interest rate. Oil, on the other hand, is having exactly the effect we might expect - just look at sales of light trucks and SUVs, not to mention vehicle miles traveled:


Hence, there is no paradox of oil. Lower oil prices are triggering the expected positive impacts. It's about the dollar weighing on inflation expectations that is creating the offsetting impact. Obstfeld et al. apparently do not try to distinguish their story from this one.
(Warning: wonkishness ahead.)
This problem, however, just scratches the surface. Look at either of the first two charts above and two red flags should leap off the screen. The first is the different scales, often used to overemphasize the strength of a correlation. The second is the short time span, often used to disguise the lack of any real long term relationship (I hope I remember these two points the next time I am inclined to post such a chart).
Consider a time span that encompassed the entirety of the 5-year, 5-year forward inflation expectations:


The correlation is less obvious to say the least (note too that changing the scale also suggests less correlation). Why does the correlation appear and disappear? Could any supposed correlation across selected time periods be spurious?
That gets to another issue. When you show me this chart


and claim there is a meaningful relationship, I see two nonstationary variables you are claiming to be cointegrated. The trouble with that is that while oil is a nonstationary process - it is not mean reverting, nor is there reason to believe it should be a mean reverting series. Inflation expectations, however, should be a mean reverting series.
Or more specifically, it should be mean reverting if the central bank is credibly committed to their inflation target. If the central bank is credible, then we anticipate that policymakers will respond with policy that offsets inflation shocks to maintain their inflation target. Hence, inflation expectations should revert to that target and we would expect the series to be stationary.
If inflation expectations are a nonstationary series, then shocks build in the series and inflation expectations would drift persistently away from the central bank's inflation target. Inflation expectations would be unanchored. In other words, if inflation expectations are nonstationary, then we have a problem. More on that in a bit.
It appears that oil prices are nonstationary:
Dickey-Fuller Unit Root Test, Series DCOILBRENTEU
Regression Run From 1987:05:22 to 2016:03:21
Observations 7523
With intercept
With 1 lags chosen from 9 by AIC
Sig Level Crit Value
1%(**) -3.43430
5%(*) -2.86246
10% -2.56729
T-Statistic -1.47895
while, luckily, inflation expectations are stationary:
Dickey-Fuller Unit Root Test, Series T5YIFR
Regression Run From 2003:01:14 to 2016:03:24
Observations 3444
With intercept
With 7 lags chosen from 7 by AIC
Sig Level Crit Value
1%(**) -3.43524
5%(*) -2.86290
10% -2.56752
T-Statistic -4.63374**
Which leads me to conclude that the recent correlation between oil prices and 5-year, 5-year forward inflation expectations is not indicative of an underlying relationship and hence policymakers should be wary of accepting the Obstfeld at al. hypothesis. Of course, this should not be a surprise as the theoretical underpinnings for such a relationship are weak. A level shock to the price of oil should not change inflation expectations five years from now.
(The same is true for the dollar as well. And while both the dollar index and oil prices are nonstationary, they don't appear cointegrated, suggesting that instances of high correlation are more spurious than anything else.)
Digging a little deeper, note the University of Michigan Survey of Consumers has a longer series of 5-year inflation expectations which shows less variability than 5-year, 5-year forward inflation expectations:


The UMich inflation series also appears to be stationary:
Dickey-Fuller Unit Root Test, Series UMICH5YEAREX
Regression Run From 1990:08 to 2016:03
Observations 309
With intercept
With 3 lags chosen from 4 by AIC
Sig Level Crit Value
1%(**) -3.45322
5%(*) -2.87105
10% -2.57180
T-Statistic -2.92456*
Consequently, I think we have evidence to support the claim that the Federal Reserve is a credible policymaker in the most important arena, that of maintaining stable inflation expectations.
I suspect the high variability of the 5-year, 5-year forward measure is attributable to financial market structural issues (depth of the market for TIPS, for example) rather than rapidly shifting inflation expectations. Hence, we would expect that should those structural issues lessen in importance, the measure will revert to its mean (assuming the Fed remains a credible policymaker). Nor should we read too much about inflation expectations in this measure. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen has reached the same conclusion, which is why she is wary of claims that shifts in the 5-year, 5-year forward measure reflect inflation expectations - and why she refers to these measures as inflation "compensation" not "expectations." From the March 2016 press conference:
In addition, the Phillips curve theory suggests that inflation expectations are also an important driver of actual wage- and price-setting decisions and inflation behavior, and I believe there’s also solid empirical evidence for that. And it’s one of the reasons that I highlighted in my statement, and we continue to highlight in the FOMC statement, that we are tracking indicators of the inflation expectations that matter to wage and price setting.
Now, unfortunately, we don’t have perfect measures of these things. We have survey measures. We know that household measures, even when households are asked about longer- term inflation—at longer-term inflation, they tend to move in response to salient changes in prices that they see every day. In particular, when gas prices go down, which is very noticeable to most households, you tend to see a view—you tend to see responses about long-term inflation marked down. So that’s kind of an overresponse to something that’s transitory. So it’s difficult to get a clear read from those survey measures.
Inflation compensation as measured in financial markets also embodies a variety of risk premia and liquidity premia. And so, it’s also—we monitor those closely and discuss them in the statement in paragraph one, but, again, there’s not a straight read on what’s happening to the expectations that influence wage and price setting. But this model continues to at least influence my own thinking, and it certainly is a factor that I and at least some of my colleagues are incorporating in these projections.
Note too that she also questions the importance of the recent slight downward drift in survey-based measures. I would place more weight on those measures (I think others on the FOMC, such as Governor Lael Brainard, are similarly inclined). In any event, I think the Fed is moving in a credible way to either measure by moving more cautiously than anticipated in December. Hence, we should expect inflation expectation measures to remain stationary.
Of course, if expectations devolve into nonstationary processes (it is a long-period property of the data, hence we cannot definitely declare the answer in any finite time period), we should be very worried that policymakers have lost control of inflationary expectations. And at the present time, they would be unanchored to the downside, not the upside as often feared.
Bottom Line: Be wary of claims that oil prices are influencing inflation expectations; the recent correlation is likely spurious. Inflation expectations look to be following a mean reverting process, indicating that the Federal Reserve's has credibly committed to their inflation target. We should expect policymakers will maintain such credibility if they continue to react to inflation shocks with offsetting policy.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Fed Watch: On Credibility

Tim Duy:

On Credibility: Narayana Kocherlakota and David Andolfatto have been discussing the issue of Fed credibility. This is my effort to weigh in on the topic.

I break the issue of credibility of monetary policy into two parts. The first I think of as “soft” credibility, or the perception that policy needs to follow a proscribed course due to some perceived promise. The second I think of as “hard” credibility, or the expectation that policymakers will pursue policies that maximize its odds of achieving its goals over the long run, price stability with maximum sustainable employment, regardless of perceived promises. We should encourage policymakers to pursue “hard” credibility and avoid communications or actions that lead to policy directed at achieving “soft” credibility.

Let’s step back to last summer. It was widely anticipated that the Fed would hike interest rates at the September 2015 FOMC meeting. Market turmoil in August, however, made the Fed think twice. It also encouraged no shortage of commentary urging the Fed to pursue what I consider “soft” credibility. Via Jon Hilsenrath at the Wall Street Journal:

After months of forewarning by Federal Reserve officials that they are preparing to raise short-term interest rates, some international officials attending the Fed’s annual retreat here this week have a message: Get on with it already.

Fed policy makers are wavering on whether to move rates up in September. Volatile stock prices, falling commodities, a strong dollar and signs of a deepening economic slowdown in China have created doubts at the U.S. central bank about the outlook for global growth.

International officials have been saying for months they will be prepared when the Fed moves rates higher, a message that is being echoed as central bankers, academics, journalists and others converge now in Jackson Hole for the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City’s annual symposium.

“If you delay something that you were planning to do, then you leave the impression that your compass is different than what you led markets to believe,” Jacob Frenkel, chairman of J.P. Morgan Chase International and former head of the Bank of Israel, said in an interview Thursday. Market drama is increased by delay, he added.

What I wrote:

Hey, it's been a hard couple of weeks. Things changed. That certain rate hike became a lot less certain. Maybe that changes back by September 17. Maybe not. All of us Fed watchers probably won't come to agreement until September 16. Getting emotional and moralizing about change isn't going to stop it…Stocks dropped sharply. It is a clear sign, on top of other signs, that financial conditions are tightening ahead of the Fed, and arguably too much ahead of the Fed. If the Fed heeds that warning you have to remember that's their job. Smoothly functioning financial markets. Lender of last resort. All that stuff. Maybe things work out just fine if they don't heed that warning. I am not interested in taking that risk. Not enough upside for me.

Ultimately, the Fed took a pass on the September meeting. That I consider favoring “hard” credibility over “soft” credibility. Rather than meet a perceived promise to hike, Yellen & Co. stood down in response to changing economic and financial conditions.

Unfortunately, I fear the Fed took a wrong turn in the October meeting, setting up an expectation that a December hike was a certainty. Fed officials took much grief over their decision to skip September. Market participants subsequently priced out rate hikes for 2015. But the Fed had promised a hike, and they were damn well going to deliver. And they drove the message home in October with this line:

In determining whether it will be appropriate to raise the target range at its next meeting, the Committee will assess progress--both realized and expected--toward its objectives of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation.

According to some excellent reporting by Jonathan Spicer, Ann Saphir and Howard Schneider at Reuters:

When the U.S. Federal Reserve tweaked its policy statement last week and put a December rate rise squarely back in play, it took a calculated gamble that reaching for an old and controversial policy tool would get financial markets' attention.

That gamble was to specifically reference the next policy meeting as a date of a possible lift-off, and it had the desired effect: investors quickly rolled back bets that rates would stay near zero until next year.

But interviews with current and former Fed officials, and with those close to policymakers, show the decision to use what is called calendar guidance in central bank parlance and what some described as a "hammer" did not come easy. Some officials felt that even mentioning a date in the context of a potential policy change would be taken not as a contingent expectation but as a promise that would be painful to break...

...Yet Fed Chair Janet Yellen and her deputies got so frustrated that investors virtually ignored their message that a rate rise before the year end was probable that they decided last month it was a risk worth taking, the interviews show.

As a result, futures markets are now giving slightly better-than-even odds that rates will rise from near zero next month, compared with mid-October when the odds were less than 30 percent. In contrast, economists polled by Reuters have been leaning towards a December rate hike even before the Fed's last meeting.

So the Fed wanted to raise rates just to teach markets a lesson? Maybe the message was ignored because it was the wrong thing to do and market participants expected the Fed to pursue "hard" over "soft" credibility? More telling was this line:

On Oct. 16, Dudley got an earful from Wall Street bankers and economists on a New York Fed advisory panel criticizing the Fed for its muddled message, according to three people who attended the meeting.

The interviews with Fed officials and those close to the central bank suggest that it was around this time that the plan to hint at December in the next policy statement started taking shape.

That sounds as if Dudley was falling prey to the fetish of “soft” credibility. We need to pick a message and stick with it. That's what the guys on Wall Street say. They say we are going to loose our credibility. We need to get ahead of that.

And perhaps this is why the Fed’s decision in December always felt forced. Me, in December:

Given that the Fed likely only gets one chance to lift-off from the zero bound on a sustained basis, it is reasonable to think they would wait until they were absolutely sure inflation was coming. Even more so given the poor performance of their inflation forecasts. But the Fed thinks there is now more danger in waiting than moving. And so into the darkness we go.

I don’t think the Fed would ever admit December was a mistake, but at a minimum the decision to hold pat in March and dramatically mark down their rate expectations for further rate hikes in 2016 tells me the Fed thought they were certainly on the verge of making a major policy error and pulled back quickly. In my framework, the Fed shifted back to seeking to preserve “hard” credibility.

