Category Archive for: Monetary Policy [Return to Main]

Friday, April 18, 2014

Debate at KSU: Thoma vs. Williamson

[It starts around the 7:00 minute mark]

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Yellen: Monetary Policy and the Economic Recovery

Travel day today, so for now a quick repost of Janet Yellen's speech today, more later as I can:

Monetary Policy and the Economic Recovery, by Janet Yellen, FRB: Nearly five years into the expansion that began after the financial crisis and the Great Recession, the recovery has come a long way. More than 8 million jobs have been added to nonfarm payrolls since 2009, almost the same number lost as a result of the recession. Led by a resurgent auto industry, manufacturing output has also nearly returned to its pre-recession peak. While the housing market still has far to go, it seems to have turned a corner.
It is a sign of how far the economy has come that a return to full employment is, for the first time since the crisis, in the medium-term outlooks of many forecasters. It is a reminder of how far we have to go, however, that this long-awaited outcome is projected to be more than two years away.
Today I will discuss how my colleagues on the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) and I view the state of the economy and how this view is likely to shape our efforts to promote a return to maximum employment in a context of price stability. I will start with the FOMC's outlook, which foresees a gradual return over the next two to three years of economic conditions consistent with its mandate.
While monetary policy discussions naturally begin with a baseline outlook, the path of the economy is uncertain, and effective policy must respond to significant unexpected twists and turns the economy may take. My primary focus today will be on how the FOMC's monetary policy framework has evolved to best support the recovery through those twists and turns, and what this framework is likely to imply as the recovery progresses.
The Current Economic Outlook
The FOMC's current outlook for continued, moderate growth is little changed from last fall. In recent months, some indicators have been notably weak, requiring us to judge whether the data are signaling a material change in the outlook. The unusually harsh winter weather in much of the nation has complicated this judgment, but my FOMC colleagues and I generally believe that a significant part of the recent softness was weather related.
The continued improvement in labor market conditions has been important in this judgment. The unemployment rate, at 6.7 percent, has fallen three-tenths of 1 percentage point since late last year. Broader measures of unemployment that include workers marginally attached to the labor force and those working part time for economic reasons have fallen a bit more than the headline unemployment rate, and labor force participation, which had been falling, has ticked up this year.
Inflation, as measured by the price index for personal consumption expenditures, has slowed from an annual rate of about 2-1/2 percent in early 2012 to less than 1 percent in February of this year.1 This rate is well below the Committee's 2 percent longer-run objective. Many advanced economies are observing a similar softness in inflation.
To some extent, the low rate of inflation seems due to influences that are likely to be temporary, including a deceleration in consumer energy prices and outright declines in core import prices in recent quarters. Longer-run inflation expectations have remained remarkably steady, however. We anticipate that, as the effects of transitory factors subside and as labor market gains continue, inflation will gradually move back toward 2 percent.
In sum, the central tendency of FOMC participant projections for the unemployment rate at the end of 2016 is 5.2 to 5.6 percent, and for inflation the central tendency is 1.7 to 2 percent.2 If this forecast was to become reality, the economy would be approaching what my colleagues and I view as maximum employment and price stability for the first time in nearly a decade. I find this baseline outlook quite plausible.
Of course, if the economy obediently followed our forecasts, the job of central bankers would be a lot easier and their speeches would be a lot shorter. Alas, the economy is often not so compliant, so I will ask your indulgence for a few more minutes.
Three Big Questions for the FOMC
Because the course of the economy is uncertain, monetary policymakers need to carefully watch for signs that it is diverging from the baseline outlook and then respond in a systematic way. Let me turn first to monitoring and discuss three questions I believe are likely to loom large in the FOMC's ongoing assessment of where we are on the path back to maximum employment and price stability.

Continue reading "Yellen: Monetary Policy and the Economic Recovery" »

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Fed Watch: When Will The Fed Change Its Reaction Function?

Tim Duy:

When Will The Fed Change Its Reaction Function?, by Tim Duy: The March FOMC minutes were generally interpretted as having a dovish tenor, contrasting with the generally hawkish reception for the statement and ensuing press conference. Overall, the Fed appears committed to a long period of low interest rates and I continue to think this should be the baseline view. But actually policy seems to remain hawkish relative to the Fed's rhetoric. By its own admission, the Fed is missing badly on both its mandates. Why then the push to reduce accommodation by ending asset purchases and laying the groundwork for the first rate hike? This leaves me wary the Fed could turn dramatically more hawkish with little provocation from the data. At the same time, one can imagine the Fed realizes that the current reaction function remains inconsistent its desired goals, and policy consequently shifts in a dovish direction.

Consider the Fed's take on labor markets:

In their discussion of labor market developments, participants noted further improvement, on balance, in labor market conditions.

Fair enough. But where is the majority of policymakers on the issue of slack?

While there was general agreement that slack remains in the labor market, participants expressed a range of views regarding the amount of slack and how well the unemployment rate performs as a summary indicator of labor market conditions. Several participants pointed to a number of factors--including the low labor force participation rate and the still-high rates of longer-duration unemployment and of workers employed part time for economic reasons--as suggesting that there might be considerably more labor market slack than indicated by the unemployment rate alone.

The opposing view was held by just a "couple" of participants. The "high slack" contingent holds of the upper hand, in my view, given the limited wage pressure to date:

Several participants cited low nominal wage growth as pointing to the existence of continued labor market slack. Participants also noted the debate in the research literature and elsewhere concerning whether long-term unemployment differs materially from short-term unemployment in its implications for wage and price pressures.

It seems fairly clear that the dominant view on the Fed is that labor markets contain more than sufficient slack to contain wage and inflation pressures. And inflation pressures are, by their own admission, nonexistent. But this concern is not as widespread:

Inflation continued to run below the Committee's 2 percent longer-run objective over the intermeeting period. A couple of participants expressed concern that inflation might not return to 2 percent in the next few years and suggested that a protracted period of inflation below 2 percent raised questions about whether the Committee was providing an appropriate degree of monetary accommodation.

Why is the majority not concerned? Because even as they use low wages to justify claims of sufficient slack in the labor market, they use a forecast of higher wages to dismiss the inflation numbers:

A number of participants noted that a pickup in nominal wage growth would be consistent with labor market conditions moving closer to normal and would support the return of consumer price inflation to the Committee's 2 percent longer-run goal.

But how long will the process take? A long time:

Most participants expected inflation to return to 2 percent over the next few years, supported by stable inflation expectations and the continued gradual recovery in economic activity.

The Federal Reserve is clearing communicating the willingness to endure a sustained period of suboptimal outcomes on both the employment and price stability metrics. This suggest that actual policy - entirely directed at reducing accommodation - is considerably more hawkish than dictated by data. It sounds like policy fatigue. The Fed wants out of asset purchases and zero rates and are willing to dismiss the dual mandate to move in this direction. No wonder then that Chicago Federal Reserve President Charles Evans is worried that policymakers will push too hard to normalize rates too early. Via the Wall Street Journal:

“One of the big risks is that we withdraw our accommodative policies prematurely,” Mr. Evans said during a panel discussion at the International Monetary Fund’s spring meetings. “I think it’s just human nature to start thinking we’ve been doing this for a long time.”

The Fed’s benchmark short-term interest rate has been pinned near zero since late 2008, which could prompt some policy-makers to think “that must have been long enough. Maybe it’s time to start the process of renormalizing,” Mr. Evans said. Most Fed officials indicated last month they expect to start raising rates next year.

Consider also the Fed's willingness to continue the taper despite persistent low inflation in the context of this from Federal Reserve Governor Daniel Tarullo:

Last week Chair Yellen explained why substantial slack very likely remains. I would add to her explanation only the observation that, in the face of some uncertainty as to how best to measure slack, we are well advised to proceed pragmatically. We should remain attentive to evidence that labor markets have actually tightened to the point that there is demonstrable inflationary pressure that would place at risk maintenance of the FOMC's stated inflation target (which, of course, we are currently not meeting on the downside). But we should not rush to act preemptively in anticipation of such pressures based on arguments about the potential increase in structural unemployment in recent years.

Arguably, tapering implies that are already acting prematurely. Combine with this commentary by David Zeros via Business Insider:

"As the market prices in higher short-term yields and lower long-term yields, it is really making a bet that the Fed, by tapering our punchbowl drip, is increasing the risk of deflation," says Zervos.

"And at this stage of the game, with inflation BELOW target and plenty of slack in labor markets, that could very well be a mistake. The most important point here is to recognize that low long-term yields are not a sign of a healthy economy."

Indeed, it is reasonable to believe the Fed will make a mistake in the hawkish direction (or already has) given that policy already seems inconsistent with the dual mandate. In other words, the Fed has a hawkish reaction function.

Regarding that reaction function, the now infamous dots were also a topic of discussion. Policymakers knew exactly the implications of the dots:

A number of participants noted the overall upward shift since December in participants' projections of the federal funds rate included in the March SEP, with some expressing concern that this component of the SEP could be misconstrued as indicating a move by the Committee to a less accommodative reaction function.

The next line, however, is not particularly helpful:

However, several participants noted that the increase in the median projection overstated the shift in the projections.

This begs the question of "why?" Some dots moved forward. Why does that overstate the shift? That said, some participants noted that the shift should not be cause to worry:

In addition, a number of participants observed that an upward shift was arguably warranted by the improvement in participants' outlooks for the labor market since December and therefore need not be viewed as signifying a less accommodative reaction function.

This was my interpretation - the upward shift of the dots were consistent with a change in the unemployment projections given the Fed's reaction function. But that doesn't quite explain why the reaction function is so tight to begin with. This is I think the best explanation:

In their discussion of recent financial developments, participants saw financial conditions as generally consistent with the Committee's policy intentions. However, several participants mentioned trends that, if continued, could become a concern from the perspective of financial stability. A couple of participants pointed to the decline in credit spreads to relatively low levels by historical standards; one of these participants noted the risk of either a sharp rise in spreads, which could have negative repercussions for aggregate demand, or a continuation of the decline in spreads, which could undermine financial stability over time. One participant voiced concern about high levels of margin debt and of equity market valuations as well as a notable shift into commodity investments. Another participant stressed the growth in consumer credit to less creditworthy households.

I think the Fed's reaction function now includes some financial stability variable, but the Fed is loath to discuss that variable and the related parameters impacting policy. That said, we are fairly confident that the push to end asset purchases and plan the exit from zero rates were a response to bubbling financial stability concerns at the Fed. They simply hid that behind the "progress toward goals" language.

