Events Continue to Conspire Against the Fed, by Tim Duy: Federal Reserve policymakers just can't catch a break lately. Riding on the back of strong data in the second half of last year, they were positioning themselves to declare victory and begin the process of policy normalization, AKA "raising interest rates." Then the bottom fell out. Data in the first half of the year turned sloppy. Although policymakers on average - and Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen in particular - could reasonably believe the underlying momentum of the economy had not changed, that the data reflected largely temporary factors, the case for a rate hike by mid-year evaporated all the same. The risk of being wrong was simply more than they were willing to bear in the absence of clear inflation pressures.
The story was clearly shifting by the end of June. Key data on jobs and the consumer firmed as expected, raising the possibility that September was in play. Salvation from ZIRP, finally. Federal Reserve Governor Jerome Powell called it a coin toss. Via Bloomberg:
Speaking at a Wall Street Journal event in Washington Tuesday, Powell said he forecast stronger growth than in the first half of 2015, growth in the labor market and a “greater basis for confidence” in inflation returning to 2 percent.
“If those things are realized, I feel that it is time, it will be time, potentially as soon as September,” he said. “I don’t think the odds are 100 percent. I think they’re probably in the 50-50 range that we will realize those conditions, but that’s my forecast.”
Earlier, San Francisco Federal Reserve President John Williams said he expected two rate hikes this year. Via Reuters:
"Definitely my own forecast would be having us raise rates two times this year, but that would depend on the data," San Francisco Fed President John Williams told reporters at the bank's headquarters.
Rate increases of a quarter percentage point each would be reasonable, he said, with little point in making rate increases any smaller.
Given that we have basically written off the possibility of a rate hike in October (Fed not positioning for a rate hike every meeting and no one expects October for a first hike in the absence of the press conference), that leaves September and December for hikes.
Over the weekend, New York Federal Reserve President William Dudley also raised the possibility of September in an interview with the Financial Times:
A Federal Reserve interest-rate hike will be “very much in play” at the central bank’s September meeting if the recent strengthening of the US economy continues, according to one of America’s top central bankers.
William Dudley, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, said recent evidence of accelerating wage gains, improving incomes, and growing household spending had alleviated some of his concerns about the sustainability of momentum in America’s jobs market.
Former Federal Reserve Governor Laurence Meyer expects Yellen to also be comfortable with two rate hikes in 2015 by the time September rolls around. Via Bloomberg:
"We expect the incoming data between now and the September meeting to help ease concerns about the growth outlook, prompting Chair Yellen and a majority of the FOMC to see two hikes this year as appropriate," Meyer said in a note to clients.
No, September was not a sure bet, but you could see how the data evolved to get you there. But then came Greece. Greece - will it never end? Financial markets were roiled as Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras abandoned the latest round of bailout negotiations with the EU, IMF, and ECB and instead pursued a national referendum on the last version of the bailout proposal. Most of you know the story from that point on - run on Greek banks, the ECB ends further ELA extensions, a bank holiday is declared, likely missing a payment to the IMF etc., etc.
At this juncture, everything in Greece is now in flux. Greece will be holding a referendum on a deal that apparently no longer exists, so it is not clear what negotiations would happen even if it passes. Moreover, it seems likely that the economic damage that will occur in the next week or longer will almost certainly require an even bigger give on the part of Greece's creditors. Is that going to happen? There is no exit plan to force Greece out of the Euro. What if Greece refuses to leave? How does Europe respond to a growing humanitarian crisis Greece as the economy collapsed? This could drag on and on and on.
As would be reasonably expected, the jump in risk sank equities across the globe, in the process stripping away US stock gains for 2015. Not that there was much to give - it only took a little over 2% on the SP500. Yields on Treasuries sank in a safe-haven bid, and market participants pushed Federal Reserve rate hike expectations out beyond 2015.
At this moment, there is obviously little to confirm that 2015 is off the table. To be sure, we know the Fed is watching the situation closely. Back to the FT and Dudley:
That said, Mr Dudley warned that the financial market implications of a Greek exit from the euro could be graver than many investors seemed to believe, because it would set a “huge precedent” indicating that euro membership was reversible.
People “underestimate all the different channels in terms of how contagion works”, the central banker said. “We saw that in the financial crisis. People did not anticipate that the Lehman failure was going to affect the economy and financial markets to the degree that it did.”
At the risk of being guilty of underestimating contagion, I am optimistic that the ring fencing around Greece will hold. This will be a political disaster for Europe, and a humanitarian disaster for Greece, but I expect will ultimately prove to have limited impact beyond those borders.
Famous last words.
Of course, even if that is correct, we don't know it to be correct, and thus the Fed will again proceed cautiously, just like they did in the face of the weak first quarter. Hence, all else equal, pushing out the timing of the first hike is reasonable. September, though, is a long ways off, and plenty can happen between now and then. So what will the Fed be watching?
First is the data, as they have emphasized again and again. We have three labor reports between now and September, beginning this week. Strong monthly gains coupled with falling unemployment rates and further evidence of wage growth would go a long way to supporting a rate hike. All would give the Fed the faith that inflation will soon be heading toward target. This is especially the case if recent consumer spending and housing numbers hold and if business investment picks up. And it would be further helpful if the global economy did not sink under the weight of Greece. Essentially, the Fed wants to be confident that the first quarter was a fluke and thus the economy is in fact fairly resilient.
Second is the financial fallout from Greece. Mostly, they will be carefully watching to see if the Greece crisis impacts domestic credit markets and banking. Do interest rate spreads widen? Do lenders tighten underwriting conditions? Does interbank lending proceed without impediments? If they see conditions emerge like this, I would expect them to match market expectations and just stay out of the rate hike business until the fallout from Greece is clear. This likely holds even in the face of solid US data. There will (or at least should) recognize that periods of substantial unrest in credit markets are not the time to be raising rates.
Bottom Line: The Fed was already approaching the first rate hike cautiously, wary of even dipping their toes in the water. The crisis in Greece will make them even more cautious. Like their response to the first quarter data, until they see a clear path, they will be on the sidelines. That said, given the plethora of warnings not to underestimate the global impact of the crisis in Greece, one should be watching the opposite side of the story. Solid data and limited Greece impact would leave December at a minimum, and even September, in play.