That said, note the tendency to try to goad the Fed right back into seeking “soft” credibility. From the March press conference:

Steve Liesman, CNBC. Madam Chair, as you know, inflation has gone up the last two months. We had another strong jobs report, the tracking forecasts for GDP have returned to 2 percent, and yet the Fed stands pat while it’s in a process of what it said it launched in December was a “process of normalization.” So I have two questions about this: Does the Fed have a credibility problem, in the sense that it says it will do some—one thing under certain conditions but doesn’t end up doing it? And then, frankly, if the current conditions are not sufficient for the Fed to raise rates, well, what would those conditions ever look like?

I hope Fed policymakers remain resistant to such taunts.

The Fed is especially vulnerable to the problem of “soft” credibility when they lay down specific markers. The infamous dot-plot is one such marker. Policymakers have difficulty explaining the dot-plot is not a promise of future action; it is nothing more than a guideline. But the instant they establish that guideline, the mere fact that it induces some market participants to believe a promise has been made creates the belief that not meeting that promise will cost the Fed credibility. “Soft” credibility. The Fed needs to distinguish between this and “hard” credibility.

Another such marker is the 2 percent inflation target. Although Fed officials have repeatedly warned that they assume there will be symmetric errors around the target, we don’t know that until we actually have above-target inflation. The rule was created in an era of below-target inflation, so it is easy to say the Fed lacks credibility on the inflation target. I have said so. But I have come to perceive this as another instance of “soft” credibility. I worry that if the Fed becomes concerned about their supposed credibility from inflation at 50bp below target, they will overreact to inflation that is 50bp above target. What we really want is the Fed to maintain inflation within 50bp of target without triggering a recession. That would be the “hard” credibility of meeting the Fed’s mandate over the long run.

Bottom Line: The Fed should be playing the long game. In my opinion, that means pursuing the “hard” credibility of choosing the path most likely to meet their mandate over the long run. This may require sacrificing some “soft” credibility along the way. That means not hiking rates – or hiking rates – despite a perceived promise to do the opposite. The Fed should not fret over those costs. They are minor and quickly forgotten. And worse yet, being a slave to the fetish of “soft” credibility only raises the odds of a policy error. They will do less harm by breaking their “promise” than by keeping that promise via a poor decision.

Monday, March 07, 2016

Fed Watch: State of Play

Tim Duy:

State of Play: We are heading into the March FOMC meeting next week. The recessionistas are on the sidelines, waiting for data to turn in their favor. I suspect they have a long wait. In the meantime, FOMC participants will hone their arguments as they prepare for what is likely to be a contentious meeting. At stake is not a decision of rates; they will hold steady. At stake is a decision on the balance of risks. Do they want to send a dovish, neutral, or hawkish signal for the April and June meetings? I expect them to default to the neutral/dovish side. I don’t think there is sufficient weight on the hawkish side of the FOMC to drive an aggressive rate signal at this juncture. 
Labor markets shook off the January “slowdown” with nonfarm payrolls rising an above-consensus 242k. The twelve-month trend is slowing, but ever-so-gradually:


The unemployment rate held constant near the Fed’s estimate of the natural rate:


This is actually good news, as it reflects a faster pace of labor force growth:


The labor force participation rate is now 0.5 percentage points above its September low. Assuming this trend will continue, the US economy can sustain fairly strong job growth while unemployment rates drift lower very gradual, in line with the Fed’s expectations. It would also give the Fed a bit more breathing room with regards to raising rates. And it would help boost potential GDP growth as it helps offset weakness in productivity growth. 
Incoming data, including the inflation uptick, will solidify the positions of those FOMC participants opposed to an extended pause. A fairly clear split emerged in recent weeks. David Harrison at the Wall Street Journal:
The report likely will accentuate a growing split among Fed officials. On one side are regional Fed bank presidents such as San Francisco’s John Williams, Richmond’s Jeffrey Lacker and Kansas City’s Esther George who continue to press for rate increases this year. In the other camp are policy makers who prefer to take a more cautious approach and wait until the effects of the global financial turmoil and the fall in oil prices have played themselves out. Count the Dallas Fed’s Robert Steven Kaplan, Boston’s Eric Rosengren and Philadelphia’s Patrick Harker among them.
And to be sure, the Fed will have its external critics as well. Drew Matus, chief US economist at UBS, told Bloomberg Surveillance that the Fed will “take the cowards way out” by not raising interest rates in the first half of this year. 
I don’t find this a compelling interpretation. If you are a “coward” by definition you are not “brave.” And one should remember there is a fine line between “brave” and “foolhardy.” I suspect that Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen will wisely follow Falstaff’s advice and recognize that discretion is the better part of valor. True, one can argue that some financial indicators have stabilized since the January FOMC meeting:


To be sure stocks and oil are off their lows, while the dollar is off its highs. Even market-based inflation expectations are heading back up. Panic has subsided. On the surface, that may add weight to the argument that the Fed should “just follow the data.” But corporate bond spreads, although narrowing, still indicate fairly tight credit conditions:


This is on top of a very cold IPO market. So while incoming data points toward solid growth in Q1, the Fed still needs to stand down while the lagged impacts of this winter’s financial tightening pass through to the real economy. Discretion. Yes, this does put the Fed at risk of falling behind the curve. A dovish Fed now on the back of an improving economy suggests that the yield curve will steepen in the near term. If necessary, the Fed can chase that with a higher fed funds rate in the back half of the year. 
Also suggesting caution on the part of the Fed is a renewed awareness of the sensitivity of global financial flows to the Fed’s policy stance. Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard:
Financial tightening associated with cross-border spillovers may be limiting the extent to which U.S. policy diverges from major economies. As policy adjusts to the evolution of the data, the combination of heightened spillovers from weaker foreign economies, along with a lower neutral rate, could result in a lower policy path in the United States relative to what many had predicted…
And New York Federal Reserve President William Dudley:
Our monetary policy actions, however, often have global consequences that, in turn, influence the U.S. economy and financial markets. At the same time, external factors can impact the monetary policy transmission mechanism in the U.S. and influence the effectiveness of our monetary policy in achieving our objectives. We cannot appropriately calibrate policy without keeping these spillover and feedback effects in mind.
The degree to which the Federal Reserve can tighten short-term rates is limited by the extent of global feedback effects. In short, the Fed has limited capacity to defy the pattern of zero (or negative) rates abroad. 
Overall, I don’t believe a Federal Reserve pause is inconsistent with the data. All it takes is the realization that financial market outcomes are in fact data. Ultimately just prices and quantities of bonds and stocks and other assets – data just like any other data that measure prices and quantities of labor or goods. Data that provides insight into the direction of the economy. Or, as Dudley explained:
The federal funds rate is only one element of the broader set of financial conditions affecting the U.S. growth and inflation outlook. Tighter financial conditions abroad do spill back into the U.S. economy, and policymakers must take this into account in their assessment of appropriate monetary policy. Of course, this does not mean that we will let market volatility dictate our policy stance. There is no such a thing as a “Fed put.” What we care about is the country’s growth and inflation prospects, and we take financial market developments into consideration only to the extent that they affect the economic outlook.
Still, I am sympathetic to complaints of communication confusion. Harrison concludes his article:
Fed officials, chief among them Ms. Yellen, have repeated for months that their interest-rate decisions will depend on the economic data. It could be harder to make that case if it appears the central bank is acting contrary to increasingly strong data.
The Summary of Economic Projections is a woefully incomplete description of the Fed’s reaction function. It attempts to distill the Fed’s reaction function into a simple Taylor rule that abstracts away from financial sector. In other words, it does not capture the role of the financial sector in the Fed’s reaction function. And I think it fails to do so because of complex endogeneities involved (the Fed is in integral part of the financial sector) and, as a consequence, a lack of consensus about the implications for the Fed’s reaction function. 
Indeed, Cleveland Federal Reserve President Loretta Mester, Kansas City Federal Reserve President Esther George, San Francisco Federal Reserve President John Williams, and Board of Governors Vice Chair Stanley Fischer all appear to discount the importance of the Fed’s financial reaction function (see here and here for example). Brainard and Dudley clearly see a more complex relationship. 
Where does Yellen stand? My sense is that six month ago Yellen’s position would align close to Fischer. But I think she would now find Brainard’s position more persuasive, especially with Dudley’s support. That suggests that the Yellen will work to pull the Fed toward a neutral/dovish statement.
Bottom Line: Fed will hold steady next week. Key FOMC participants are shifting in a dovish direction. The financial market volatility, which induced clear tightening in financial conditions, bolstered the Brainard’s arguments. Despite solid incoming data, the Fed will find it necessary to tread cautiously in the months ahead.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Fed Watch: Dudley the Dove

Tim Duy:

Dudley the Dove, by Tim Duy: The beleaguered manufacturing sector saw an uptick in February, at least according to the ISM report: 

This information builds on the stronger consumer spending and inflation numbers we saw last week. Not to mention solid auto sales for February. The news is sufficiently good that Torsten Sløk of Deutsche Bank argues (via Business Insider) that the Fed should raise rates:
Today we got more confirmation that the negative effects of dollar appreciation on the US economy are starting to fade, see the first chart below. Specifically, we have in recent months seen a solid turnaround in the employment data for the manufacturing sector and in the manufacturing ISM. Combined with the acceleration we are seeing in consumer spending and inflation I would argue that if the Fed is truly data dependent then they should be raising rates at their next meeting...
I don't think the Fed will raise in March, nor do I think they should raise in March. I think the financial markets signaled fairly clear that further tightening now would be a mistake. The Fed would be wise to heed that call.
And, if New York Federal Reserve President William Dudley is any indication, they will heed that call. Indeed, he goes even further than me. Whereas yesterday I raised the possibility of a "hawkish pause" at the March meeting where the Fed revives the balance of risks with an upside bias, he opens the door to the opposite.
First, note that Dudley appears unmoved by the uptick in core inflation:
Turning to the outlook for inflation, headline inflation on a year-over-year basis has begun to rise as the sharp falls in energy prices in late 2014 and early 2015 are removed from the calculations. However, inflation still remains well below the Federal Reserve’s 2 percent objective. As the FOMC has noted in its statements, this continued low inflation is partly due to recent further declines in energy prices and ongoing impacts of a stronger dollar on non-energy import prices. Although energy prices will eventually stop falling and the dollar will stop appreciating, these factors appear to have had a more persistent depressing influence on inflation than previously anticipated.
This is actually quite dovish. If core inflation is a good signal for the direction of overall inflation, then the latter will leap sharply when the "transitory" impacts fades. This suggests to me that the forecast of a gradual return to target is almost certainly wrong. When (and if) inflation turns, it will turn quickly. Dudley is discounting that possibility.  
I suspect he is discounting inflation concerns because he is focussed on inflation expectations:
This continued period of low headline inflation is a concern, in part, because it could lead to significantly lower inflation expectations. If this drop in inflation expectations were to occur, it would, in turn, tend to depress future inflation. Evidence on the inflation expectations front suggests some cause for concern...
...With respect to the market-based measures, there are some reasons to discount the decline...Still, given the extent to which inflation compensation has fallen since mid-2014, I believe that it is prudent to consider the possibility that longer-term inflation expectations of market participants may have declined somewhat.
What I find more concerning is the decline in some household survey measures of longer-term inflation expectations....To date, these declines have not been sufficiently large for me to conclude that inflation expectations have become unanchored. However, these developments merit close scrutiny, as past experience shows that it is difficult to push inflation back up to the central bank’s objective if inflation expectations fall meaningfully below that objective. Japan’s experience is cautionary in this regard.
Asymmetric risk surrounds inflation expectations. Difficult to raise up, but easy to push down. Hence, it is important to guard against falling expectations. This is especially the case as he sees risks to the outlook as now tilted to the downside:
Now, putting these inputs and my judgment together, I see the uncertainties around my forecast to be greater than the typical levels of the past. This assessment reflects the divergent economic signals I highlighted earlier, and is consistent with the turbulence we have seen in global financial markets. At this moment, I judge that the balance of risks to my growth and inflation outlooks may be starting to tilt slightly to the downside. The recent tightening of financial market conditions could have a greater negative impact on the U.S. economy should this tightening prove persistent and the continuing decline in energy and commodity prices may signal greater and more persistent disinflationary pressures in the global economy than I currently anticipate. I am closely monitoring global economic and financial market developments to assess their implications for my outlook and the balance of risks.
Hence Dudley is likely to stand as a bulwark against FOMC participants who think the Fed should hike in March and those who would like a more optimistic balance of risks. Moreover, this is a pretty clear signal of his expectations for March:
The federal funds rate is only one element of the broader set of financial conditions affecting the U.S. growth and inflation outlook. Tighter financial conditions abroad do spill back into the U.S. economy, and policymakers must take this into account in their assessment of appropriate monetary policy. Of course, this does not mean that we will let market volatility dictate our policy stance. There is no such a thing as a “Fed put.” What we care about is the country’s growth and inflation prospects, and we take financial market developments into consideration only to the extent that they affect the economic outlook.
In other words, when we don't hike in March, it's not because of a Fed "put" on the stock market. It is more accurately a Fed "put" on the economy. Financial market weakness signals tighter financial conditions, and to prevent those conditions from spilling into the rest of the economy, the Fed needs to respond with a more accommodative policy stance. The Fed then is not saving Wall Street. It is saving Main Street from Wall Street.
The upshot is that if the economy remains on firm ground (the "no recession" camp), inflation is heating up, and the Fed goes solidly dovish, we should see the yield curve steepen in the near term, at least until the Fed turns hawkish again. If we are really lucky, the secular stagnation story is wrong and the entire yield curve lifts up as the Fed chases higher rates. Then we could really imagine the "short treasuries" bet to be a no-brainer.  If secular stagnation remains the order of the day, then the long end quits rising soon after the Fed sends out hawksh signals, setting the stage for a renewed flattening. 
An interesting possibility is that in the back half of 2016, inflation pops above trend and one of the Fed's fears is realized. That fear is that they fall behind the curve and need to raise rates quickly to counteract rising inflation. They seem to think that they have no choice at that point but to murder the expansion. I disagree with that conclusion. I think they tend to forget about the long and variable lags of policy at the end of the cycle and consequently rush raising rates needlessly. In any event, how they respond to (potentially) higher inflation later this year will shape the 2017 and 2018 economic environment. So, obviously it is something to keep an eye on.
Bottom Line: The Fed will take a pass on the March meeting. Whether the statement is dovish, neutral, hawkish is the key question. Dudley opens up the possibility of a not just a neutral statement, but a dovish one. My sense is that this is shaping up to be a very contentious meeting as participants struggle with the question of exactly which data are they dependent upon.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Fed Watch: Fed Doves Still Have The Upper Hand For March