More surprisingly is that not only did they begin the exit from extraordinary stimulus in the face of clearly suboptimal labor outcomes, they did so in the face of clearly suboptimal inflation outcomes. Now, though, they may be realizing the error of their ways. Via Jon Hilsenrath at the Wall Street Journal:

Federal Reserve officials are growing concerned the U.S. inflation rate won't budge from low levels, the latest sign of angst among central bankers about weakness in the global economy.

So what comes next? To answer that, we again need to divide policy into movements along the reaction function and shifts of the reaction function. We should recognize that the SEP dots will shift in response to the data. If data comes in stronger than anticipated, then the dots will move forward. If weaker, then backward.

A more hawkish reaction function - the dots moving up and forward independent of the forecast - would most likely occur due to heightened financial stability concerns. A less likely cause is that inflation expectations suddenly jump.

What about a more dovish reaction function? I think it was expected that new Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen would have already pushed forward a more dovish reaction function given her expressed concerned for the unemployed. So far, she has disappointed such expectations. Factors that could still trigger a downward shift include 1.) a desire to accelerate the pace of improvement in labor markets, 2.) a lessening of financial stability concerns, 3.) a heightened concern about the negative impacts of persistently low inflation.

The inflation concern is my leading candidate at the moment. Still, I would not want to overestimate the chance of such a shift. It is easy to see that ongoing improvements in labor markets could be sufficient to contain inflation concerns to low rumblings.

Bottom Line: Fed policy - dovish those it seems - is maddenly disconnected from their actual forecasts. What does that mean for future policy? Given the relatively dovish forecast, I am concerned that the balance of risk lies on the upside, which implies tighter policy along the existing reaction function. But at the same time I remain open to the possibility that even if the economy evolves as expected, the Fed could extend the low interest rate horizon via shifting the reaction function down. That said, I suspect there is a fairly high bar to such a shift. As unemployment drops further, they will become increasingly concerned about being caught behind the curve given the level of financial accommodation already in place.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Who’s to Blame for the Power Shift at the Fed?

New column:

Who’s to Blame for the Power Shift at the Fed?, by Mark Thoma, The Fiscal Times: Federal Reserve Board governor Jeremy Stein announced that he is stepping down at the end of May. That could leave the Board of Governors severely short-handed. Presently, three of the seven positions on the Board are open. There are nominations for two of the open positions, and the nominees, Stanley Fischer and Lael Brainard, await Senate confirmation. However, President Obama has not yet nominated anyone to fill the third open seat, and if Senate confirmation for Fischer and Brainard does not occur before June, then only three of the seven Board positions will be filled. 
That will alter the balance of power on the committee responsible for setting monetary policy, the all-important Federal Open Market Committee. ...
One problem in filling the open positions on the Federal Reserve Board is that nominations have been blocked in the Senate, and Republicans have been particularly obstructionist. What is the reason for this?
In addition to the desire to block whatever this president tries to do as a way of obtaining political advantage, there are two factors that have helped to motivate the obstructionist tendencies. ...

Monday, April 07, 2014

Paul Krugman: Oligarchs and Money

Class interests stand in the way of raising the inflation target:

Oligarchs and Money, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Econonerds eagerly await each new edition of the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook. ... This latest report ... in effect makes a compelling case for raising inflation targets above 2 percent, the current norm in advanced countries. ...
First, let’s talk about the case for higher inflation. ... It’s good for debtors — and therefore good for the economy as a whole when an overhang of debt is holding back growth and job creation. It encourages people to spend rather than sit on cash — again, a good thing in a depressed economy. And it can serve as a kind of economic lubricant, making it easier to adjust wages and prices...
But ... would it be enough to get back to 2 percent, the official inflation target...? Almost certainly not.
You see, monetary experts ... thought that 2 percent was high enough to ... make liquidity traps ... very rare. But America has now been in a liquidity trap for more than five years. Clearly, the experts were wrong.
Furthermore,... there’s strong evidence that changes in the global economy are increasing the tendency of investors to hoard cash..., thereby increasing the risk of liquidity traps unless the inflation target is raised. But the report never dares to say this outright.
So why is the obvious unsayable? One answer is that serious people like to prove their seriousness by calling for tough choices and sacrifice (by other people, of course). They hate being told about answers that don’t involve more suffering.
And behind this attitude, one suspects, lies class bias. Doing what America did after World War II — using low interest rates and inflation to erode the debt burden — is often referred to as “financial repression,” which sounds bad. But who wouldn’t prefer modest inflation and a bit of asset erosion to mass unemployment? Well, you know who: the 0.1 percent... Modestly higher inflation, say 4 percent, would be good for the vast majority of people, but it would be bad for the superelite. And guess who gets to define conventional wisdom.
Now, I don’t think that class interest is all-powerful. Good arguments and good policies sometimes prevail even if they hurt the 0.1 percent — otherwise we would never have gotten health reform. But we do need to make clear what’s going on, and realize that in monetary policy as in so much else, what’s good for oligarchs isn’t good for America.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Fed Watch: One For the Doves

Tim Duy:

One For the Doves, by Tim Duy: The March employment report came in pretty much in line with expectations. Nonfarm payrolls gained by 192k, and January and February were both revised higher. If you can discern any meaningful change in the underlying pace of economic activity from the nonfarm payrolls numbers, you have sharper eyes than me:

NFPa040413

You could almost draw that twelve month trend with a ruler. The unemployment rate moved sideways:

UNEMP040413

In the past, sharp declines in the unemployment rate have been followed by periods of relative stability. I suspect we are currently in one such period.
The internals of the household report were generally positive. The labor force rose by 503k, pushing the participation rate up by 0.2 percentage points. And the labor market appeared to absorb those new participants nicely, with employment rise by 476k while the ranks of unemployed grew by just 27k. Measures of underemployment remain consistent with recent trends:

NFPb040413

As might be expected if there remains plenty of slack in labor markets, wage growth remained largely unchanged:

WAGES040414

I would say that on average, this report fits nicely with the view outlined by Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen earlier this week. The labor market continues to improve at a moderate pace, a pace that remains insufficient to rapidly alleviate the issues of underemployment and low wage growth. Indeed, combined with the readings on inflation:

PCE033114

PCEa033114

I think the real policy question should be why is the Fed engaged in reducing policy accommodation in the first place? If Yellen is as concerned about the plight of labor as she purports to be, and if she and her colleagues are as committed to the 2% inflation target as they purport to be, then it seems like there is a strong argument for slowing the pace of the taper and using a rules based approach to taket the risk of earlier-than-anticipated rate hikes off the table. In short, there seems to be a disconnect between the Fed's rhetoric and the general policy direction. They seem to have lost interest in speeding the pace of the recovery.

Persistently low inflation, however, may push them into action. St. Louis Federal Reserve President James Bullard opened up the door to slowing the taper if inflation does not prove to be bottoming. Via Bloomberg:

“I still think it is important to defend the inflation target from the low side,” Bullard, who doesn’t vote on policy this year, said today in a Bloomberg Radio interview with Kathleen Hays and Vonnie Quinn in St. Louis. “If inflation takes another step down, that will put heavy pressure” on policy makers “to take further action.”

That said, take this in context of a Fed that fundamentally wants out of the asset purchase business. Moreover, this is not Bullard's baseline forecast. Via Reuters:

"Mine is in the first quarter of 2015, as far as liftoff for the funds rate," St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank President James Bullard told Reuters Insider television, when asked for his view on when the U.S. central bank should make its first rate hike since 2006.

"You have to keep in mind I tend to be a more optimistic member of the committee," he said. "I have a probably, a somewhat stronger forecast and a view about policy that suggests that maybe we should get up a bit faster than what some of the other members have."

This labor report, however, is not exactly consistent with such a view, but that is also still a year away. In contrast San Franscisco President John Williams reiterated his view, which is much more consistent with the general consensus. Via Reuters:

"Given the economic outlook, and given also my view that we need accommodative policy relative to historical norms, we need to have relatively low levels of interest rates for quite some time," San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank President John Williams told Reuters. "My own view is it makes sense to start raising rates in the second half of 2015."

But the pace of rate increases, in Williams' view, should be extremely slow, with rates ending 2016 well below the historical norm of 4 percent, "with the first digit being a '2,'" he said.

Of course, the second half of 2015 is a fairly big window, and I suspect that any conditions that draw the first rate hike to the front end of that forecast, and certainly to Bullard's forecast, will be followed by a more rapid pace of tightening than currently anticipated. But that again is a matter for the data to decide. That and financial stability concerns; such concerns seem to be having a bigger impact on policy than officials like to admit.

Bottom Line: The doves win this round. One wonders, however, why, if they hold such a strong hand, they have been unable or unwilling to stop the systematic reduction in accommodation that began with the tapering talk of last year?

