Yellen Heading to the Senate, by Tim Duy: All eyes will be focused on Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen as she presents the semi-annual monetary policy testimony to the Senate Banking Committee. I anticipate that she will stick to an economic outlook very similar to that detailed in the last FOMC statement and related minutes. Expect her to indicate that the Fed is closing in on the time of the first rate hike - after all, this was clearly the topic of conversation at the January FOMC meeting. I anticipate the "Audit the Fed" movement will be on display in the Q&A, which will provide Senators the opportunity to display their ignorance of monetary policy. And with any luck, we will learn how "patient" the Fed really is.
That said, I am wary of expecting much in the way of insight on "patient." The Fed has trapped itself with that language, and I am thinking that it will take the collective power of the FOMC to devise a way out. And they have little choice but to deal with that issue at the March FOMC meeting. The basic problem is this: The hawks would be happy with pulling the trigger on 25bp at the March meeting. The center isn't ready to go along with that, but they want the option of being able to pull the trigger in June. But Yellen, in trying to signal in December that a rate hike was not imminent, linked the term "patient" to two meetings. So if they keep "patient" in the statement, it seems to imply that June is off the table, but that message will brings squeals of unhappiness from the hawks and even leave the center uncomfortable. But just pulling "patient" risks leaving the impression that a June hike is a certainty, which is a message the center doesn't want to send.
If you think this is a dumb way to manage monetary policy, you are correct. Now that the Fed is closer to meeting their employment mandate, they simply cannot credibly signal intentions six months in advance. They need to let the data start doing the work for them, but don't know how to make that transition.
It something of a shame that Yellen couldn't leave well enough alone in December and let financial market participants believe that "patient" would be used as it had been in 2004. In that case, "patient" would have no time horizon other than that dropping the word "patient" meant that a rate hike was likely just one meeting away. They could credibly manage such a signal. Anything more than one meeting ahead is problematic.
On the economic outlook, I would say that if Yellen were to deviate from the January FOMC meeting, it would be in a generally positive direction. I think they will take the subsequently released upbeat employment report as strong evidence that underlying trends remain solid. The news that Wal-Mart is raising salaries will likely be viewed as just the tip of the iceberg. I doubt anyone on the FOMC believes Wal-Mart leadership acted out of the kindness of their hearts. Yellen herself will probably think something to the effect that "I told you that the quits rate was important."
Assuming the Greece situation holds together for another 24 hours, that coupled with easing by global central banks in recent weeks will lead FOMC members to believe that global risks have dissipated. And to top it off, US equities pushed back to record highs. What's not to like? Maybe the GDP numbers, but Cleveland Federal Reserve President Loretta Mester gave what I think is the consensus view on the topic:
WSJ: Putting aside the tailwinds that you’re seeing. The growth data look a little soft at the moment.MESTER: Not really. The fourth quarter came in after two quarters of really robust growth. The employment report actually was revised up for those last couple of months. There is this tendency to look at the last data point. I’m just not that concerned. I think we’ve seen growth pickup. I think there is more momentum in the economy.
Hence why I also don't agonize about what a snowstorm means for monetary policy. It means nothing.
There is plenty on the docket beyond Yellen this week. Existing and new home sales, consumer confidence, regional Fed manufacturing indexes, durables goods orders, CPI, Case-Shiller, GDP revisions, and, if that weren't enough, speeches by Fed Presidents of Atlanta (Lockhart), Cleveland (Mester), and New York (Dudley), and Federal Reserve Governor Stanley Fischer. The fun just won't stop!
Bottom Line: I expect the Fed will continue to walk the fine line between keeping June in play while signaling that the data will soon justify a rate hike though not necessarily in June. And watch for signs of an effort to shift the focus to the expected gradual pace of rate hikes in an effort to minimize adverse market reaction to the possibility of June. Expect generally positive views of recent data; the Fed thinks the economy is finally on the right path.