Tim Duy:

Fed Doves Still Have The Upper Hand For March, by Tim Duy: The Personal Income and Outlays report for January delivered a surprise for the Fed doves. It does not, however, derail their push for a March pause. I believe policymakers will still take a pass on the March meeting as they assess the impact of recent market unpleasantness. But if markets calm further ahead of the March meeting and data remains solid, beware that they may choose to re-instate the balance of risks into the FOMC statement. Furthermore, sufficiently supportive data may induce them to shift the risks to the upside to signal the hope of a June hike.
Real personal consumption expenditures rose 0.4% in January and stands a respectable 2.9% higher than last year. The death of the consumer has been greatly exaggerated (although the death of the department store has not). Fairly firm consumer spending should be expected given the broad-based support from the labor market. Equally if not more important is that the report rewarded the defenders of the Phillips curve as core-PCE inflation spiked higher during the month:


Core inflation was up 1.7 percent from a year ago, actually bringing the FOMC's target into view. Note that as of the December meeting, the Fed did not expect to see 1.6 percent until the end of the year. It is easy to see unemployment close to their year-end target of 4.7 percent by the next meeting. It is already at 4.9 percent. In other words, it is easy to see economic projections updated to reveal a faster than expected return to both mandates.

It seems then like the Fed should consider picking up the pace of rate hikes rather than pausing. Indeed, there is some commentary that the current level of interest rates is inconsistent with the expected path of growth and inflation. This is sometimes described as Treasury market participants "underestimating" the Fed. Fed Governor Lael Brainard, however, continues to reconcile this apparent disconnect between the bond market and the economy with her focus on the international side of the equation. In yet another compelling speech, Brainard argues that the decline in the neutral rate of interest is a common shock that prevents policy diversion:

To the extent that we are observing limited divergence in inflation outcomes and less divergence in realized policy paths than many anticipated, this could be attributable to common shocks or trends that cause economic conditions to be synchronized across economies. The sharp repeated declines in the price of oil have been a major common factor depressing headline inflation...Even so, most observers expect this source of convergence in inflationary outcomes to eventually fade and thereafter not affect monetary policy paths over the medium term...In contrast, a more persistent source of convergence may be found in an apparent decline in the neutral rate of interest.

The persistent of this shock has significant implications for policy:

The very low levels of the shorter run neutral rate reflect in part headwinds from the crisis that are likely to dissipate over time. However, if many of the common forces holding down neutral rates prove persistent, then neutral rates may remain low through the medium term, implying a shallower path for policy trajectories.

It seems reasonable to equate the "persistent" common shock weighing on the natural rate of interest with the concept of secular stagnation. She reiterates estimates of the degree of tightening already impacting the US economy:

...although the U.S. real economy has traditionally been seen as more insulated from foreign trade shocks than many smaller economies, the combination of the highly global role of the dollar and U.S. financial markets and the proximity to the zero lower bound may be amplifying spillovers from foreign financial conditions. By one rough estimate, accounting for the net effect of exchange rate appreciation and changes in equity valuations and long term yields, over the past year and a half, the United States has experienced a tightening of financial conditions that is the equivalent of an additional increase of over 75 basis points in the federal funds rate...

...Financial channels can powerfully propagate negative shocks in one market by catalyzing a broader reassessment of risks and increases in risk spreads across many financial markets...Recent events suggest the transmission of foreign shocks can take place extremely quickly such that financial markets anticipate and indeed may thereby front-run the expected monetary policy reactions to these developments.

In other word, market participants are correctly assessing the Fed's response to recent turmoil by anticipating a slower path of rate hikes. Or, as I have said, the Fed has to be easier because everything else is tighter. Brainard draws special attention to the exchange rate (emphasis added):

It also appears that the exchange rate channel may have played a particularly important role recently in transmitting economic and financial developments across national borders. Indeed, recent research suggests that financial transmission is likely to be amplified in economies with near-zero interest rates, such that anticipated monetary policy adjustments in one economy may contribute more to a shifting of demand across borders than a boost to overall demand. This finding could explain why the sensitivity of exchange rate movements to economic news and to changes in foreign monetary policy appear to have been relatively elevated recently.

Read that carefully. She is saying that at the zero bound, the domestic impact of monetary policy is limited, leaving external demand as the primary policy channel. Hence exchange rates shift rapidly to induce that shifting of demand.

Or, in other words, Brainard is saying that at the zero bound monetary policy degrades to currency wars. Chew on that admission for awhile.

The implication for US policy:

Financial tightening associated with cross-border spillovers may be limiting the extent to which U.S. policy diverges from major economies. As policy adjusts to the evolution of the data, the combination of heightened spillovers from weaker foreign economies, along with a lower neutral rate, could result in a lower policy path in the United States relative to what many had predicted.

Pulling away from the zero bound is easier said than done. The Fed cannot lift the rest of the world from the zero bound; the rest of the world drags the Fed to the zero bound.

How does this relate to the idea that market participants are underestimating the Fed? I see two paths. One is that Brainard's "common shock" lowering the neutral rate of output is very persistent. Hence small changes to short-term rates have substantial economic impacts and the Fed needs to be very cautious in their response to inflation. In this scenario, the yield curve continues to flatten just as in any other tightening cycle. There is little movement in the long-end because market participants anticipate that the Fed has little room to maneuver.

Alternatively, the common shock dissipates, the long-end of the yield curve rises, and the Fed chases it with a faster than expected pace of rate hikes. I do not view this as a best on the markets underestimating the Fed. I view this as a bet against secular stagnation (the common shock).

It is worth pointing out at this juncture that shorting the long end (once thought a no brainer) has been something of a widowmaker trade. Just like it has been for Japanese government bonds.

If you accept the secular stagnation hypothesis and that the Fed will need to tighten in response to higher inflation, then expect long rates to hold flat or more likely decline as short rates rise. In other words, the yield curve would flatten further. Note that the yield curve has flattened per usual after the Fed began tightening.

So how I do interpret the incoming information of recent weeks as it regards at least near term policy? As follows:

  1. The rise in wage growth and now inflation is consistent with an economy near full-employment. In this dimension, the world is not much different than it has always been. Push unemployment low enough and resource constraints start to bite.
  2. Fed hawks will argue vociferously that they will soon fall behind the curve, if they have not already. Even some moderates will push for higher rates sooner than later. Here I am thinking of Fed Vice Chair Stanley Fischer.
  3. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen will be swayed by Brainard to a dovish position in the near term. Brainard correctly called the importance of the external transmission channels last year. Those channels are forcing the Fed to lower the path of rate hikes in response by skipping at least the March meeting. And incoming data is largely backward looking; the Fed needs time to assess the impact of recent tightening in financial markets.
  4. I don't expect Fed hawks to go quietly into the night on this. I think they will want something in return for pausing, and that solid incoming data with a whiff of inflation will prompt them to revive the balance of risks.
  5. Unless growth does slow down dramatically, delaying rate hikes now means, as the Fed sees it, falling behind the curve later this year (remember that the push for raising rates in 2015 was premised on the need to be able to raise slowly ahead of inflation). The Fed will then have a choice between accepting a greater risk of above target inflation or accelerating the pace of rate hikes. I don't know which way that debate will fall yet.

Bottom Line: Inflation concerns are not likely to prompt a the Fed to hike rates in March. Financial market issues will dominate; like it or not, the Fed cannot separate the financial system from the real economy. The former is signaling it requires a looser policy stance to compensate for the stronger dollar. It would be tempting fate to ignore that signal. Be wary, however, of a hawkish message sent through the statement.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Fed Watch: Lacker, Kaplan, Fischer

Tim Duy:

Lacker, Kaplan, Fischer, by Tim Duy: Today Richmond Federal Reserve President Jeffrey Lacker argued that the case for rate hikes remains intact, arguing that monetary policy remains quite accommodative:
So at this point, estimates of the natural real rate of interest do not suggest that the zero lower bound is impeding the Fed’s ability to attain its 2 percent inflation objective. In fact, this perspective would bolster the case for raising the federal funds rate target.
And in he is quoted by Reuters adding:
Ongoing strength in the U.S. job market could give the Federal Reserve justification for multiple interest rate increases this year, Richmond Fed President Jeffrey Lacker said on Wednesday...
.."I still think prospects for rate increases this year is the logical" view, Lacker said in a presentation to a business school in Baltimore, adding that economic data did not indicate that a recession was imminent in the United States.
If Lacker were still voting this year, he would likely be a serial dissenter. On the opposite side of the table sits Dallas Federal Reserve President Robert Kaplan. In an interview with the Financial Times, Kaplan leans very dovish:
Now was a time for patience as the Federal Reserve seeks to understand the impact of financial market turbulence and slowing growth in other economies, said Mr Kaplan, who does not vote on Fed rates this year but takes part in the debate.
“In order to reach our inflation objective we may need to be more patient than we previously might have thought,” he said. “If that means we take an extended period of time where we stop and don’t move, that may also be necessary. I am not prejudging that.”
Pure wait-and-see, risk management mode, and the most likely direction the Fed will take in March and April. Federal Reserve Vice Chair Stanley Fischer remains less-moved by recent developments. Instead, low unemployment rates capture his attention (emphasis added):
..most estimates of the full employment rate of unemployment are close to 5 percent. The actual rate of unemployment is now slightly below 5 percent, and the median view of the members of the FOMC is that it will decline further, perhaps even to the vicinity of 4.7 percent. The question is, should we be concerned about that possibility? In my view, a modest overshoot of this sort would be appropriate in current circumstances for two reasons. The first reason is that other measures of labor market conditions--such as the fraction of workers with part-time employment who would prefer to work full time and the number of people not actively looking for work who would like to work--indicate that more slack may remain in the labor market than the unemployment rate alone would suggest. And the second reason is that with inflation currently well below 2 percent, a modest overshoot could actually be helpful in moving inflation back to 2 percent more rapidly. Nonetheless, a persistent large overshoot of our employment mandate would risk an undesirable rise in inflation that might require a relatively abrupt policy tightening, which could inadvertently push the economy into recession. Monetary policy should aim to avoid such risks and keep the expansion on a sustainable track.
Unemployment is currently at 4.9 percent. It doesn't take much imagination to see it falling to 4.7 percent in short order. Fischer sounds very uncomfortable with the prospect of the unemployment rate falling much below 4.7%. He is getting an itchy trigger finger.
I remain unmoved by this logic:
If the recent financial market developments lead to a sustained tightening of financial conditions, they could signal a slowing in the global economy that could affect growth and inflation in the United States. But we have seen similar periods of volatility in recent years--including in the second half of 2011--that have left little visible imprint on the economy, and it is still early to judge the ramifications of the increased market volatility of the first seven weeks of 2016. As Chair Yellen said in her testimony to the Congress two weeks ago, while "global financial developments could produce a slowing in the economy, I think we want to be careful not to jump to a premature conclusion about what is in store for the U.S. economy."
This echoes the comments of San Francisco Federal Reserve President John Williams, and again misses the Fed's response to financial turmoil. In 2011, it was Operation Twist. One would think they would keep a chart like this on hand:


I really do not understand how Fed officials can continue to dismiss market turmoil using comparisons to past episodes when those episodes triggered a monetary policy response. They don't quite seem to understand the endogeneity in the system.
My sense is that there remains a nontrivial contingent within the Fed that really, truly believes they need to hike sooner than later for fear that overshooting the employment mandate will result in overshooting the inflation target. This contingent is attempting to look at the financial system as separate from the "real" economy. That will not work. No matter how good the underlying fundamentals, if you let the financial system implode, it will take the economy down with it. I don't know that the Fed needs to cut rates, or that they needed to cut rates as deeply as they did during the Asian Financial crisis, but I do know this: The monetary authority should not tighten into financial turmoil. Wait until you are out of the woods. That's Central Banking 101. And I suspect that is ultimately the direction the Fed will take.
Bottom Line: Despite some hawkish talk, the Fed will find themselves in risk management mode at the March meeting. Some will not like it. There will remain a contingent that fears standing still risks excessive overshooting of the inflation target.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Fed Watch: Not All Fed Presidents On Board With March Pause

Tim Duy:

Not All Fed Presidents On Board With March Pause: The Fed will almost certainly pause in March. But not all Fed presidents are leaning that way. And at least one seems to be shifting closer to March than further away. At the end of January, San Francisco Federal Reserve President John Williams had this to say, via Reuters:
San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank President John Williams told reporters he now sees slightly slower growth, slightly higher unemployment, and about a tenth of a percent lower inflation this year than he had expected in December, when the Fed raised rates for the first time in nearly a decade...
..."Standard monetary policy strategy says a little less inflation, maybe a little less growth ... argue for just a smidgen slower process of normalizing rates," Williams said. 
"We got a little stronger dollar, some mixed data on the economy, some weakness in (fourth-quarter U.S. GDP growth), all of those coming together kind of tell me that we probably need a little bit more monetary accommodation this year than I was thinking in the middle of December."
But yesterday, the LA Times reported:
And unlike some of his colleagues at the Fed, who have suggested that the central bank hold off on raising interest rates next month, Williams says no such thing. The Fed lifted its benchmark rate in December after keeping it at near zero for seven years, but officials made no change at their last meeting in late January, amid tumbling stock and oil prices, and rising fears about China’s slowdown.
Williams, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, said the recent global developments certainly need to be closely monitored. But he said the “big picture for me hasn’t changed,” and his view on U.S. employment and inflation — the two key areas determining the Fed’s monetary policy — remains sanguine.
Sounds like Williams is backing down from his "smidgen" slower pace of rate hikes. Of course, really the only way to have just a "smidgen" slower pace is to skip the March meeting and acquiesce to at most three rate hike this year. So if Williams is backing down, he is saying that March remains an open question. 
What would have changed his position? Data would be my guess. Since Williams spoke with reporters in January, the data has been fairly supportive. As he notes in his most recent speech, unemployment has fallen below 5%, his estimate of the natural rate of unemployment, and wage growth is starting to accelerate. Moreover, he still expects inflation will accelerate. I would add that initial unemployment claims turned back down:


Quits rates rose in December, indicating more, not less, confidence among workers:


Industrial production ticked up and weakness remains fairly concentrated:


Retail sales were stronger than expected, knocking a hole in the "consumer is dying" story:


In addition, housing remains solid - and housing generally does not strengthen into a recession. Indeed, Toll Brothers is not exactly worried about the economy in 2016. And, to top it off, last week we saw more evidence of rising inflation in the CPI report:


Hence I am not surprised to hear more optimism among Fed presidents than at the end of January. To be sure, some never wavered in their confidence. Kansas City Federal Reserve President Esther George today, via Bloomberg:
Federal Reserve policy makers should be prepared to consider raising interest rates in March despite recent financial market volatility, said Kansas City Fed President Esther George, whose outlook for solid growth this year remains intact.
“It absolutely should be on the table” at the next meeting, George told Pimm Fox and Kathleen Hays in a Bloomberg Radio interview Tuesday from the bank. “At this point I would not say that the data have suggested there has been a fundamental shift in the outlook.”
She even suggests that the Fed could surprise markets:
“It is clear the markets have taken that off the table,” said George, a voting member of the FOMC in 2016. “Policy makers have to look at what are the fundamentals of the economy.” Investors currently view the probability of a single rate rise in 2016 at around 45 percent, according to trading in federal funds futures contracts. The FOMC next meets on March 15-16.
That's not going to happen; the Fed will pause in March because ultimately they have to. The events since December have only bolstered the position of Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard, the strongest voice on the Board arguing for a cautious approach. That said, not all will see it this way. Back to Williams:
Of course, I am aware of, and closely monitoring, potential risks. But I want to be clear what that means. It’s often said that the economy isn’t the stock market and the stock market isn’t the economy. That’s very true. Short-term fluctuations or even daily dives aren’t accurate reflections of the state of the vast, intricate, multilayered U.S. economy. And they shouldn’t be viewed as the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Remember, the expansion of the 1980s wasn’t derailed by the crash of ’87, and we sailed through the Asian financial crisis a decade later. I say “remember”—some of you here will actually remember and others will remember it from your high school history class.
This paragraph was almost painful to read. Revisionist history. It is as if Williams completely forgets the role of monetary policy in both instances. What did the Fed do in November of 1987? Did they continue hiking rates? What did the Fed do in 1998? Did they continue hiking rates? No, in both instances they actually cut rates. And it was that monetary response that helped the economy "sail through" these episodes. 
The Fed will reach the same conclusion this time as well: Even if the economic data is solid and the recovery remains intact, there is reason to believe that tightening financial conditions alone give sufficient reason for the Fed to pause. The Fed knows this. From the January minutes:
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.
These issues are not going away by March. Hence, risk management mode remains the order of the day.
Moreover, consider the situation from the perspective of Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen. You have no doubt that your actions at this point define your legacy. On one side is the risk that your policy traps the US economy at the zero bound. You are just another in a long line of failed central bankers who tried to normalize too soon. This risk has been brought into sharp relief in the past two months (Brainard warned you, you think). On the other side is the risk that inflation drifts above your 2% target but you raise the odds of pulling off the zero bound. And you know that if push comes to shove, you can always argue that a period of above-2% inflation only makes up for a extended period of sub-2% inflation. And that you need somewhat higher inflation to firm up faltering inflation expectations. Which risk do you want to embrace? I am guessing the second. That's what Yellen will choose.
Bottom Line: The Fed is on hold. No clear end to the pause. But be wary that some Presidents might want something in return for that pause. What I am watching for are signs that Fed officials will lean toward re-instating the balance of risks assessment to the post-FOMC statement. And which way would that assessment lean? That, I think, is the question I would like to see financial journalists asking of Fed officials.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Fed Watch: FOMC Minutes and More

Tim Duy:

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.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Fed Watch: Fed Yet To Fully Embrace A New Policy Path

Tim Duy:

Fed Watch: Fed Yet To Fully Embrace A New Policy Path, by Tim Duy: The Fed will take a pause on rate hikes. An indefinite pause. The sooner they admit this, the better off we will all be. Indeed, the sooner they admit this, the sooner financial markets will calm and the the sooner they would be able to resume hiking rates. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen had two high profile opportunities this week to make such an admission. Yet she failed to do so. She gave some ground on March, to be sure. But overall, the Fed just isn’t ready to stop talking about rate hikes later this year.
The framework from which I consider the Fed’s current predicament begins with this chart:


Beginning in 2013 and extending through most of 2015, the domestic side of the US economy surged as consumer spending accelerated, investment stabilized, and government spending gained. The trade deficit acted as a pressure valve, widening to offshore some of the domestic demand. On net, economic activity was sufficient to collapse the output gap. By the end of 2015, the economy was near full-employment.
At full-employment, a combination of factors would work in tandem to slow activity to that of potential growth. I think of it as a new constellation of prices consistent with sustained full-employment. I can’t tell you exactly what the new constellation would look like other than the most likely combination: A mix of higher dollar, higher inflation, higher wages, and higher short term interest rates (tighter monetary policy).
How much monetary policy tightening is consistent with the new equilibrium depends on the evolution of the other prices. A reasonable baseline at the end of last year was that 100bp of tightening would be consistent with achieving full-employment. That was the Fed’s starting point as well.
The international interconnectivity of financial markets, however, dealt a blow to the expectation of even a gradual rate increase. The actual and expected policy divergence between the Federal Reserve and the rest of the world’s major central banks drove a rally in the dollar. That unexpected strength of that rally means that some other price has to move accordingly to sustain full employment. The most likely price is short-term interest rates. That’s the signal from the collapse in long rates. That signals the Fed will be lower for longer, reducing the magnitude of the policy divergence, and allowing the dollar to retreat.
Ironically, I suspect the Bank of Japan’s foray into negative interest rates sealed the fate of the divergence trade. First by pushing market participants into US Treasuries, signaling that the Fed would need to respond to the BOJ by reducing the expected short-term policy path. Second by killing bank stocks. Market participants in the US were already primed by Fed Vice Chair Stanley Fisher that negative rates could be a policy tool. And this point was seconded by Yellen this week.
But the collapse in banking stocks suggests strongly that negative interest rates are not compatible with our current economic institutions. The system relies on the banks, and the banks need to make money, and they struggle to do so in a negative rate environment. Should it be any surprise that the threat of global negative rates is slamming the financial sector?
If then zero (or something just below zero) is indeed a practical lower bound, and all major central banks are pulled in that direction, then the scope for policy divergence is limited. Again, this suggests the policy divergence trade – a one-way bet on the dollar – is nearing the end if not already there. It had to end sooner or later. A one-way bet would eventually cripple the US economy.
In sum, a key factor in keeping the US economy on the rails is acknowledging that tightening financial conditions via the dollar obviates the need to tightening conditions via monetary policy. This will also sustain the expansion and allow wage growth and inflation accelerate. The Fed can stand down, and let my scenario five evolve. All of this is well and good, but the Fed has yet to fully embrace this story. And that leaves them sounding relatively hawkish. Yellen’s testimony continues to emphasize that the Fed expects to keep raising rates. To be sure, she includes the data dependent caveat, and this:
Financial conditions in the United States have recently become less supportive of growth, with declines in broad measures of equity prices, higher borrowing rates for riskier borrowers, and a further appreciation of the dollar.
should be sufficient to take March off the table despite solid labor data. But the underlying message is that they expect higher rates. It is only the pace that changes, not the direction. There is just no reason to promise higher rates. All the Fed needs to say is:
“Monetary policy will be appropriate to achieve the Fed’s mandate.”
Yellen & Co. don’t need to emphasize the direction of rates. They just can’t stop themselves. Worse yet, they feel compelled to describe the level of future rates via the Summary of Economic Projections. A level entirely inconsistent with signals from bond markets, no less. They don't really know what the terminal fed funds rate will be, so why keep pretending they do? The “dot plot” does nothing more than project an overly-hawkish policy stance that leaves market participants persistently fearful a policy error is in the making. It is time to end the “dot plot.”
It might be helpful to add:
“We will not pursue negative interest rates if such a policy is incompatible with stability in financial sector.”
They should stop with the random and partially considered talk of negative interest rates. Instead, adopt a basic talking point indicating the idea has yet to be thoroughly vetted and as such any speculation on the topic is premature.
Bottom Line: The Fed has yet to fully embrace the change in financial conditionals and the implications for the path of policy. To be sure Yellen gave enough this week to take March off the table. That said, policymakers will hesitate to dramatically change their general policy outlook focused on higher rates. Consequently, I anticipate Fedspeak with seemingly unrealistic hawkish undertones. Essentially, they will leave the fear of policy error simmering on the back-burner.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Fed Watch: Solid Jobs Report Keeps Fed In Play