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Fed Watch: Employment Report Ahead

Tim Duy:

Employment Report Ahead, by Tim Duy: Sorry for the light blogging this week - just getting back into the swings of things during the first week of spring term. But nothing like an employment report to pull me out of hibernation.
It is no secret that the employment report has a significant impact on monetary policy. And we need to make increasingly deeper dives at the data to discern the implications for policy. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen made that clear in her speech this week when she outlined a number of indicators - part-time but want full-time, wages,long-term unemployment, and labor force participation - as evidence of slack in the labor market. Such slack is sufficient, in her view, to justify maintaining accommodative policy for a considerable period (although note that accommodative does not mean zero rates).
Yellen, I think, outlined the most dovish case possible given the current information set. This suggests to me that the risk lies in the hawkish direction. Moreover, I think that Yellen and the remaining doves are losing the internal policy battle, leaving policy with a generally overall hawkish tone. Gone is the Evans rule and explicit allowance for above target inflation, gone, it seems, is a low bar for slowing the taper, gone is quantitative guidance in favor of qualitative guidance, gone is rules-based policy in favor of ad-hockery. And now departing Governor Jeremy Stein leaves behind an intellectual legacy that raises the importance of financial stability concerns when setting policy. Altogether, the stage is set for the Fed to move in a sharply more hawkish direction with just a little push from the data.
That said, that little push from the data is important. While I believe that the Fed has a hawkish bias, that bias will not be realized in the absence of data that is reasonably stronger than the Fed's forecasts. Which brings us to the next employment report. In general, the consensus view that the labor market shook off the winter doldrums with a 206k gain in nonfarm payrolls and 6.6% unemployment rate is probably pretty close to the Fed's expectations. The forecast range for payrolls, however, is skewed to the upside, with a range from 175k to 275k. The possibility of upside surprise follows from an expectation of a sharper bounce from earlier weather-related softness. This was evident in the employment component of the ISM Services report:

ISM0400314

In addition, weekly initial claims have improved in recent weeks, lending additional credence to expectations for a better-than-expected report:

INITCLAIMS0400314

Finally, the ADP number for private employment growth came in at a solid 191k for the month (noting of course, the less than perfect signal ADP provides). My quick and dirty approach - which admittedly was not particularly effective in recent months - points at a nfp gain of 199k in March, in line with consensus expectations:

NFPFOR0400314

As always, usual caveats apply. Guessing the preliminary numbers of a heavily revised data series is by itself something of a questionable game, a game we all play nonetheless.
As I noted earlier, however, headline numbers won't tell the whole story. The Fed will be looking deeper into the numbers for evidence of greater slack than indicated by the unemployment rate. My opinion is that if the slack is diminishing faster than the Fed doves expect, it is most likely we will see wage growth accelerate. If wage growth remains low, then the Fed will be confident that there is little incipient inflation pressure to justify a more aggressive reduction of policy accommodation.
Bottom Line: The baseline case remains zero rates until the middle to end of 2015, followed by a gentle pace of rate hikes. That said, it is all data dependent, and the baseline case appears to be contingent on a particularly dovish forecast. It seems to me that the risk thus lies in a less than dovish reality. SIgns that wages are increasing more rapidly would suggest just that. Still stagnant wage growth, however, gives the Fed more room to stick with the current policy path.

'Jeremy Stein to Resign From Fed Board'

When the Federal reserve Board is fully staffed, the Board members outnumber the regional bank presidents 7-5 on the FOMC (the committee that sets monetary policy). Presently, however, the power balance has shifted and it may shift even more:

Jeremy Stein to Resign From Fed Board, by Binyamin Appelbaum, NY Times: Jeremy Stein, a member of the Federal Reserve’s board..., will resign at the end of May and return to his previous role at Harvard. Mr. Stein, who joined the Fed in 2012, needed to return within two years to preserve his tenured professorship. ...
Mr. Stein, an economist and noted academic, has helped to provide an intellectual rationale for the cautious evolution of the Fed’s stimulus campaign, which has not succeeded in returning either unemployment or inflation to normal levels.
He has argued that the Fed should temper its efforts to minimize unemployment because those policies encourage financial risk-taking, which can undermine long-term growth by destabilizing markets and causing new crises. ...
His views remain controversial. ... Mr. Stein’s tenure will be among the shortest in recent Fed history...
His departure could create a fourth vacancy on the seven-member board. Two nominees, Stanley Fischer and Lael Brainard, are awaiting Senate confirmation. Mr. Obama has not announced a nominee for a third vacancy, created last month when Sarah Bloom Raskin became deputy Treasury secretary.

I think the Fed should have been more aggressive, especially early on, but it was probably good to have someone asking questions about QE and risk-taking.

The Downward Drift in Real Interest Rates

David Wessel reports on the IMF's World Economic Outlook:

The Downward Drift in Inflation-Adjusted Interest Rates: Why? And So What?, by David Wessel, WSJ:

Real-rates

...Two economists writing in the International Monetary Fund’s new World Economic Outlook note that inflation-adjusted interest rates have been coming down for more than three decades and suggests they may remain lower than normal for a very long time. ... But the important point is the trend towards lower interest rates began long before the Great Recession and advent of the Fed’s quantitative easing...
Why does this matter? ... It also would pose a big challenge for the Fed. For one thing, it boosts the risk that investors will do foolish things to get a little extra yield and provoke the much-dreaded “financial instability.”
It also increases the likelihood the economy will spend a whole lot more time with nominal rates ... uncomfortably close to zero, where it’s much harder for a central bank to use interest rates to steer the economy out of recessions.  ...
If so, that argues ... for worrying a lot less about government budget deficits and a lot more about using government spending to give the economy a lift that monetary policy cannot provide. ...

And at the same time, "Governments Scale Back Spending on School Construction, Public Safety."

Monday, March 31, 2014

'What the Federal Reserve is Doing to Promote a Stronger Job Market'

Janet Yellen says the Fed cares about the unemployed:

What the Federal Reserve is Doing to Promote a Stronger Job Market, by Janet L. Yellen, Federal Reserve: ... The past six years have been difficult for many Americans, but the hardships faced by some have shattered lives and families. Too many people know firsthand how devastating it is to lose a job at which you had succeeded and be unable to find another; to run through your savings and even lose your home, as months and sometimes years pass trying to find work; to feel your marriage and other relationships strained and broken by financial difficulties. And yet many of those who have suffered the most find the will to keep trying. I will introduce you to three of these brave men and women, your neighbors here in the great city of Chicago. These individuals have benefited from just the kind of help from community groups that I highlighted a moment ago, and they recently shared their personal stories with me.
It might seem obvious, but the second thing that is needed to help people find jobs...is jobs. No amount of training will be enough if there are not enough jobs to fill. I have mentioned some of the things the Fed does to help communities, but the most important thing we do is to use monetary policy to promote a stronger economy. The Federal Reserve has taken extraordinary steps since the onset of the financial crisis to spur economic activity and create jobs, and I will explain why I believe those efforts are still needed.
The Fed provides this help by influencing interest rates. Although we work through financial markets, our goal is to help Main Street, not Wall Street. By keeping interest rates low, we are trying to make homes more affordable and revive the housing market. We are trying to make it cheaper for businesses to build, expand, and hire. We are trying to lower the costs of buying a car that can carry a worker to a new job and kids to school, and our policies are also spurring the revival of the auto industry. We are trying to help families afford things they need so that greater spending can drive job creation and even more spending, thereby strengthening the recovery.
When the Federal Reserve's policies are effective, they improve the welfare of everyone who benefits from a stronger economy, most of all those who have been hit hardest by the recession and the slow recovery.
Now let me offer my view of the state of the recovery, with particular attention to the labor market and conditions faced by workers. Nationwide, and in Chicago, the economy and the labor market have strengthened considerably from the depths of the Great Recession. Since the unemployment rate peaked at 10 percent in October 2009, the economy has added more than 7-1/2 million jobs and the unemployment rate has fallen more than 3 percentage points to 6.7 percent. That progress has been gradual but remarkably steady--February was the 41st consecutive month of payroll growth, one of the longest stretches ever. ...
But while there has been steady progress, there is also no doubt that the economy and the job market are not back to normal health. ...
The recovery still feels like a recession to many Americans, and it also looks that way in some economic statistics. At 6.7 percent, the national unemployment rate is still higher than it ever got during the 2001 recession. ... It certainly feels like a recession to many younger workers, to older workers who lost long-term jobs, and to African Americans, who are facing a job market today that is nearly as tough as it was during the two downturns that preceded the Great Recession.
In some ways, the job market is tougher now than in any recession. The numbers of people who have been trying to find work for more than six months or more than a year are much higher today than they ever were since records began decades ago. We know that the long-term unemployed face big challenges. Research shows employers are less willing to hire the long-term unemployed and often prefer other job candidates with less or even no relevant experience.3
That is what Dorine Poole learned, after she lost her job processing medical insurance claims, just as the recession was getting started. Like many others, she could not find any job, despite clerical skills and experience acquired over 15 years of steady employment. When employers started hiring again, two years of unemployment became a disqualification. Even those needing her skills and experience preferred less qualified workers without a long spell of unemployment. That career, that part of Dorine's life, had ended.
For Dorine and others, we know that workers displaced by layoffs and plant closures who manage to find work suffer long-lasting and often permanent wage reductions.4 Jermaine Brownlee was an apprentice plumber and skilled construction worker when the recession hit, and he saw his wages drop sharply as he scrambled for odd jobs and temporary work. He is doing better now, but still working for a lower wage than he earned before the recession.
Vicki Lira lost her full-time job of 20 years when the printing plant she worked in shut down in 2006. Then she lost a job processing mortgage applications when the housing market crashed. Vicki faced some very difficult years. At times she was homeless. Today she enjoys her part-time job serving food samples to customers at a grocery store but wishes she could get more hours.
Vicki Lira is one of many Americans who lost a full-time job in the recession and seem stuck working part time. The unemployment rate is down, but not included in that rate are more than seven million people who are working part time but want a full-time job. As a share of the workforce, that number is very high historically.
I have described the experiences of Dorine, Jermaine, and Vicki because they tell us important things that the unemployment rate alone cannot. First, they are a reminder that there are real people behind the statistics, struggling to get by and eager for the opportunity to build better lives. Second, their experiences show some of the uniquely challenging and lasting effects of the Great Recession. Recognizing and trying to understand these effects helps provide a clearer picture of the progress we have made in the recovery, as well as a view of just how far we still have to go.
And based on the evidence available, it is clear to me that the U.S. economy is still considerably short of the two goals assigned to the Federal Reserve by the Congress. The first of those goals is maximum sustainable employment, the highest level of employment that can be sustained while maintaining a stable inflation rate. Most of my colleagues on the Federal Open Market Committee and I estimate that the unemployment rate consistent with maximum sustainable employment is now between 5.2 percent and 5.6 percent, well below the 6.7 percent rate in February.
The other goal assigned by the Congress is stable prices, which means keeping inflation under control. In the past, there have been times when these two goals conflicted--fighting inflation often requires actions that slow the economy and raise the unemployment rate. But that is not a dilemma now, because inflation is well below 2 percent, the Fed's longer-term goal.
The Federal Reserve takes its inflation goal very seriously. One reason why I believe it is appropriate for the Federal Reserve to continue to provide substantial help to the labor market, without adding to the risks of inflation, is because of the evidence I see that there remains considerable slack in the economy and the labor market. Let me explain what I mean by that word "slack" and why it is so important.
Slack means that there are significantly more people willing and capable of filling a job than there are jobs for them to fill. During a period of little or no slack, there still may be vacant jobs and people who want to work, but a large share of those willing to work lack the skills or are otherwise not well suited for the jobs that are available. ...
But a lack of jobs is the heart of the problem when unemployment is caused by slack, which we also call "cyclical unemployment." The government has the tools to address cyclical unemployment. Monetary policy is one such tool, and the Federal Reserve has been actively using it to strengthen the recovery and create jobs, which brings me to why the amount of slack is so important.
If unemployment were mostly structural, if workers were unable to perform the jobs available, then the Federal Reserve's efforts to create jobs would not be very effective. Worse than that, without slack in the labor market, the economic stimulus from the Fed could put attaining our inflation goal at risk. In fact, judging how much slack there is in the labor market is one of the most important questions that my Federal Reserve colleagues and I consider when making monetary policy decisions, because our inflation goal is no less important than the goal of maximum employment.
This is not just an academic debate. For Dorine Poole, Jermaine Brownlee, and Vicki Lira, and for millions of others dislocated by the Great Recession who continue to struggle, the cause of the slow recovery is enormously important. As I said earlier, the powerful force that sustains them and others who keep trying to succeed in this recovery is the faith that their job prospects will improve and that their efforts will be rewarded.
Now let me explain why I believe there is still considerable slack in the labor market, why I think there is room for continued help from the Fed for workers, and why I believe Dorine Poole, Jermaine Brownlee, and Vicki Lira are right to hope for better days ahead.
One form of evidence for slack is found in other labor market data, beyond the unemployment rate or payrolls, some of which I have touched on already. For example, the seven million people who are working part time but would like a full-time job. This number is much larger than we would expect at 6.7 percent unemployment, based on past experience, and the existence of such a large pool of "partly unemployed" workers is a sign that labor conditions are worse than indicated by the unemployment rate. Statistics on job turnover also point to considerable slack in the labor market. Although firms are now laying off fewer workers, they have been reluctant to increase the pace of hiring. Likewise, the number of people who voluntarily quit their jobs is noticeably below levels before the recession; that is an indicator that people are reluctant to risk leaving their jobs because they worry that it will be hard to find another. It is also a sign that firms may not be recruiting very aggressively to hire workers away from their competitors.
A second form of evidence for slack is that the decline in unemployment has not helped raise wages for workers as in past recoveries. Workers in a slack market have little leverage to demand raises. Labor compensation has increased an average of only a little more than 2 percent per year since the recession, which is very low by historical standards.5 Wage growth for most workers was modest for a couple of decades before the recession due to globalization and other factors beyond the level of economic activity, and those forces are undoubtedly still relevant. But labor market slack has also surely been a factor in holding down compensation. The low rate of wage growth is, to me, another sign that the Fed's job is not yet done.
A third form of evidence related to slack concerns the characteristics of the extraordinarily large share of the unemployed who have been out of work for six months or more. These workers find it exceptionally hard to find steady, regular work, and they appear to be at a severe competitive disadvantage when trying to find a job. The concern is that the long-term unemployed may remain on the sidelines, ultimately dropping out of the workforce. But the data suggest that the long-term unemployed look basically the same as other unemployed people in terms of their occupations, educational attainment, and other characteristics. And, although they find jobs with lower frequency than the short-term jobless do, the rate at which job seekers are finding jobs has only marginally improved for both groups. That is, we have not yet seen clear indications that the short-term unemployed are finding it increasingly easier to find work relative to the long-term unemployed. This fact gives me hope that a significant share of the long-term unemployed will ultimately benefit from a stronger labor market.
A final piece of evidence of slack in the labor market has been the behavior of the participation rate--the proportion of working-age adults that hold or are seeking jobs. Participation falls in a slack job market when people who want a job give up trying to find one. When the recession began, 66 percent of the working-age population was part of the labor force. Participation dropped, as it normally does in a recession, but then kept dropping in the recovery. It now stands at 63 percent, the same level as in 1978, when a much smaller share of women were in the workforce. Lower participation could mean that the 6.7 percent unemployment rate is overstating the progress in the labor market.
One factor lowering participation is the aging of the population, which means that an increasing share of the population is retired. If demographics were the only or overwhelming reason for falling participation, then declining participation would not be a sign of labor market slack. But some "retirements" are not voluntary, and some of these workers may rejoin the labor force in a stronger economy. Participation rates have been falling broadly for workers of different ages, including many in the prime of their working lives. Based on the evidence, my own view is that a significant amount of the decline in participation during the recovery is due to slack, another sign that help from the Fed can still be effective.
Since late 2008, the Fed has taken extraordinary steps to revive the economy. At the height of the crisis, we provided liquidity to help avert a collapse of the financial system, which enabled banks and other institutions to continue to provide credit to people and businesses depending on it. We cut short-term interest rates as low as they can go and indicated that we would keep them low for as long as necessary to support a stronger economic recovery. And we have been purchasing large quantities of longer-term securities in order to put additional downward pressure on longer-term interest rates--the rates that matter to people shopping for a new car, looking to buy or renovate a home, or expand a business. There is little doubt that without these actions, the recession and slow recovery would have been far worse.
These different measures have the same goal--to encourage consumers to spend and businesses to invest, to promote a recovery in the housing market, and to put more people to work. Together they represent an unprecedentedly large and sustained commitment by the Fed to do what is necessary to help our nation recover from the Great Recession. For the many reasons I have noted today, I think this extraordinary commitment is still needed and will be for some time, and I believe that view is widely shared by my fellow policymakers at the Fed.
In this context, recent steps by the Fed to reduce the rate of new securities purchases are not a lessening of this commitment, only a judgment that recent progress in the labor market means our aid for the recovery need not grow as quickly. Earlier this month, the Fed reiterated its overall commitment to maintain extraordinary support for the recovery for some time to come.
This commitment is strong, and I believe the Fed's policies will continue to help sustain progress in the job market. But the scars from the Great Recession remain, and reaching our goals will take time. ...
It is my hope that the courageous and determined working people I have told you about today, and millions more, will get the chance they deserve to build better lives. ...

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Two Percent *Ceiling* for Inflation

The Fed has consistently missed its inflation target:

Monetary Policy And Secular Stagnation, by Atif Mian and Amir Sufi: ...The Fed’s goal is to achieve the target of 2% inflation in the long-term, and its preferred price index is the core personal consumption expenditure price index that excludes the volatile food and energy sectors (or core PCE for short). So how has the Fed performed in achieving its target of 2% inflation in the past 15 years?

Ch1_20140325_1

The chart above plots the implied core PCE index if inflation had met its 2% target (red line), and the actual core PCE index (blue line) starting from 1999. ... The divergence between target and actual inflation is all the more striking given the elevated rate of unemployment during the sample period. ...
It is hard to fault the Fed for not trying... The Fed’s difficulty in maintaining a 2% target is not just about the Great Recession. The divergence started in the 2000′s... In fact the only period when the blue line runs parallel to the red (implying a 2% rate of inflation for a while) is the 2004-2006 period when the economy witnessed an unprecedented growth in credit. ...
What we are witnessing is the limit of what monetary policy alone can do. Sometimes there is a tendency to assume that the Fed can “target” any inflation rate it wishes, or that it can target the overall price level – the so-called nominal GDP targeting. The evidence suggests that the Fed may not be so omnipotent. ...

Another interpretation is that, at least during normal times, the Fed does have quite a bit of control over the inflation rate, but it treats 2% inflation as a ceiling (i.e. inflation must never rise above 2%) rather than a central tendency (i.e. inflation is allowed to fluctuate both above and below the 2% target so that, on average, inflation is 2%).

Monday, March 24, 2014

Fed Watch: Williams Acknowledges Forecast Change

Tim Duy:

Williams Acknowledges Forecast Change, by Tim Duy: Earlier today I said:

Fourth, the dots undeniably moved forward and steeper, which means individual outlooks on the definitions of "considerable period" or "accommodative" did in fact change in meaningful ways. I am surprised, however, that this was not anticipated by market participants given the rapid decline in the unemployment rate. Along any given Fed objective function, one would expect that a more rapid decrease in unemployment would move forward and steepen the interest rate trajectory, even if just by 25 or 50pb.

The Washington Post's Ylan Mui had a sitdown with Federal Reserve President John WIlliams:

Logically, given that the unemployment rate is a little bit lower, that suggests a little bit higher interest rate in 2016. Is that a big shift in the timing of the first rate increase? We’re talking about a relatively small change in terms of the forecast, and I wouldn’t see that as a significant shift.

When I look at the SEP projections for 2015, I just don’t see much of a change in the views on policy -- definitely not the kind of change in views on policy that represents some shift in our policy framework. The fact that unemployment has come down since December a little more than we thought, this is not news. Everybody knows that.

Also, regarding financial stability, I said Friday:

In short, if you believe that the Fed will not use monetary policy to address financial stability concerns, I think you might not be paying attention. They are already using monetary policy to address those concerns by not taking more aggressive action. Don't look to what they will do in the future for confirmation; look to what they are not doing right now.

I meant "aggressive action" as policy to speed the pace of the recovery, whereas current policy is geared toward ending asset purchases and paving the way for rate hikes. Williams on the topic:

I think our policies are doing about as well as we can without creating excessive risks down the road, either for the economy or financial stability. I think there is a little bit of a tradeoff between trying to push this economy now even harder and maybe having some unintended consequences down the road -- not today, not next year, probably not the year after -- and also the potential of making the exit out of our very accommodative policies a little more difficult to navigate.

Also, if you get a chance, read Gavin Davies at the Financial Times:

But in a wider sense there has been an unmistakable shift in the FOMC’s centre of gravity in the past few months. The key to this shift is that the mainstream doves who have dominated policy decisions in the past few years have now essentially stopped arguing against either the tapering of the balance sheet or the start of rate hikes within about a year from now. Only the isolated Narayana Kocherlakota remains in the aggressive dovish corner.

Bottom Line: Those who expected Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen to push for a more dovish policy path continue to be dissapointed.

Fed Watch: Post-FOMC Fedspeak

Tim Duy:

Post-FOMC Fedspeak, by Tim Duy: Some thoughts on post-FOMC activity as we head into Monday.

First, I did not cover Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen's definition of a "considerable period" as six months in my review of the FOMC statement. I did not highlight the issue because when I went back to the tape, it looked clear to me that the bulk of the bond market response came at the release of the statement and projections. To be sure, the equity market stumbled, but here I completely agree with Felix Salmon:

But here’s the thing: the market didn’t freak out....last Thursday, for instance, the yield fell by a good 10bp when John Kerry made noises about imposing sanctions on Russia. And overall, the yield has stayed comfortably in a range between 2.6% and 2.8%.