Tim Duy:

Solid Jobs Report Keeps Fed In Play, by Tim Duy: Just when you think it's safe to jump in the water, reality strikes. While I still think that the Fed passes in March, the solid jobs report is just what is takes to keep the Fed in the game. Back it up with another such report in March and a stronger inflation signal in one of the upcoming price reports and you set the stage for a divisive battle at the next FOMC meeting.
Nonfarm payrolls grew by 151k, below consensus but within a reasonable range of estimates. The twelve-month moving average reveals a very modest slowing of job growth over the year:


The jobs numbers in the context of data Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen pervasively identified as what to watch:



Notably, wage growth has accelerated over the past year, suggesting that the Fed's estimate of NAIRU is within range of reality:


Prior to the 2001 recession, wage growth typically accelerated at unemployment approached 6%. Now it looks like 5% is the magic number:


I suspect the the employment cost index will soon follow the wage numbers higher:


There are no signals of recession in this data. For those who will complain that it is lagging data, I suggest watching the temporary employment component:


Temporary hiring should flatten out as the cycle matures, and you can arguably see the beginning of that process. If you squint, that is. Even so, the process evolved over a two year period before the last recession struck. Even if the seeds of recession were sown this January, we wouldn't expect recession until 2017 at the earliest. Still not by base case; using history as a guide I have a recession penciled in for 2018. (Short story: economy is in later stages of a business cycle, Fed resumes tightening later this year and pushes it too far by middle of 2017. In a perfect world the Fed could moderate the pace of activity to hold unemployment near NAIRU for an extended period of time. That, however, has proven to be a challenge for the Fed in the past.)
Bottom Line: This jobs report complicates the Fed's decision making process. They are stuck with instability in the financial markets as the economy reaches full employment. They are concerned that in the absence of temporary factors, inflation will quickly jump higher if the economy continues on this trajectory. While they would like unemployment to settle somewhat below NAIRU to eliminate lingering underemployment, they don't want it to settle far below NAIRU. They don't believe they can easily tap the breaks to lift unemployment higher. Recession is almost guaranteed to follow. Hence they would like to be able to rates rates gradually to feel their way around the darkness in which the true value of NAIRU lies. They fear that if they delay additional tightening, they will pass the point of no return in which they are forced to abandon their doctrine of gradualism. The Fed's policy challenge just became a little bit harder today.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Fed Watch: Jobs Day

Tim Duy:

Jobs Day, by Tim Duy: The jobs report for January is upon us. I would like to say this one will receive special attention but they all receive special attention. Consensus forecast is for nonfarm payrolls to gain 188k, with a range of 170k-215k, while unemployment holds constant at 5%. Calculated Risk looks at five indicators and concludes:
Unfortunately none of the indicators above is very good at predicting the initial BLS employment report. However, based on these indicators, it appears job gains will be below consensus.
One of the indicators CR considers in consumer sentiment, which as CR says is influenced by factors other than the labor market, so I will discount it in what follows. A regression of the monthly change in nonfarm payrolls on the remaining indicators - monthly change in ADP payrolls (ADP), the ISM employment index for manufacturing (NAPMEI), the ISM employment index for nonmanfucturing (NMFEI), and the monthly change in initial jobless claims (CLAIMS2) - yields:


This is a quick and dirty regression, to be sure, and I would caveat it by saying that it is more accurately described as a model of the revised nonfarm payrolls number than the initial release. Note also that the coefficient on the manufacturing employment index is not significant. As CR says:
Note: Recently the ADP has been a better predictor for BLS reported manufacturing employment than the ISM survey.
With these caveats in mind, the one-step ahead forecasts are:


The point forecast for January is 202.64k, a tad higher than consensus, but the 95% confidence interval is wide at (48k to 357k). Which is a reminder that trying to predict monthly payrolls is something of a fool's errand. I would not be surprised by any outcome within the 68% confidence interval, or 123k to 280k. A significant miss relative to consensus should not be a surprise. It would still be within the range of recent outcomes.
The Fed will be watching for signs that the economy has slowed precipitously since the final quarter of 2015. They will also be watching the unemployment rate and underemployment indicators to assess remaining slack in the economy. Further declines in the unemployment rate will make them increasingly uneasy with holding steady even as financial markets suggest they should. Watch wages for confirmation that slack has or has not diminished. And, finally, for those on recession watch, ignore the headlines whether they be weak or strong and look at temporary help payrolls and signs that long-term unemployment is back on the rise. Both tend to be leading indicators, especially the former.
In other news, New York Fed President William Dudley was reported to have cooled on rate hikes:
"One thing I think we can say with more confidence is that financial conditions are considerably tighter than they were at the time of the December meeting," said Dudley, a permanent voter on the Federal Open Market Committee, the Fed's monetary policy arm.
"So if those financial conditions were to remain in place by the time we get to the March meeting, we would have to take that into consideration in terms of that monetary policy decision," he said.
While the Wall Street Journal reports that Fed Governor Lael Brainard reiterated her warnings from last year:
Her concern is that stresses in emerging markets including China and slow growth in developed economies could spill over to the U.S. “This translates into weaker exports, business investment and manufacturing in the United States, slower progress on hitting the inflation target, and financial tightening through the exchange rate and rising risk spreads on financial assets,” Ms. Brainard said Monday in response to questions from The Wall Street Journal.

“Recent developments reinforce the case for watchful waiting,” she said.

Both are clearly more cautious than Kansas City Fed Esther George. And more influential as well. I enjoyed this:
“I don’t think it served Janet Yellen well,” former Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher said in an interview of Ms. Brainard’s critique. “It’s the only time I’ve known her when she didn’t appear to be a team player,” he said of Ms. Brainard, with whom he worked in the Clinton administration.
Seriously? Fisher has the gall to criticize Brainard as not a team player? Google "fisher dallas dissent" and see what you get. A sample:


Being a team player isn't always what the Fed needs. Fisher obviously thought so when he was on the FOMC. Yet he insists Brainard be the team player he wasn't. Sad.
Separately, Goldman Sachs has erased their expectations of a rate hike in March, but left three more penciled-in for the rest of the year. Clearly in the "no recession" camp. I think that March is unlikely, as is a chance to "catch-up" in April. But I can make a story on the back of calm in financial markets and two strong employment reports that March comes back on the table. Not my baseline though.
Bottom Line: Fed mostly coming around to delaying the next rate hike. Would need to see a lot of change over just a few weeks to get them back on their original track. More than seems likely. Rest of the year? If you are in the "no recession" camp like me, you anticipate the Fed will resume hiking later this year. If you are in the "recession" camp, it's all over.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Fed Watch: Resisting Change?

Tim Duy:

Resisting Change?, by Tim Duy: Monday Federal Reserve Vice Chair Stanley Fischer offered up a speech and lengthy discussion on recent monetary policy. It was both illuminating and frustrating at once. Although his confidence is fading, I also sense that he is resisting change. Fischer begins by reviewing the December decision:

Our decision in December was based on the substantial improvement in the labor market and the Committee's confidence that inflation would return to our 2 percent goal over the medium term. Employment growth last year averaged a solid 220,000 per month, and the unemployment rate declined from 5.6 percent to 5.0 percent over the course of 2015. Inflation ran well below our target last year, held down by the transitory effects of declines in crude oil prices and also in the prices of non-oil imports. Prices for these goods have fallen further and for longer than expected. Once these oil and import prices stop falling and level out, their effects on inflation will dissipate, which is why we expect that inflation will rise to 2 percent over the medium term, supported by a further strengthening in labor market conditions.

This covers familiar territory, as does his subsequent remarks the even after raising rates, policy remains accommodative:

I would note that our monetary policy remains accommodative after the small increase in the federal funds rate adopted in December. And my colleagues and I anticipate that economic conditions will evolve in a manner that will warrant only gradual increases in the federal funds rate, and that the federal funds rate is likely to remain, for some time, below the levels that we expect to prevail in the longer run.

This is the first source of my frustration, because his definition of "accommodative" depends upon a specific idea of the neutral Fed Funds rates. From the subsequent discussion:

Well, I think we have to wait to see precisely where this process will take us. We expect now that the numbers given in the survey, we can now make projections, the SEP of members of the FOMC, of somewhere around 3 ¼, 3, 3 ½ percent, which is on average a bit lower than in the past. But we’ll be data-dependent and we’ll see what happens. We don’t have to fix a rate that we’ll be at. We can indicate what members of the FOMC believe, which is what the number I’ve just given you is.

If you don't know the longer-run rate, how can you know how accommodative policy is? If the longer-run rate is close to 2 percent, then policy is less accommodative than you think it is. The endgame of policy is the dual employment/price stability mandate, not a specific level of interest rates.

The Fed's forecasts, however, have been foiled by oil and the dollar:

At our meeting last week, we left our target for the federal funds rate unchanged. Economic data over the intermeeting period suggested that improvement in labor market conditions continued even as economic growth slowed late last year. But further declines in oil prices and increases in the foreign exchange value of the dollar suggested that inflation would likely remain low for somewhat longer than had been previously expected before moving back to 2 percent.

This in and of itself would suggest a slower or delayed pace of rate hikes, but more on that later. As for market volatility and external events:

In addition, increased concern about the global outlook, particularly the ongoing structural adjustments in China and the effects of the declines in the prices of oil and other commodities on commodity exporting nations, appeared early this year to have triggered volatility in global asset markets. At this point, it is difficult to judge the likely implications of this volatility. If these developments lead to a persistent tightening of financial conditions, they could signal a slowing in the global economy that could affect growth and inflation in the United States. But we have seen similar periods of volatility in recent years that have left little permanent imprint on the economy.

This is unimpressive. Are we allowed to say that about Fischer? First, the likely implications of the volatility are straightforward. The decline in longer term yields signals the Fed is likely to be lower for longer. Second, it seems that Fischer does not acknowledge the Fed's role in minimizing the impact of similar bouts of volatility. They have responded by either easing via additional quantitative easing, or easing by delaying tightening (such as pushing back expectations of the taper or skipping their hoped-for September 2015 rate hike).

I find this distressing because when you fail to recognize your role, you set the stage for a policy error. They can't use the logic that they should hike in March because past volatility had no impact on growth when that same volatility actually changed their behavior and thus the economic outcomes. I guess they can use that logic, but they shouldn't.

So is March on the table still? I don't think they will have the inflation data to support such a move. But I can tell a story where they push ahead on the labor data alone. Back to Fischer:

As you know, in making our policy decisions, my FOMC colleagues and I spend considerable time assessing the incoming economic and financial information and its implications for the economic outlook. But we also must consider some other issues, two of which I would like to mention briefly today.

First, should we be concerned about the possibility of the unemployment rate falling somewhat below its longer-run normal level, as the most recent FOMC projections suggest? In my view, a modest overshoot of this sort would be appropriate in current circumstances for two reasons. First, other measures of labor market conditions--such as the fraction of workers with part-time employment who would prefer to work full time and the number of people out of the labor force who would like to work--indicate that more slack may remain in labor market than the unemployment rate alone would suggest. Second, with inflation currently well below 2 percent, a modest overshoot actually could be helpful in moving inflation back to 2 percent more rapidly.