What’s more, the big FOMC-related move in the 10-year bond yield happened immediately at 2pm, when the statement was released. Yellen’s “gaffe” caused barely a wobble.

So why does everybody think that Yellen blundered? The answer is simple: they were looking at the stock market (which doesn’t matter), rather than the bond market (which does). Stocks fell, briefly; not a lot, and not for long, but enough that people noticed.

It is the bond market response that is important, and that response was pre-Yellen. It is not entirely clear that the six months timeline was new information. Or, at least, it wasn't to St. Louis Federal Reserve President James Bullard:

“That wasn’t very different from what we had heard from financial markets, so I think she’s just repeating that at that time period,” Bullard said at a roundtable at the Brookings Institution. Bullard doesn’t vote on policy this year.

Second, the more important issue appears to be the interest rate projections, the now infamous dot chart. In her press conference, Yellen attempted to deny the projections contained much useful information in her testimony:

But more generally, I think that one should not look to the dot-plot, so to speak, as the primary way in which the committee wants to or is speaking about policies to the public at large. The FOMC statement is the device that the committee as a policy-making group uses to express its – its opinions. And we have expressed a number of opinions about the likely path of rates.

Dallas Federal Reserve President Richard Fisher went further. Via Bloomberg:

Fisher suggested investors were placing too much emphasis on the change in forecasts, which the Fed illustrates as dots plotted on a chart.

There is a “fixation if not a fetish on the dots,” he said at the London School of Economics. The change in forecasts by Fed officials came before this week’s meeting, he said.

“Somehow, this was read as a massive shift,” Fisher said. “These are our best guesses.”

The Fed wants markets to focus on the distance between the bulk of the dots and participants view of normal. Back to Yellen:

Looking further out, let's say if you look at toward the end of 2016, when most participants are projecting that the employment situation, that the unemployment rate will be close to their notions of mandate-consistent or longer-run normal levels. What you see -- I think if you look, this time if you gaze at the picture from December or September, which is the first year that we showed those dot-plots for the end of 2016, is the massive points that are notably below what the participants believed is the normal longer-run level for nominal shortterm rates. And the committee today for the first time endorsed that as a committee view.

That said, it is clear the dots moved:

So I think that's significant. I think that's what we should be paying attention to. And I would simply warn you that these dots -- these dots are going to move up and down over time, a little bit this way or that. The dots moved down a little bit in December relative to September. And they moved up ever so slightly. I really don't think it's appropriate to read very much into it.

What should we take away from all of this? Well, first of all, I think it is absolutely ludicrous that the Fed is trying to claim the dots have no value. Seriously, can they work any harder to raise the act of bungling their communications strategy to an art form? If the dots have no value, then why force feed this information to market participants in the first place?

Second, yes, the dots do not represent the FOMC consensus. The statement represents the consensus. But the consensus is vague about what defines a "considerable period" or "accommodative" policy. Each individual participant has their own definition of these terms, and the dots thus provide value by quantifying the vagueness of the consensus. That is the real problem here - as a group, the Fed wants qualitative discretionary policy, and the dots provide quantifiable guidance. If they want qualitative discretionary policy, they need to pull all the numbers from their communications.

Third, Yellen needs to accept responsibility for mangling communications. She has been pushing her optimal control story for a long, long time. In the process, she has convinced market participants on the importance of the forward projections of economic variables. Yet now forward projections are meaningless?

Fourth, the dots undeniably moved forward and steeper, which means individual outlooks on the definitions of "considerable period" or "accommodative" did in fact change in meaningful ways. I am surprised, however, that this was not anticipated by market participants given the rapid decline in the unemployment rate. Along any given given Fed objective function, one would expect that a more rapid decrease in unemployment would move forward and steepen the interest rate trajectory, even if just by 25 or 50pb.

Why, why, why should Federal Reserve participants be permitted to change their outlooks but the Fed believes financial market participants are not allowed to follow suit?

Perhaps it is that while - and I believe this - the Fed's reaction function did not change, I suspect there is a very good chance that market participants expected it to change in a more dovish direction. This follows directly again from Yellen's optimal control story. How many analysts were expecting a September lift-off on the basis of her charts? How many expected Yellen push for a more dovish reaction function? I think you need to throw any analysis that explicitly allowed for above target inflation out the window - and that includes the optimal control framework.

In my opinion, some financial market participants are resisting abandoning their dovish interpretation of Fed policy. For instance, Jan Hatzius of Goldman Sachs continues to hold to its 2016 rate hike call. Via the Wall Street Journal:

“Rate hikes are far off,” wrote Jan Hatzius, Goldman’s chief Fed watcher, in a note to clients late Thursday. “Our central forecast for the first hike remains early 2016, although the risks now tilt in the direction of a slightly earlier move.”

Recall, however, Goldman's view from November:

According to an analysis from Jan Hatzius, chief economist at Goldman Sachs, the two Fed papers actually would imply an earlier reduction of QE than planned—perhaps as soon as December—while the zero-bound interest rates could remain in place until 2017 and kept below normal into "the early 2020s."

Why? Because of extensions of the optimal control framework.

"The studies suggest that some of the most senior Fed staffers see strong arguments for a significantly greater amount of monetary stimulus than implied by either a Taylor rule or the current 6.5 percent/2.5 percent threshold guidance," Hatzius wrote. "Given the structure of the Federal Reserve Board, we believe it is likely that the most senior officials—in particular, Ben Bernanke and (Chair-elect) Janet Yellen—agree with the basic thrust of the analysis."

And more from Hatzius from Bill McBride at Calculated Risk:

It is hard to overstate the importance of two new Fed staff studies that will be presented at the IMF's annual research conference on November 7-8. The lead author for the first study is William English, who is the director of the Monetary Affairs division and the Secretary and Economist of the FOMC. The lead author for the second study is David Wilcox, who is the director of the Research and Statistics division and the Economist of the FOMC. The fact that the two most senior Board staffers in the areas of monetary policy analysis and domestic macroeconomics have simultaneously published detailed research papers on central issues of the economic and monetary policy outlook is highly unusual and noteworthy in its own right. But the content and implications of these papers are even more striking.

...[O]ur initial assessment is that they considerably increase the probability that the FOMC will reduce its 6.5% unemployment threshold for the first hike in the federal funds rate, either coincident with the first tapering of its QE program or before.
...
[O]ur central case is now that the FOMC will reduce the threshold from 6.5% to 6% at the March 2014 FOMC meeting, alongside the first tapering of QE; however, a move as early as the December 2013 meeting is possible, and if so, this might also increase the probability of an earlier tapering of QE.

In comparison to these expectations, the Fed is downright hawkish despite no change to their reaction function. The point is that, in my opinion, reality is starting to set in and financial market participants are walking back on their caricaturization of Yellen and the most dovish of all doves.

Bottom Line: The Fed is pushing back on the dots because they don't want quantitative guidance, and they forgot they were giving it. Expectations that Yellen will push for a more dovish reaction function are being disappointed. Note that the interest rates forecasts are just that - forecasts. They will evolve in one direction or the other in response to incoming data. But incoming data on unemployment undeniably pushes in the direction of an earlier liftoff and, subsequently, a steeper trajectory for rates. If they want to lean against those expectations, the Fed does need to change its reaction function, but to a more dovish one. That, I think, is not the direction of policy at this point.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Fed Watch: Kocherlakota's Dissent

Tim Duy:

Kocherlakota's Dissent, by Tim Duy: Minneapolis Federal Reserve President Narayana Kocherlakota defended his dissent at the March FOMC meeting. I thought it was quite remarkable. The reason of the dissent itself is not particularly unexpected:

I dissented from the new guidance for two reasons. The first reason is that the new guidance weakens the credibility of the Committee’s commitment to target 2 percent inflation. The second reason is that the new guidance fosters policy uncertainty and thereby suppresses economic activity.

I have already discussed the implications of dropping the Evans rule in regards to inflation. It implies an intention to approach the inflation target from below as well as a lack of tolerance for above target inflation. As far as the second point, Kocherlakota is arguing that the lack of quantitative guideposts increases uncertainty about the path of policy and that uncertainty tends to make economic agents risk adverse. Market participants, for example, might rationally believe they should react to that risk by moving up their expectations of the first rate hike, which by itself induces somewhat less accommodative policy.

More interesting, in my opinion, was Kocherlakota's alternative language. Consider for a moment the Evans rule as it was in January:

The Committee also reaffirmed its expectation that the current exceptionally low target range for the federal funds rate of 0 to 1/4 percent will be appropriate at least as long as the unemployment rate remains above 6-1/2 percent, inflation between one and two years ahead is projected to be no more than a half percentage point above the Committee's 2 percent longer-run goal, and longer-term inflation expectations continue to be well anchored.

Now consider Kocherlakota's version of the Evans rule:

For example, the Committee could have adopted language of the following form: “the Committee anticipates keeping the fed funds rate in its current range at least until the unemployment rate has fallen below 5.5 percent, as long as the one-to-two-year-ahead outlook for PCE inflation remains below 2 1/4 percent, longer-term inflation expectations remain well-anchored, and possible risks to financial stability remain well-contained.”

Kocherlakota has to come up with something he can sell to the rest of the FOMC. It says something about the rest of the FOMC that the most he thinks he can sell is a meager 25bp bump above the Federal Reserve inflation target. It says even more if that's the most he could sell to himself. If the most dovish member of the FOMC can tolerate no more than a 25bp upside miss on inflation, what does it say about the other FOMC members? Regardless of whether this is Kocherlakota's max or the best he thinks he can get, it tells you that 2% is really a ceiling, not a target. Now, generously, it maybe that the FOMC believes that they cannot exceed 2% politically given the amount of extraordinary stimulus already in place. But that still leaves 2% as a ceiling.

Moreover, look at the addition of the "possible risks to financial stability remain well-contained" language. It is no longer just about the length of accomodative policy, but about the first rate hike itself. It suggests that a rate hike to snuff out financial stability is clearly on the table. Moreover, if Kocherlakota thinks the only way he can sell his new version of the Evans rule is address financial stability, it means that such concerns are already an impediment to even more supportive monetary policy. This is something I noted yesterday with respect to Yellen's comments about the tapering debate last spring.

In short, if you believe that the Fed will not use monetary policy to address financial stability concerns, I think you might not be paying attention. They are already using monetary policy to address those concerns by not taking more aggressive action. Don't look to what they will do in the future for confirmation; look to what they are not doing right now.

Bottom Line: Kocherlakota's dissent paints the rest of the FOMC as surprisingly hawkish.

Friday, March 21, 2014

'The Counter-Factual & the Fed’s QE'

I tried to make this point in a recent column (it was about fiscal rather than monetary policy, but the same point applies), but I think Barry Ritholtz makes the point better and more succinctly:

Understanding Why You Think QE Didn't Work, by Barry Ritholtz: Maybe you have heard a line that goes something like this: The weak recovery is proof that the Federal Reserve’s program of asset purchases, otherwise known as quantitative easement, doesn't work.
If you were the one saying those words, you don't understand the counterfactual. ...
This flawed analytical paradigm has many manifestations, and not just in the investing world. They all rely on the same equation: If you do X, and there is no measurable change, X is therefore ineffective.
The problem with this “non-result result” is what would have occurred otherwise. Might “no change” be an improvement from what otherwise would have happened? No change, last time I checked, is better than a free-fall.
If you are testing a new medication to reduce tumors, you want to see what happened to the group that didn't get the test therapy. Maybe this control group experienced rapid tumor growth. Hence, a result where there is no increase in tumor mass in the group receiving the therapy would be considered a very positive outcome.
We run into the same issue with QE. ... Without that control group, we simply don't know. ...

The Fool on the Icy Hill

As a follow-up to Krugman's article, this is something I wrote in January of 2009:

...I think the stimulus package is like driving up an icy hill. If you don't have enough momentum from the start and fail to provide enough "stimulus" to get the car over the crest of the hill, you can slide all the way back to the bottom, crashing into things along the way and ending up worse off than when you started. Maybe you can give it more gas along the way if needed without spinning out, and perhaps you can hold your position if you don't make it to the top, and then start again from the higher level, but that's not a chance I want to take when I'm sitting at the bottom wondering if I can make it to the top without wrecking my car -- the possibility of falling all the way back to the bottom and ending up worse off would make me want to start with sufficient momentum and then some. Essentially, I am arguing that there are crucial economic and psychological "tipping points" that must be reached in order for the economic recovery package to be effective (or at least, there's enough of a chance that they exist that they cannot be ignored when formulating robust policy). ...

Paul Krugman added:

I’d add that there may also be a political tipping point: if the stimulus package is too weak, conservatives will pile on after it fails to deliver, claiming that the whole concept has been discredited.

Paul Krugman: The Timidity Trap

When policymakers are overly cautious, it can backfire:

The Timidity Trap, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: There don’t seem to be any major economic crises underway right this moment, and policy makers in many places are patting themselves on the back. ...
Unfortunately, that ... just goes to show how accustomed we’ve grown to terrible economic conditions. We’re doing worse than anyone could have imagined a few years ago, yet people seem increasingly to be accepting this miserable situation as the new normal.
How did this happen? ... I’d argue that an important source of failure was what I’ve taken to calling the timidity trap — the consistent tendency of policy makers who have the right ideas in principle to go for half-measures in practice, and the way this timidity ends up backfiring, politically and even economically.
In other words, Yeats had it right: the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
About the worst: If you’ve been following economic debates these past few years, you know that both America and Europe have powerful pain caucuses — influential groups fiercely opposed to any policy that might put the unemployed back to work. There are some important differences between the U.S. and European pain caucuses, but both now have truly impressive track records of being always wrong, never in doubt. ...
So what has been the response of the good guys?
For there are good guys out there... But these good guys never seem willing to go all-in on their beliefs.
The classic example is the Obama stimulus, which was obviously underpowered... Some of us warned right from the beginning that the plan would be inadequate — and that because it was being oversold, the persistence of high unemployment would end up discrediting the whole idea of stimulus in the public mind. And so it proved.
What’s not as well known is that the Fed has, in its own way, done the same thing. From the start, monetary officials ruled out the kinds of monetary policies most likely to work — in particular, anything that might signal a willingness to tolerate somewhat higher inflation, at least temporarily. As a result, the policies ... have fallen short of hopes, and ended up leaving the impression that nothing much can be done. ...
You might ask why the good guys have been so timid, the bad guys so self-confident. I suspect that the answer has a lot to do with class interests. But that will have to be a subject for another column.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Turning Their Backs on the Unemployed

The Fed:

Fiscal policy is restraining economic growth

Congress, implicitly:

We don't care

Maximizing the fortunes of the wealthy backers of political campaigns -- e.g. cutting their taxes so they don't have to pay for programs that help "those people" after the financial wizards on Wall Street cause the economy to crash -- is not the same as maximizing economic growth and employment. The wealthy think it's the same -- in their minds they are the job creators, what's good for the wealthy is good for America! -- but it's not.

Fed Watch: Unintentionally Hawkish

Tim Duy:

Unintentionally Hawkish, by Tim Duy: The outcome of the FOMC meeting was pretty much as I anticipated. Asset purchases were cut by $10 billion. The Evans rule was dumped. And forward guidance was enhanced to emphasize that rates would be low for a long, long time. All seems pretty much in-line with the general consensus.

Yet financial market participants took a hawkish view of the news. Bonds were trounced - the 5 year Treasury yield lept almost 15bp. Market participants clearly saw something they didn't like. This despite what was a reasonably dovish inaugural press conference by Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen. Indeed, she strongly emphasized the new forward guidance language:

When the Committee decides to begin to remove policy accommodation, it will take a balanced approach consistent with its longer-run goals of maximum employment and inflation of 2 percent. The Committee currently anticipates that, even after employment and inflation are near mandate-consistent levels, economic conditions may, for some time, warrant keeping the target federal funds rate below levels the Committee views as normal in the longer run.

This makes clear that low rates may persist after the unemployment rate hovers closer to 5.5%. In other words, in the absence of clearly higher inflation or a reasonable forecast of higher inflation, the Fed is in no rush to push rates to a more normalish 4%.

Low rates, however, are not the same as near zero interest rates. And the interest rate forecasts seems to imply tighter policy in 2015 and 2016 than implied by the December projections. But during the press conference, Yellen denied the little dots contained any meaningful forecast information. Again, she pointed to the statement as the relevant guidance. And the statement clearly says to expect a period of low interest rates and takes no firm position on the exact timing of the first rate hike. Sounds pretty dovish.

Moreover, it is not clear that the patterns of the dots represent a meaningful change in policy even if taken at face value. Consider the dots in the context of this line from the statement:

The change in the Committee's guidance does not indicate any change in the Committee's policy intentions as set forth in its recent statements.

The dots always made clear that rates would remain low even as unemployment fell. Arguably, the Fed did nothing more in the statement than turn unofficial policy into official policy. And the slight move forward in the rate forecast was completely reasonable given the optimistic forecast of the unemployment rate. Assuming the Fed is following some Taylor-type rule, a lower unemployment rate would be sufficient to nudge forward the timing of the first rate hike. That seems perfectly consistent with the Fed's reaction function as detailed in recent statements.

All in all, it seems relatively easy to make a case that this was a dovish policy decision and a dovish press conference. Others will make the case, and offer more details, I expect, about things such as Yellen's emphasize on a wide array of labor market indicators as evidence of slack. What about a hawkish version?

If I am making a hawkish interpretation, it starts with the end of the Evans rule. Everyone seems focused on the unemployment part of the Evans rule, while my attention is on the inflation part. The Evans rule allowed for the Fed to reach their inflation target from above. It provided wiggle room on the target as long as unemployment was above 6.5%. With the end of the Evans rule, the Fed sends a signal that they no longer find it acceptable to reach the target from above. They intend to reach it from below. 2% is officially once again a ceiling. Indeed this is pretty much made explicit in the statement:

The Committee continues to anticipate, based on its assessment of these factors, that it likely will be appropriate to maintain the current target range for the federal funds rate for a considerable time after the asset purchase program ends, especially if projected inflation continues to run below the Committee's 2 percent longer-run goal, and provided that longer-term inflation expectations remain well anchored.

Low rates are only guaranteed if inflation remains below 2%. Above 2%, you had better expect a fast and furious reaction. Moreover, Minneapolis Federal Reserve President Narayana Kocherlakota's dissent makes clear the topic on the table is a below-target approach for inflation:

Voting against the action was Narayana Kocherlakota, who supported the sixth paragraph, but believed the fifth paragraph weakens the credibility of the Committee's commitment to return inflation to the 2 percent target from below and fosters policy uncertainty that hinders economic activity.

Responding to a question about the dissent, Yellen did emphasize that she did not want to undershoot inflation, but she made no mention of a willingness to overshoot inflation. Ceiling.

Moreover, the new-found 2% ceiling puts a cloud over the importance of Yellen's optimal control theory. The whole point of that exercise was that the cost of allowing inflation to rise above 2% was less than the cost of high unemployment. Seems like this idea is abandoned when you explicitly rule out the ability to reach the target from above.

The whole tenor of the policy discussion has a hawkish tone as well. As the Washington Post's Ylan Mui notes, the policy focus has shifted entirely to the timing of the first rate hike:

The nation’s central bank said Wednesday it will look at a broad swath of indicators – including job market data, inflation expectations and financial developments – as it determines when to raise rates for the first time since the recession hit. The deliberately vague wording is a retreat from the Fed’s concrete promise to leave rates untouched. Though they disagree on when to act – targets range from this year to 2016 – the statement signals the moment has finally come within striking distance.

There is no longer any reasonable expectation that the Fed has any interest in accelerating the pace of the recovery to more quickly alleviate poor labor market conditions. Barring a sharp change in economic conditions, the Fed is headed in only one direction.

Finally - and I don't think that many caught this - toward the end of the press conference, Yellen explicitly states that the higher term-premiums triggered by the tapering discussion hurt economic activity by slowing the housing recovery. But then she credited the move with reducing financial instabilities. In other words, she willingly traded growth for financial stability. Something to think about as equities plow higher.