The economy is currently operating near the Fed's estimate of the natural rate of unemployment. Upward pressure on wages is constant with that hypothesis. The Fed would like unemployment to drop further to dissipate lingering underemployment and put upward pressure on inflation. So their is room for additional declines in the unemployment rate. But:

Nonetheless, a persistent large overshoot of our employment mandate would risk an undesirable rise in inflation that might require a relatively abrupt policy tightening, which could inadvertently push the economy into recession. Monetary policy should aim to avoid such risks and keep the expansion on a sustainable track.

Here Fischer echoes the comments of New York Federal Reserve President William Dudley. Policymakers fear that they cannot allow unemployment to drift far below the natural rate because they do not believe they could just nudge it back higher without causing a recession. They can only glide into a sustainable path from above. Hence one can envision the Fed getting caught up in the employment data between now and March. That is two reports; if those reports suggest that labor markets remain strong, then the Fed will resist holding rates steady. At a minimum, it would certainly complicate the March meeting and sap my confidence that they stand pat. Indeed, one voting member is already working hard to downplay recent events. Today's speech by Kansas City Federal Reserve President Esther George:

While taking a signal from such volatility is warranted, monetary policy cannot respond to every blip in financial markets. Instead, a focus on economic fundamentals, such as labor markets and inflation, can help guard against monetary policy over- or under- reacting to swings in financial conditions. To a great extent, the recent bout of volatility is not all that unexpected, nor necessarily worrisome, given that the Fed’s low interest rate and bond- buying policies focused on boosting asset prices as a means of stimulating the real economy. As asset prices adjust to the shift in monetary policy, it is to be expected that the pricing of risk will realign to this different rate environment…

…The exact timing of each move, however, is subject to the economic environment. Because monetary policy affects the economy with lags, decisions must necessarily rely on forecasts and their associated risks — not waiting until desired objectives are realized.

If we wait for the data to provide complete confirmation before making a policy decision, we may well have waited too long. Likewise, policy may be faced with altering its trajectory if the economy’s progress points to a different outlook. But in the absence of any substantial shift in the outlook, my view is that the Committee should continue the gradual adjustment of moving rates higher to keep them aligned with economic activity and inflation. These actions are often difficult, but also necessary to keep growth in line with the economy’s long-run potential and to foster price stability.

An additional point: Watch for policymakers to downplay the inflation numbers as well. Back to George:

Finally, inflation has remained muted as a result of lower oil prices and the strong U.S. dollar. Recent movements in each of these have been quite large by historical standards. Yet, despite these headwinds, core measures of inflation have recently risen on a year-over-year basis. And although inflation rates over the past few years have hovered below the Fed’s goal of 2 percent, they have been positive and broadly consistent with price stability.

Note the "positive and broadly consistent" line. And Fischer:

And our view of progress is what the law calls maximum employment and what we call maximum sustainable employment, and a 2 percent inflation rate. And when we get there—we’re there—we’re very close to there on employment, and on inflation the core number that came out this morning was 1.4 percent. You know, that’s not 2 percent. It’s not in another universe. It’s not a negative number. But inflation’s been pretty stable, and we’d like it to go up.

Not in "another universe' from 2 percent. Not negative. Sure we'd like it to go up, but are we really worried about it? Doesn't sound like it to me.

Bottom Line: Fischer is clearly less confident than earlier this month when he claimed that market participants were underestimating the pace of rate hikes. The baseline of four hikes is clearly is doubt; see here for my five potential scenarios. Financial market participants have almost completely discounted any rate hikes this year. This is a recession scenario that I am not enamored with. That said, I suspect market volatility and lack of inflation data keep them on hold in March and maybe April even if the recession does not come to pass. However (although not my baseline), I can tell a story where they feel like the employment data forces their hand. Especially so if they continue to downplay the inflation numbers. A substantial part of their policy still appears directed by a pre-conceived notion of "normal" policy. This I think is the Fed's largest error; the fact that the yield curve stubbornly resists being pushed higher suggests that the Fed's estimates of the terminal fed funds rates is wildly optimistic. There appear to be limits to which the Fed can resist the global pull of zero (or lower) rates.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Fed Watch: On The Dispersion, Or Lack Thereof, of Economic Weakness

Tim Duy:

On The Dispersion, Or Lack Thereof, of Economic Weakness, by Tim Duy: Gavyn Davies writes:
It is true that much of the weakness in the nowcast is identified by economic variables that relate to the industrial sector. But these variables have, in the past, been very closely correlated with activity in the economy as a whole, and are therefore usually among the best indicators of overall activity. It is dangerous to ignore weakness in these industrial variables that persists for a long period, which is what is happening now....The full model, including the industrial sector data, estimates that the recession probability has been hovering around 15-20 per cent (above right graph), no longer an entirely negligible risk. If the weak industrial data are excluded, on the grounds that they are “transitory” – a word often used by Fed officials – then the recession probability drops to about 10 per cent.
He adds this picture:


Recession odds of just 10% would hardly be worth getting out of bed for. So how much weight should we be placing on the manufacturing data? I often see claims that manufacturing is already in recession. And Andrew Levin, former advisor to Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, places much weight on the industrial production slowdown:
Unfortunately, the latest economic data underscore the risk that the economy may now be heading into another recession. Last Friday, the Federal Reserve Board reported that its index of industrial production sank further in December and was down 1.8% from a year earlier. Indeed, as shown in the accompanying chart, this pace of contraction has only occurred during prior recessionary periods. In some instances, the fall in industrial output was a harbinger at the onset of a recession. In other episodes, the industrial sector had been booming previously and turned downward after a recession was already underway. But since 1970 there has never been a case where the industrial sector shrank nearly 2 percent on a 12-month basis and the broader economy was left unscathed.
I think it is important to be very cautious with this aggregate data. What makes a recession a recession is that the decline in activity is felt widely throughout the economy. From the National Bureau of Economic Research:
During a recession, a significant decline in economic activity spreads across the economy and can last from a few months to more than a year.
With this in mind, I direct you to my fellow Oregon economist Josh Lehner, who correctly notes that in comparison to past recessions, the decline in manufacturing activity is not well disbursed across the sector. My version of Josh's chart:


The point is that during a recession, the vast majority of manufacturing industries (or all!) are declining. We are nowhere near that point. In other words, even manufacturing - arguably the most distressed sector of the US economy - is not recession. And if manufacturing is not even in recession, it is difficult to see that the US economy is in recession. Or even nearing it.
Initial unemployment claims across states tells a similar story:


In this version, I count the sates experiencing a 5% or greater change in year-over-year unemployment claims (I used 5% to account for the fact that as the cycle matures, claims will flatten out for more states and thus you would expect a wider dispersion of marginally higher claims). As is evident, recessions are characterized by rising claims across a wide swath of sates. In other words, a recession in Texas does not a US recession make. Note also that the economy can experience a fairly widespread increase in claims but not a recession. See 1995. Which means that while I think initial claims is an excellent leading indicator, it by itself is not infallible.
Aside from the recession risk, there is another important aspect of Davies's chart - discounting manufacturing, it indicates growth of just 2% in the US. This is fairly close with the Federal Reserve's estimate of potential growth, and I suspect that is the direction we will be heading by the end of the year if not sooner. Key sources of growth, such as autos, multifamily housing, and technology, that helped propel the economy closer to fully employment are likely leveling off. If so, that means the economy is at an inflection point as it transitions back to trend. The Fed expects that process will require addition tightening. The financial markets aren't so confident.
Bottom Line: The lack of widespread economic weakness across the economy indicates that the US is not currently in recession. It is not even evident manufacturing is in recession. If the economy were heading into recession, expect the dispersion of weakness will spread further across the economy, both geographically and sectorally.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Fed Watch: So You Think A Recession Is Imminent, Yield Curve Edition

Tim Duy:

So You Think A Recession Is Imminent, Yield Curve Edition, by Tim Duy: If I had to rely on only two leading indicators of recessions, they would be initial unemployment claims and the yield curve (next in line would be housing). I talked about initial claims in the context of employment data in my last post. This post is about the yield curve.
An inversion of the yield curve has typically given a 12 month or better signal ahead of recessions:


Note also that it is the inversion that is important. The yield curve was fairly flat in the late-90's, a period of supercharged growth in the US economy. So when the Financial Times fueled the recession fears last week with this:
The US government bond market is blowing raspberries at the Federal Reserve. This could indicate trouble ahead for the American economy.
Last month, the Fed lifted interest rates for the first time in nine years, and short-term bond yields have duly climbed higher. But longer-term Treasury bonds have shrugged, with yields actually falling since the US central bank tightened monetary policy.
I was less concerned. In fact, I don't think the flattening yield curve should be any surprise as that is almost always the case after the Fed tightens policy:


The yield curve typically flattens to a 50bp spread between 10 and 2 year rates within a year of the initial Fed rate hike. Only the 1986 episode is unusual. Not only that, but the flattening begins immediately:


Even after the 1986 tightening the yield curve was flatter after the first 60 days.
Currently, the flattening of the yield curve - and the lack of any upward movement in 10 year yields at all - is consistent with my long-standing concern that the Federal Reserve's long-run projection of the federal funds rate - 3.5% as of December - is a pipe dream. Also why I was wary about the Fed's determination to raise rates. My preference was the Fed to wait until they were absolutely sure rates could be "normalized."
Optimally, my concerns will prove to be unwarranted. The economy may progress better than expected, productivity rises, the Fed pares down its stock of fixed income assets, the term premium rises, and the entire yield curve shifts up and the secular stagnation story dies. We are back in Kansas. No more flying monkeys. That is a perfectly acceptable, well-reasoned forecast and one I am sympathetic to, but I am not yet seeing it realized. What I am seeing at the moment is that the global pull of zero interest rates is sufficient to limit the ability of the Federal Reserve to "normalize" policy. We are stuck in Oz.
There is a school of thought that the yield curve is irrelevant now that we are near the zero bound. After all, you can't invert the yield curve very easily! And just look at Japan. Clearly the Japanese economy still experiences recession. If we are heading down the Japanese path, then I would expect longer term yield US yields to plunge below 1%. That is not my baseline, I don't think it is very likely, but I can't discount the possibility entirely.
Bottom Line: Don't discount the yield curve just yet. I think it is signaling something important about the limits of monetary policy "normalization." But it is also a signal that recession concerns are overblown. Even in a zero short rate world, the long end needs to plunge much deeper before the yield curve becomes a concern.

Fed Watch: So You Think A Recession Is Imminent, Employment Edition

Tim Duy:

So You Think A Recession Is Imminent, Employment Edition, by Tim Duy: The recession drumbeat grows louder. This is not unexpected. Most forecasters have an asymmetric loss function; the cost of being wrong by missing a recession exceeds the cost of being wrong on a recession call. Hence economists tend to over-predict recessions. Eight of the last four recessions or so the joke goes. And while I don't believe a recession is imminent, there are perfectly good reasons to be wary that a recession will bear down on the economy in the not-so-distant future. Historically, when the Fed begins a tightening cycle, the clock is ticking for the expansion. By that time, the economy is typically in a late-mid to late-stage expansion, and you are looking at two to three years before the cycle turns, four at the outside.
Of course there are some not so good reasons for worrying about a recession. Like listening to an investor talking their book. Or someone who needs to whip up a never ending stream of apocalyptic visions to hawk gold.
So what I am looking for when it comes to a recession? It's not a recession until you see it economy wide in the labor markets. When it's there, you will see it everywhere. Clearly, we weren't seeing it in the final quarter of last year. But, you say, employment is a lagging indicator, so last quarter tells you nothing. Not nothing, I would say, but a fair point nonetheless. One would need to look for the leading indicators within the employment data.
First, since the manufacturing sector is the proximate cause of these recession concerns, we would look to leading indicators in that sector. One I watch is hours worked:


Hours worked are off their peak, just as prior to the 1900 and 2001 recessions, but not the 2007 recession (lagging indicator that time). But hours also dropped in 1994, 1998, 2002, and 2005. And that would be an extra four recessions that didn't happen. To add a bit more confusion, hours works are coming off a peak not seen since, sit down for this, World War II:


That caught me by surprise; I am thinking the surge in hours worked was not sustainable in any event. Overtime hours worked holds a bit more promise:


OK, not much more promise. Best as a leading indicator ahead of 2001, not counting 1994 and and 1998. Not particularly useful for 1990 and somewhat useful ahead of 2007. On balance, I would say manufacturing hours worked data is necessary but not sufficient for a recession call.
Perhaps the JOLTS data offers something more:


Unfortunately we a working with only two cycles here, and then only barely so. But it seems reasonable that manufacturing hires might be a coincident indicator (maybe leading by the few data points ahead of the 2001 recession) and layoffs/discharges a lagging indicator. But if a manufacturing "recession" were underway, then we would expect hiring to drop off quickly here.
Quits, however looks like a leading indicator:


Looks like quits in manufacturing dropped sharply ahead of 2001, modestly during 2007, but were still rising at the end of 2015. If quit rates aren't dropping among those at the front lines, the pain can't be reaching recessionary levels just yet.
But manufacturing is just one sector of the economy - just 8.8% of employment. The real hypothesis the recessionists are proposing is that manufacturing is an indicator of an economy wide shock. Here I would say the JOLTS data is less supportive:


If we are entering a recession, firms are a minimum should be pulling back on the pace of hiring. We are not seeing that yet. And workers should be wary of quitting:


Again, the workers are on the front lines of the economy. If the economy is in trouble, they know it, and quit rates start declining. Not there yet.
I also have a soft spot for the temporary help series as it as rolled over twelve months or more ahead of the last two recessions:


So if we were to see temporary help roll over now, we would still not see recession until 2017.
And finally, there is initial jobless claims, which typically lead a recession by six to twelve months:


Not seeing it. If claims started rising now, and continued rising for six months, then the probability of recession would rise sharply, and if they rose continuously for twelve months, the probability of recession would approach 1. But now? Nothing to fear.
Bottom Line: From a labor market perspective, I am not seeing conclusive evidence of an impending recession in manufacturing, let alone the overall economy. Might be at the tip of one, but even that will take a year to evolve. I have more sympathy for the view that the economy has evolved into a mid-late to late stage of the cycle, and the transition and associated uncertainty results in some not-surprising volatility in financial markets.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Fed Watch: Despite Inflation Unease, Fed Still Talks Big On Rates

Tim Duy:

Despite Inflation Unease, Fed Still Talks Big On Rates, by Time Duy: The minutes of the December FOMC meeting were released today. The minutes were considered to have a dovish tone, although I would be wary of thinking there is much new information to be found. Labor market conditions had improved sufficiently to justify a certain degree of confidence in the inflation outlook:
Regarding the medium-term outlook, inflation was projected to increase gradually as energy prices and prices of non-energy imports stabilized and the labor market strengthened. Overall, taking into account economic developments and the outlook for economic activity and the labor market, the Committee was now reasonably confident in its expectation that inflation would rise, over the medium term, to its 2 percent objective.
but many members retained concerns about the downside risks:
However, for some members, the risks attending their inflation forecasts remained considerable. Among those risks was the possibility that additional downward shocks to prices of oil and other commodities or a sustained rise in the exchange value of the dollar could delay or diminish the expected upturn in inflation. A couple also worried that a further strengthening of the labor market might not prove sufficient to offset the downward pressures from global disinflationary forces. And several expressed unease with indications that inflation expectations may have moved down slightly. In view of these risks and the shortfall of inflation from 2 percent, members expressed their intention to carefully monitor actual and expected progress toward the Committee's inflation goal.
Why hike rates? It is all about setting the stage for a gradual path of subsequent rates hikes:
If the Committee waited to begin removing accommodation until it was closer to achieving its dual-mandate objectives, it might need to tighten policy abruptly, which could risk disrupting economic activity.
And while they ultimately pulled the trigger on higher rates in an unanimous vote, the doves were left with a bitter taste in their mouths:
However, some members said that their decision to raise the target range was a close call, particularly given the uncertainty about inflation dynamics, and emphasized the need to monitor the progress of inflation closely.
They intend to hold true to their "gradualist" scripture:
Based on their current forecasts for economic activity, the labor market, and inflation, as well as their expectation that the neutral short-term real interest rate will rise slowly over the next few years, members expected economic conditions would evolve in a manner that would warrant only gradual increases in the federal funds rate.
Actual outcomes are of course data dependent, but the Fed called out one piece of data as especially important:
In the current situation, because of their significant concern about still-low readings on actual inflation and the uncertainty and risks present in the inflation outlook, they agreed to indicate that the Committee would carefully monitor actual and expected progress toward its inflation goal. In determining the size and timing of further adjustments to monetary policy, some members emphasized the importance of confirming that inflation would rise as projected and of maintaining the credibility of the Committee's inflation objective. Based on their current economic outlook, they continued to anticipate that the federal funds rate was likely to remain, for some time, below levels that the Committee expected to prevail in the longer run.
Yes, this line from the December statement was not to be ignored:
In light of the current shortfall of inflation from 2 percent, the Committee will carefully monitor actual and expected progress toward its inflation goal.
So we now know pretty much what we did going into the minutes: The inflation situation is making FOMC members nervous and thus holding them back from a more aggressive path of rate hikes. Hence progress on the inflation mandate is necessary to accelerate the pace of rate increases. Note too the emphasis on not just actual, but expected progress. That is where the labor report comes in. If jobs keep growing at 200k a month in the first part of the year, the unemployment rate pushes toward 4.5%, and wage growth accelerates, they will will compelled to raise rates further. Actual progress on inflation would accelerate that timeline.
And that is how you get to Vice Chair Stanley Fischer's CNBC comments today:
"We watch what the market thinks, but we can't be led by what the market thinks," Fischer told CNBC's "Squawk Box." He added that market expectations of the number of future rate hikes are "too low."
Fischer expects four rate hikes this year. But that is a data dependent forecast. Financial markets have a different forecast. It is worth recognizing that when it comes to forecasting the path of short rates, financial markets have had something of an upper hand of late.
Separately, ISM services came in below consensus but remains within a solid range. Internals pointed to rising orders and employment as well. It remains a story of two economies:


The trade deficit narrowed slightly in November, modestly boosting tracking indicators for fourth quarter GDP. And the ADP numbers game in at a solid 257k December increase in private payrolls, raising expectations for the actual employment release Friday. Consensus is 200k for nonfarm payrolls. I am taking the over.
Bottom Line: Financial markets are stumbling into the new year. The Fed is sticking to its story. Given that January is off the table for a rate hike, we have two and a half months of data - including three employment reports! - to see if the Fed has it right this time.

Monday, January 04, 2016

Fed Watch: A Look Ahead Into 2016

Tim Duy:

A Look Ahead Into 2016, by Tim Duy: What do I expect to see in 2016? Briefly, here are my baseline expectations for the year:
1.) No recession. I think that fears of recession in 2016 are overblown. Softness in the manufacturing sector is the primary motivation for such fears, but this ignores the declining economic importance of manufacturing in the US economy. Manufacturing now accounts for just 8.6% of jobs. I think people are falling into a trap of overemphasizing the importance of manufacturing as a cyclical indicator. A broader perspective indicates little reason to be worried of recession in 2016:


Also note that initial unemployment claims, one of our better leading indicators, shows no indication of a recession brewing:


I expect manufacturing indicators will look better by the end of the year as the energy sector and external economy stabilize.
2.) Economic growth will soften. Overall growth will slow toward trend growth, around 2%, this year. Growth accelerated in 2013 as the economy normalized:


Overall GDP growth hit a high point for this cycle in 2014 and began to taper off in 2015. Still, looking through the data further, we see that recent softness in top-line numbers are primarily related to the external sector and inventory correction. The external sector has been particularly important in moderating the pace of US growth. Note that the underlying domestic economy remains solid:


Recent growth has relied on upward trends in technology, automobile production, and multifamily housing. With at least the last two reaching their peak (I suspect), expect some moderation in overall growth in 2016. The Fed will see such moderation as necessary to contain inflationary pressures.
3.) The pace of job growth will decelerate. The underlying trend in job growth appears to have peaked in 2014, and is slowing trending down.


Moreover, the Federal Reserve will become increasingly uncomfortable as the unemployment rate pushes toward 4.5 percent. We are already near their expectations of full employment:


Monetary policymakers would like unemployment to stabilize somewhat below the natural rate for some time in order to support further reduction in underemployment. Such stabilization will require that job growth moderates to the pace of labor force growth. The Fed tends to thinks this is the 100-150k range. This expectation assumes that labor force participation rates remain fairly stagnate. Faster employment growth would be supported if a tighter labor market and higher wages succeed in drawing more workers into the labor market.
4.) Wage growth will accelerate. As the unemployment rate falls below 5%, age growth will accelerate further. I think the Atlanta Federal Reserve wage tracker indicates that the forces of supply and demand still apply in the labor market:


5.) Inflation will accelerate. I think 2016 will be the year that economic resources become sufficiently scarce to push inflation back to the Fed's target. I know this may seem like a wildly optimistic call given the persistence of low inflation during this cycle:


I simply don't think that economic slack had yet to diminish sufficiently to force greater price pressures. But I think we will be at that point this year.
6.) Oil will end the year higher than it began. Oil prices have been all over the place during the past ten years, hence any forecast is subject to great uncertainty. Given that producers are already giving the stuff away, I suspect we are close to the point that production will moderate sufficiently to stabilize prices and lead them higher this year.
7.) Stocks up, yield curve flattens, and the dollar is flat to declining. These baseline expectations are based entirely on past behavior of financial markets in the first year following a Federal Reserve rate hike:




I am most confident that the yield curve expectation, and least confident in the dollar expectation. I would expect any equity gains to be fairly modest.
8.) Single family housing will take center stage. Multifamily housing accelerated to a fairly high pace of activity between 2009 and 2015 while gains in single family housing have been less impressive:


I anticipate that the next stage in the normalization of housing activity will take the form of single family growth, supported by a solid job market and higher wages.
9.) The Federal Reserve will continue to hike rates, slowly. I expect that economic conditions will be sufficient for the Federal Reserve to justify 100bp of rate hikes in 2016. Although the Fed will not want to appear mechanical in its normalization process, they will likely find themselves hiking every other meeting beginning in January. They will be slow to begin the process of "normalizing" the balance sheet, although I expect that they will be fully engaged in that conversation by the middle of the year. That conversation will take on more urgency if they have difficulty controlling short rates with their new tools.
10.) Productivity is a wildcard. Declining productivity growth, combined with slow labor force growth, drives down estimates of potential growth. Might this story change this year? Perhaps, if tighter labor markets and higher wages forces firms to identify additional labor saving technology. Such an outcome would support stronger than expected growth, higher real wages, and still low inflation.
Bottom Line: By recent standards, a fairly optimistic baseline expectation for 2016. That said, nothing spectacular either, just a continued normalization of economy around trend growth. Expectations of recession remain premature. The most likely cause of the next recession will be a monetary mistake. The still-patient Fed hence argues against a recession in the foreseeable future.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Fed Watch: What Is The Fed's Expectation For Financial Markets?

Tim Duy:

What Is The Fed's Expectation For Financial Markets?, by Tim Duy: David Keohnae at FT Alphaville points us toward a JPM research note raising the prospect of a reappearance of Former Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan’s “conundrum.” From the note:
If long-term interest rates matter more than short-term interest rates, will Fed’s current and prospective rate hikes matter much? The answer is yes if long-term interest rates respond to these short-term rate hikes. But this transmission is far from given, especially given the Fed’s decision that reinvestments would not be halted until the normalization of the funds rate is “well under way”
The previous hiking cycle of 2004-2006 is a reminder of how problematic the transmission from short rates to long-term interest rates can be. At the time, the 10y real UST yield rose by only 25bp between June 2004 and June 2006 despite the Fed lifting its target rate by 425bp (Figure 1). We depict the real rather than nominal UST yield in the chart to capture the potential impact of monetary policy actions on inflation expectations. This lack of transmission or “bond conundrum” at the time was attributed to global saving forces emanating from DM corporates and EM economies. Could these saving forces prevent once again rate hikes from transmitting to longer-term interest rates?
Keohane links to fellow Alphaville write Matthew Klein, who describes the “conundrum” as bogus. Klein draws attention to the shape of the yield curve:
In addition to forgetting his own experience at the Fed, Greenspan’s confusion can also be blamed on an unusual belief in the “normal” behaviour of forward short rates.
Short rates tend to go up and down with the business cycle, which typically lasts a lot less than ten years…
When the economy is weak and the Fed is stepping on the gas, short rates should be lower than your reasonable expectation of the average for the next ten years. (Like now.) Other times, of course, short rates are higher than your reasonable expectation of the average for the next ten years because the economy is running hot and the Fed is stepping on the brakes. Longer-term yields therefore shouldn’t always move with short-term rates.
This is why people think the slope of the yield curve is a decent signal of where the economy is going.
When the economy is peaking and poised to go into recession, short rates end up higher than long rates because traders are betting that short rates will fall significantly. To use the jargon, the curve is inverted. After the economy has hit bottom and is ready to grow, the yield curve gets nice and steep, reflecting the expectation of future increases in the short rate to match the expected acceleration in nominal spending.
What happens to the yield curve, and how the Federal Reserve responds, is one of my big questions for 2016. Almost always, the yield curve flattens after the Fed begins a tightening cycle. Within a year, the spread between the 10- and 2-year treasuries is a mere 50bp or so:


An analogous situation today would be if the Fed raises the fed funds target range over the next year but longer-term yields don’t budge. How might the Fed respond? New York Federal Reserve President William Dudley often comments on this prospect. From November 2015:
Several examples will help me make these points. During 2004 to 2007, the FOMC raised the federal funds rate target 17 meetings in a row, lifting the federal funds to 5.25 percent from 1.0 percent. Yet, during this period, financial conditions eased, as evidenced by the fact that the stock market rose, bond yields fell and credit availability—especially to housing—eased substantially. In hindsight, perhaps monetary policy should have been tightened more aggressively…
…In contrast, if financial conditions did not respond at all, or eased, then I suspect we would go more quickly, all else equal.
This raises some red flags for me. While much attention is placed on the Fed’s failure to respond more aggressively to slowing activity and deteriorating financial conditions in 2008, I lean toward thinking the more grievous policy error was in the first half of 2006 when the Federal Reserve kept raising short rates after the yield curve first inverted in February of that year:


and despite clear evidence of slowing economic activity and increasing financial stress.
So how will the Fed respond if long rates do not respond in concert with short rates? How will the Fed interpret a flattening yield curve? Do they accelerate the pace of rate increases? Do they initiate asset sales? The truth is I don’t know (or the answer is “it depends”), but I find this exchange between Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and New York Times reporter Binyamin Appelbaum a bit disconcerting:
BINYAMIN APPELBAUM. Binyamin Appelbaum, the New York Times. Bill Dudley has talked about the need for the Fed to adjust policy based on the responsiveness of financial markets as you begin to increase rates. You didn't talk about that today. Is it a point that you agree with? And if so, what is it that you're looking for? How will you judge whether financial markets are accepting and transmitting these changes?
CHAIR YELLEN. Well, there are number of different channels through which monetary policy is transmitted to spending decisions, the behavior of longer term, longer term interest rates, short term interest rates matter. The value of asset prices and the exchange rate, also, these are transmission channels. We wouldn't be focused on short-term financial volatility, but were there unanticipated changes in financial conditions that were persistent and we judged to affect the outlook. We would of course have to take those into account. So, we will watch financial developments, but what we're looking at here is the longer term economic outlook, are we seeing persistent changes in financial market conditions that would have a bearing, a significant bearing, on the outlook that we would need to take account in formulating appropriate policy. Yes we would, but it's not short-term volatility in markets.
BINYAMIN APPELBAUM. The part [inaudible], you didn't see changes, you would be concerned and have to move more quickly. Are you concerned that if markets don't tighten sufficiently you may need to do more?
CHAIR YELLEN. Well, look. You know, we-- this is not an unanticipated policy move. And we have been trying to explain what our policy strategy is. So it's not as though I'm expecting to see marked immediate reaction in financial markets, expectations about Fed policy have been built into the structure of financial market prices. But we obviously will track carefully the behavior of both short and longer term interest rates, the dollar, and asset prices, and if they move in persistent and significant ways that are out of line with the expectations that we have, then of course we will take those in to account.
I don’t know that Yellen understood the question. But she should have. Dudley has been telling this story for a long, long time. Does she and/or the Committee share his expectations? Why or why not? In my opinion, this is an important question, and it looks to me like Yellen fumbled it.
Bottom Line: We have a fairly good idea of the Fed’s reaction function with respect inflation and unemployment. Not so much with respect to financial market conditions. Who shares Dudley’s views? That is a space I am watching this year.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Fed Watch: As Expected

Tim Duy:

As Expected, by Tim Duy: Today, the FOMC voted to raise the target range on the federal funds rate by 25bp. The accompanying statement and the Summary of Economic Projections offered no surprises. That very lack of surprise should be counted as a "win" for the Fed's communication strategy. A little bit of extra direction since September went a long way.

The statement again described the economic growth as "moderate." Although there is some external weakness, the domestic economy is solid, hence "the Committee sees the risks to the outlook for both economic activity and the labor market as balanced." The Fed continues to expect that inflation will return to target. On the basis of that forecast and lags in the policy policy process:

Given the economic outlook, and recognizing the time it takes for policy actions to affect future economic outcomes, the Committee decided to raise the target range for the federal funds rate to 1/4 to 1/2 percent.

Importantly, the Fed does not believe policy is tight:

The stance of monetary policy remains accommodative after this increase, thereby supporting further improvement in labor market conditions and a return to 2 percent inflation.

The Fed currently expect future hikes to occur only gradually:

The Committee expects that economic conditions will evolve in a manner that will warrant only gradual increases in the federal funds rate; the federal funds rate is likely to remain, for some time, below levels that are expected to prevail in the longer run.

But, this is a forecast not a promise:

However, the actual path of the federal funds rate will depend on the economic outlook as informed by incoming data.

Note that the Fed highlights the importance of actual inflation outcomes with respect to future hikes:

In light of the current shortfall of inflation from 2 percent, the Committee will carefully monitor actual and expected progress toward its inflation goal.

The Fed will proceed cautiously if evidence suggests inflation is not behaving as expected. This doesn't mean they need to see more inflation to hike rates further. But it would be nice.

No dissents; none of the possible dissenters thought their objections were sufficient to deny Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen a unanimous decision on this first hike.

The median forecasts for growth, employment, and inflation were virtually unchanged. Note that the central tendency range for longer run unemployment shifted down; participants continue to shave down their estimates of the natural rate of unemployment. The median rate projection for 2017 and 2018 edged down. This understates somewhat the decline in the range of the central tendency.

As I am running short of time today, I will leave any analysis of the press conference for a later time. Gradual, data dependent, not mechanical (not equally spaced or sized hikes), etc.

Bottom Line: Almost as exactly as should have been expected.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

FOMC Preview - Watch the Dollar and Oil

Tim Duy:

The Federal Reserve is set to raise interest rates this week for the first time since 2006.

The final days of the zero interest-rate policy known as ZIRP are upon us; the end is here.

But the end of ZIRP is the beginning of a new chapter of monetary policy. This chapter will tell the story of the Federal Reserve’s efforts to normalize policy, and that particular tale has yet to be written. You can, however, expect Fed Chair Janet Yellen to emphasize “gradually” and “data dependent” as she pens the first few lines of the narrative at this week’s press conference....

Continue reading on Bloomberg...

Monday, December 14, 2015

Fed Watch: Makes You Wonder What The Fed Is Thinking

Tim Duy:

Makes You Wonder What The Fed Is Thinking, by Tim Duy: The Fed is poised to raise the target range on the federal funds rate this week. More on that decision tomorrow. My interest tonight is a pair of Wall Street Journal articles that together call into question the wisdom of the Fed's expected decision. The first is on inflation, or lack thereof, by Josh Zumbrun:
Central bank officials predict inflation will approach their target in 2016. The trouble is they have made the same prediction for the past four years. If the Fed is again fooled, it may find it raised rates too soon, risking recession.
A key reason for the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates is to be ahead of the curve on inflation. But given their poor inflation forecasting record, not to mention that of other central banks


why are they so sure that they must act now to head off inflationary pressures? One would expect waning confidence in their inflation forecasts to pull the center more toward the views of Chicago Federal Reserve President Charles Evans and Board Governors Lael Brainard and Daniel Tarullo and thus defer tighter policy until next year.
Now combine the inflation forecast uncertainty with the growing consensus among economists that the Fed faces the zero bound again in less than five years. This one's from Jon Hilsenrath:
Among 65 economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal this month, not all of whom responded, more than half said it was somewhat or very likely the Fed’s benchmark federal-funds rate would be back near zero within the next five years. Ten said the Fed might even push rates into negative territory, as the European Central Bank and others in Europe have done—meaning financial institutions have to pay to park their money with the central banks...
Not a surprising conclusion given that Fed officials expect the terminal fed funds rate in the 3.3-3.8 percent range (central tendency) while the 2001-03 easing was 5.5 percentage points and the 1990-92 easing was 5.0 percentage points. You see of course how the math works. Supposedly this is of great concern at the Fed. Hilsenrath cites the October minutes:
Fed officials worry a great deal about the risk. The small gap between zero and where officials see rates going “might increase the frequency of episodes in which policy makers would not be able to reduce the federal-funds rate enough to promote a strong economic recovery…in the aftermath of negative shocks,” they concluded at their October policy meeting, according to minutes of the meeting.
The policy risks are asymmetric. They can always raise rates, but the room to lower is limited by the zero bound. But that understates the asymmetry. You should also include the asymmetry of risks around the inflation forecast. The Fed has repeated under-forecasted inflation. It seems like they should also see an asymmetry in the inflation forecast that compounds the policy response asymmetry. Asymmetries squared.
Given all of these asymmetries, I would think the Fed should continue to stand pat until they understood better the inflation dynamics. The Fed thinks otherwise. Why would Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen allows the Fed to be pulled in such a direction? Partly to appease the Fed hawks. And then there is this from her December speech:
Were the FOMC to delay the start of policy normalization for too long, we would likely end up having to tighten policy relatively abruptly to keep the economy from significantly overshooting both of our goals. Such an abrupt tightening would risk disrupting financial markets and perhaps even inadvertently push the economy into recession.
Yellen is wedded to the theory that the sooner the Fed begins normalizing policy, the more likely the Fed can avoid a recession-inducing sharp rise in rates. She follows up this concern with:
Moreover, holding the federal funds rate at its current level for too long could also encourage excessive risk-taking and thus undermine financial stability.
This is what Mark Dow calls "avalanche patrol":
What the Fed has begun to worry about is financial stability—even if not as an imminent threat. Its concerns are one part risk management, one part the ghost of crises past. FOMC members understand that financial excesses are a positive function of time. Stability sooner or later breeds instability. And the longer rates stay very low, the greater the risk they become built into the current financial architecture and baked into our extrapolations. Once you get to such a point, an eventual normalization becomes a lot riskier, in terms of both financial dislocations and economic activity.
This then becomes a story of a Fed caught between a world in which the policy necessary to meet their inflation target is inconsistent with financial stability. That is what they call caught between a rock and a hard place. And my sense is that Yellen feels the best way to slip through those cracks is early and gentle tightening.
Bottom Line: Given that the Fed likely only gets one chance to lift-off from the zero bound on a sustained basis, it is reasonable to think they would wait until they were absolutely sure inflation was coming. Even more so given the poor performance of their inflation forecasts. But the Fed thinks there is now more danger in waiting than moving. And so into the darkness we go.