Bottom Line: If you focus on the "low rates for a long time" language, you walk away with dovish interpretation. If you focus on the implications of the end of the Evans rule on the Fed's inflation target, I think you can walk away with a hawkish interpretation. Moreover, if you believe that 2% is now a ceiling, you probably should think the risk of inflation triggering a Fed response is higher than under the Evans rule, and adjust your forecast accordingly.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Fed Watch: That Train Left the Station

Tim Duy:

That Train Left the Station, by Tim Duy: I was re-reading some of the recent overshooting debate and it occurred to me that it is comical that we are even having this discussion. The Fed is not going to deliberately overshoot inflation, period. That train left the station long ago. So long ago that you can't even here the rumble on the tracks.
The train left the station on January 25, 2012, with this statement by the Federal Reserve:
The Committee judges that inflation at the rate of 2 percent, as measured by the annual change in the price index for personal consumption expenditures, is most consistent over the longer run with the Federal Reserve's statutory mandate.
On that day, the Federal Reserve locked in the definition of price stability. They locked it in specifically to prevent even the appearance they might deliberately overshoot as a result of extraordinary monetary policy. They locked it in as a commitment device to tie the hands of future policymakers as they would need to justify changing the definition of price stability, presumably a very high bar for any central banker to cross.
On that day, the Federal Reserve took higher inflation expectations off the table. They pulled it from the toolkit. They made clear there is one and only one inflation target for all time. The only tolerable deviations from that target are essentially forecast errors. That's it.
Moreover, I would argue that their behavior has been entirely consistent with maintaining that expectation. Inflation expectations - as measured by TIPS - have been more volatile than prior to the recession, but have cylced around pre-recession levels, or, arguably, a little below:

INFEXP031714

There is no reason to believe that the Fed has acted to try to sustain inflation expectations beyond those in place prior to the recession. Perhaps thay came close in late-2012, as measured by the five year, five year forward breakevens:

BREAK031714

But that was soon met by official pushback. Via Bloomberg:
“Distant inflation expectations from the TIPS market seem to suggest that investors do not completely trust the Fed to deliver on its 2 percent inflation target,” Bullard said today in a speech in Memphis, Tennessee, referring to Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities...
...The five-year, five-year forward break-even rate, which projects the pace of price increases starting in 2017, rose to 2.88 percent on Sept. 14, the day after the FOMC announced a third round of quantitative easing. That was up half a percentage point from July 26. It dropped to 2.77 percent on Oct. 2.
Soon thereafter began the tapering chatter that ultimately culminated in then-Chairman Ben Bernanke's press conference in which he introduced the 7% trigger for asset purchases. The result was a sharp snap-back in real yields:

REAL031714

If the Fed has already proved they can't stomach inflation expectations hovering just below 3% (remember that this is on a CPI basis by which TIPS are calculated, not on a PCE basis that is the Fed's target) for even a few months, they really can't wrap their minds around inflation actually reaching 3% as suggested by Karl Smith:
The Evans Rule was nice, but addressing the overshoot directly would be better. For example, a statement like: “In the committee’s view the appropriate path for the federal funds rate would, in the medium term, allow inflation to rise above 2 per cent, but not above 3 per cent, for a period no less than three months but no greater than one year. Within those parameters the committee will continue to adjust the target for the federal funds rate so as to achieve maximum employment and keep long term inflation expectation well anchored.”
And note that I am being generous by trusting that the Fed's inflation target is actually 2%. David Beckworth suggests it is actually the range of 1% to 2%.
Ultimately, I think Robin Harding correctly identifies the mood at the Fed:
Even Janet Yellen, in her “optimal control” speeches in 2011 and 2012, never argued that the Fed should promise extra inflation in the future. There has never been much support for it on the FOMC and the Fed’s statement of long-run goals would have to be modified to allow for it. At this stage in the game, when the Fed is slowing down its stimulus via asset purchases, it makes little sense to add more stimulus in another way.
What remains the case is that Fed doves think there is slack in the labour market and are willing to risk some above target inflation – while targeting 2 per cent – in order to bring joblessness down more rapidly. I think the centre of the committee under Janet Yellen agrees (and their fairly aggressive forward rate path reflects that). In an ideal world, though, the Fed would gracefully stabilize inflation at 2 per cent with no overshoot or undershoot, creating a soft landing as the economy regains full employment.
The Evans rule was never about higher inflation expectations. It only clarified the acceptable range of forecast errors around the 2% target for a given unemployment rate. And note that it is clear that a forecast error in the other direction is also acceptable with below target outcomes in the labor market. That acceptability is evident in the eagerness to end asset purchases and telegraph the first rate hike. Does anyone believe that the Fed would find a 2.5% inflation rate acceptable if unemployment is at 6%? Or would it be cause of worry and hand-wringing among policymakers? The latter, I think. Yes, they are willing to risk some above target inflation, but should it actually emerge, they would act quickly to snuff it out.
Bottom Line: Expect the Fed to manage policy to contain disinflation and deflationary expectations. But overshooting in the sense of raising inflation expectations to lower the real interest rate further? It very much seems like they made clear long ago that wasn't an option.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Fed Watch: FOMC Meeting Begins

Tim Duy:

FOMC Meeting Begins, by Tim Duy: The FOMC meeting begins today and ends tomorrow, followed by the traditional statement and Chair Janet Yellen's first press conference. The Fed will also update its forecasts - important because ultimately the forecast drives the policy decisions. I don't anticipate large changes to the growth or inflation forecasts. We should see modest downward revisions to the unemployment rate forecast. What will be more interesting is the impact those changes will have on the interest rate forecast. The bulk of the FOMC expects the first rate hike will be in the range of mid- to late-2015, with a handful earlier or later. A lower unemployment rate forecast may prompt some to move up their forecast. That said, I do not expect large changes in either direction.
As far as policy itself is concerned, it is widely anticipated that the Fed will continue to taper asset purchases and slice another $10 billion from the monthly total. There is no reason to think that the economy has shifted dramatically in either direction to alter the Fed's current strategy for ending asset purchases. We know also that forward guidance will be on the table. Sometime soon - and I think the odds are better than even that "soon" is tomorrow - the Fed will need to address the Evans rule. My expectation is that they ditch numerical guidance for qualitative, discretionary guidance. The new guidance, however, should make it clear that rates will remain low for a long time.
Regarding low rates, I think it is worth reiterating a theme that the Wall Street Journal's Jon Hilsenrath has been pushing this week: At this point, the Federal Reserve expects a long period of low interest rates even after they initiate the first hike. From Monday's Grand Central Station:
...The central banks are projecting an economy that looks on its face like it is returning to normal in the next couple of years...Yet most Fed officials are projecting the target for short-term interest rates will be below 2%, much less than the 4% level that officials think is appropriate in normal times.
How can the Fed expect to maintain short-term rates so far below normal when its main metrics of economic vitality look like they’re back to normal?...
The economy is not getting back to normal, officials like Mr. Dudley are essentially arguing. It’s just getting to something a little less vulnerable. Watch out for the persistent headwinds argument in the Fed’s policy statement Wednesday or in Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen’s press conference. It is the linchpin to the Fed’s assurance that rates won’t rise much in the next couple of years, even after they start inching up from zero. It is also one of the next battlegrounds in the Fed’s policy debates.
I am not entirely sure I like this characterization. The economy could have shifted into a new normal, and that new normal is characterize by a different constellation of prices, exchanges rates, and interest rates than the old normal. The new normal for interest rates may simply be lower than the old normal. Remember that we are still in the midst of a long-term secular decline in the level of interest rates:

RATES031614

Peak cycle interest rates - both short and long rates - have been on a steady decline since the 1980's. And notice that the well-telegraphed Fed tightening in the last cycle had very little impact on long-rates. This raises the possibility that the big move in long-rates (after the tapering talk began) is already behind us. Thus, long-rate might not rise much if at all even as the Fed raise short rates. We will know the answer to that if buyers keep coming out of the woodwork whenever rates approach 3%.
This also implies that although the Fed may think they are running a looser policy than normal because short-rates are historically low, the reality is that the policy is equally tight in relative terms. Thus even though they will argue that rates are low even after they begin raising rates, they will still be reinforcing the continuation of the new normal.
Bottom Line: The Fed will continue with tapering by cutting another $10 billion from asset purchases. They will most likely alter the guidance but continue to signal an extended period of low interest rates. Low rates might simply be part of the "new normal" the economy is settling into, a new normal that the Fed may be unintentionally reinforcing.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Fed Watch: On That Hawkish Wage Talk

Tim Duy:

On That Hawkish Wage Talk, by Tim Duy: The issue of the degree of labor market slack in the US economy is now a hot topic. Joe Weisenthal and Matthew Bosler at Business insider have been pushing the debate forward, see here and here, for example. This is an important concern for monetary policy as the general consensus on the Fed is sufficient slack will continue to justify an extended period of low interest rates. Hence, rate hikes can be delayed until mid- to late-2015, or even 2016 as suggested by Chicago Federal Reserve President Charles Evans. There exists, however, considerable uncertainty about the amount of slack in labor markets. My feeling is that path of rates currently expected by policymakers assumes a great deal of slack. As a consequence, indications that slack is less than expected will tend to move forward the timing of the first rate hike and, perhaps the pace of subsequent tightening. Wage pressures are likely to be an early indicator that slack is diminishing.
I see two flavors of uncertainty regarding the amount of excessive slack. First is the question about the value of the unemployment rate as a signal of tightness. The decline in the labor force participation rate has clearly placed additional downward pressure on the unemployment, leading to speculation that the unemployment rate is signaling a tighter labor market than exists in reality. Under this scenario, an improving economy will trigger a flood of entrants into the labor force to provide additional slack. Thus, the unemployment rate is underestimating the degree of slack.
This argument, however, is becoming less persuasive by the day. Evidence seems to be mounting (see here and here) that retirement and illness/disability are a dominant reason for labor force exits since the recession began. Consequently, the decline in the labor force participation will be a persistent phenomenon. The Fed, I think, has largely moved in this direction.
The next issue is the degree of underemployment with the labor market. The dovish view is that the underemployed and long-term unemployed represent considerable slack:

UNDER031014

The hawkish view is that this is not a cyclical problem but a structural one. The long-term unemployed, by this theory, simply lack the currently needed skills. This is countered by indications of discrimination against the long-term unemployed. Such discrimination effectively means that you need to have a job to get a job. The ability of firms to engage in such discrimination could be viewed as a cyclical problem. Firms could not be so choosy in a stronger labor market.
Regarding underemployment, I see evidence of the structural explanation in a comparison in the reasons for part time employment:

UNDERb031014

Those employed part time for clearly cyclical reasons are falling. Those employed part time because they could not find full time work is holding steady. It may be that the skill set of those workers is not consistent with the current types of full time jobs.
Doves will point to the lackluster data of the Jobs Openings and Labor Turnover (JOLTS) report to support the claim of weak labor markets with plenty of slack. The numbers are certainly not impressive:

JOLTS041114

That said, the counterpoint is the number of unemployed to job openings:

UN031014

My view is that wage growth will ultimately settle the debate. Wage acceleration tends to occur as unemployment approaches 6%. If that wage acceleration does not occur, then the degree of labor market slack remains is high. The much longer and established data on hourly wages for production and nonsupervisory workers, however, appears to indicate some bubbling wage pressures:

WAGESb031114

My belief is that if this is happening for lower paid workers, it is only a matter of time before it happens for higher paid workers as well. That said, I am open to the possibility that the limited improvement we are seeing may not persist. It is, however, an issue that I think is of critical importance.
How will - versus how should - indications of tighter labor markets influence Fed policy? As I have said in the past, the Fed typically tightens policy ahead of inflationary pressures. In practice, that has meant hiking rates around the time wage growth bottoms out:

WAGES031114

Is this time any different? Well, let's replace "tightens" policy above with "reduces accommodation" since the Fed would not claim that a 25bp increase in rates from 1% was tightening. They would describe it reducing the amount of financial accommodation to make policy less expansionary. This, arguably, describes what happened when the Fed began the tapering discussion. Inflation expectations fell:

RATESc041114

And real interest rates rose:

RATESb041114

Higher real interest rates and lower inflation expectations looks like a less accommodative/expansionary policy. The Fed began make policy less accommodative in the context of below target inflation and above target unemployment, but unemployment had fallen far enough that they felt it necessary to alter the level of accommodation to prevent incipient inflation pressures. And soon after it became evident that wage growth had bottomed. Coincidence? Probably not. In other words, so far the Federal Reserve is behaving just as they would in any other tightening cycle, with the only difference being that the first step is ending asset purchases rather than raising interest rates.
Moreover, it seems to be clear that the Evans rule was a diversionary tactic. The Fed never foresaw an instance where they would raise rates above as long as unemployment was above 6.5%. Moreover, as is clear from the tapering process, the inflation forecasts, and the interest rate forecast, there was never an intention to target inflation greater than 2.5%. The extra 0.5% was only an allowance for forecast error under the assumption that expected inflation would remain at 2%. They always expected inflation would hit its target from below, and never intended to risk overshooting on inflation.
Simply put, the Fed began unwinding policy pretty much exactly where you would expect given the behavior of unemployment and wage growth. So it is reasonable to believe that if they continue unwinding policy in a historically consistent manner, then there will not be a substantial pause between the end of asset purchases and the beginning of rate hikes. The date of the first rate hike will need to be moved forward by this theory.
They are more likely to move that date forward if they see less slack in labor markets than they currently believe. Furthermore, accelerating wage growth is likely to be the first conclusive evidence of that outcome. Hence my focus on wage growth. I suspect they will argue that if they don't move forward the date, they will be at risk of having to do more later.
Is the Fed pursuing the right policy? Should they allow wage to rise further before reducing financial accommodation? Well, I would say it is already too late for that. But could they delay rate hikes? I would like to see them do so because absent running the labor market at a red hot pace, I don't see obvious way to shift the balance of power to labor and reverse this trend:

SHARE031014

That said, I would also add that the last two cycles leave me wary about the potential financial stability issues from such a policy. In the absence of a greater fiscal roll, however, we are left with leaning on monetary policy and risking the financial fallout.
Bottom Line: The Federal Reserve's policy path is dependent on a particular view of a labor market suffering from excessive slack that will continue to be a problem long into the future. It is reasonable to expect that evidence that slack is dissapating more quickly than expected will trigger a fresh assessment among policy makers regarding the appropriate policy path. Next week is probably too soon; later meetings are more likely. Given that wages already appear to be on the rise - a key sign of tightening labor markets - that change could happen quickly. This is not a call for higher rates; it is a warning that higher rates might be coming. This is especially the case if the Fed wants to avoid overshooting. I would argue that their actions to date - the signaling of a shift in policy when still missing on both parts of the dual mandate - suggest an intention to avoid overshooting similar to that of previous cycles.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

'The Federal Reserve and Wealth Inequality'

From the new blog by Atif Mian and Amir Sufi:

The Federal Reserve and Wealth Inequality: The Federal Reserve has a well-defined dual-mandate: stabilize prices and maximize employment. However, in trying to achieve these objectives, the Fed can inadvertently favor some segments of the population more than others. This was indeed the case from the perspective of households’ net worth position during the Great Recession. ...
When the economy slows down and there is a sharp decline in house prices, it is ... debtors’ net worth that is most heavily impacted, and from a recovery standpoint it is the debtors’ net worth that is in most need of repair...
The Federal Reserve may help in boosting the net worth position of households. But does it boost household net worth where it is needed the most? Unfortunately, quite the opposite is true. The Fed directly controls short term interest rates, and hence has the strongest and quickest influence on bond prices. Bond prices are inversely related to interest rates... Those holding long term bonds profited handsomely from the decline in interest rates.
Unfortunately for the macro-economy, the gains in long-term bonds were a unique benefit to creditors. Debtors with a levered claim on house prices remained stuck. This was one of the great limitations of how effective the Federal Reserve could be in the midst of the Great Recession.
Many have placed much blame on the Federal Reserve for increasing wealth inequality. That is unfair — it is not the Fed’s fault that only the very rich hold bonds and other financial assets. But it is true that a by-product of looser monetary policy is a rise in wealth inequality–the Fed was unable during the Great Recession to boost the net worth of debtors.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Fed Watch: Upward Grind in Labor Markets Continues

Tim Duy:

Upward Grind in Labor Markets Continues, by Tim Duy: The employment report for February modestly beat expectations with a nonfarm payroll gain of 175k, leaving the recent trends pretty much intact:

EMPA030714

Did the labor market shake off the impact of a cold and snowy winter? No. Aggregate hours worked turned over during the winter, sending the year-over-year gains southward as well:

EMPB030714

Looks like the weather was less about hiring, and more about people not being able to get to their jobs.
The unemployment rate edged up:

EMPD030714

I suspect we are seeing something like we saw in late 2011 when the unemployment rate fell sharply and then moved sideways for a few months. If there is less excess slack in the labor market than Fed doves believe we should soon be seeing greater upward pressures on wages. Hints of this emerge in the acceleration of wage gains for production and nonsupervisory workers:

EMPC030714

Note that this comes even as the number of long-term unemployed rose. I think there is a very real possibility - as was suspected long ago would happen - that persistently high cyclical unemployment we saw during the recession and its aftermath has evolved into structural unemployment. Former Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke in 2012:
I also discussed long-term unemployment today, arguing that cyclical rather than structural factors are likely the primary source of its substantial increase during the recession. If this assessment is correct, then accommodative policies to support the economic recovery will help address this problem as well. We must watch long-term unemployment especially carefully, however. Even if the primary cause of high long-term unemployment is insufficient aggregate demand, if progress in reducing unemployment is too slow, the long-term unemployed will see their skills and labor force attachment atrophy further, possibly converting a cyclical problem into a structural one.
More structural unemployment combined with evidence that the fall in labor force participation is increasingly attributable to retirement suggests less labor market slack. Fed officials will be watching this issue very closely. It is the most likely reason we would expect to see the expected date of the first rate hike moved forward in 2015. (For more on the structural/cyclical issue, I recommend Cardiff Garcia here).
We will see commentators ignore the production and nonsupervisory series in favor of the all employees series. The latter has yet to turn upward as aggressively as the former. The all employees series, however, has a much shorter history. Federal Reserve policymakers will be more comfortable with the longer and familiar production and nonsupervisory workers series. Moreover, I doubt they believe we should expect meaningful and persistent deviations between the two series over time. After all, if the wages of your lowest paid employees are rising, it is reasonable to believe that it is only a matter of time before that same trend hits your better paid employees.
Bottom Line: The employment report indicates ongoing slow and steady improvement in the economy sufficient to generate consistent job growth and drive the unemployment rate lower. The report has no implications for tapering because tapering is on a preset course (New York Fed President William Dudley confirmed what was long suspected yesterday). This one report by itself also says little about the first rate increase - still mid to late 2015. But watch the wage growth numbers and listen to the reaction of Fed officials. In my opinion, this is a key factor in the timing of rate policy. Traditionally, the start tightening prior or near to an acceleration in wages. The longer they stay still as unemployment falls and wage growth rises, the more nervous they will become that they are falling behind the curve. And they especially don't want to fall behind the curve given the size of their balance sheet. They talk a good game, but I think they are more worried about unwinding that balance sheet then they claim in public.

Fed Watch: Unemployment, Wages, Inflation, and Fed Policy

Tim Duy:

Unemployment, Wages, Inflation, and Fed Policy, by Tim Duy: I apologize if that was a misleading title.  This post is not a grand, unifying theory of macroeconomics.  It is instead a quick take on two posts floating around today.  The first is Paul Krugman's admonishment to the Federal Reserve against raising interest rates before wages rise:
So far, no clear sign that wage growth is accelerating. Even more important, however, wages are growing much more slowly now than they were before the crisis. There is no argument I can think of for not wanting wage growth to get at least back to pre-crisis levels before tightening. In fact, given that we’ve now seen just how dangerous the “lowflation” trap is, we should be aiming for a significantly higher underlying rate of growth in wages and prices than we previously thought appropriate.
I don't think that you should be surprised if the Federal Reserve starts raising rates well before wage growth returns to pre-crisis rates.  I think you should be very surprised if the Fed were to do as Krugman suggests.  Historically, the Fed tightens before wages growth accelerates much beyond 2%:

WAGES030614

As I have noted earlier, wage growth tends to accelerate as unemployment approaches 6 percent, and so if you wanted to be ahead of inflation, they would be thinking about the first rate hike in the 6.0-6.5% range.  That 6.5% threshold was not pulled out of thin air.  
The second point is that the tightening cycle is usually topping out when wage growth is in the 4.0-4.5% range.  One interpretation is that the Fed continues to tighten policy to prevent workers from gaining too much of an upper-hand, thereby contributing to growing wage inequality.  Of course, I doubt they see it that way.  They see it as tightening monetary conditions to hold inflation in check.  Either way, the end is the same.  It would represent a very significant departure from past policy if the Fed waited until wage growth was at pre-recession rates before they tightened policy or if they allow conditions to remains sufficiently loose for wage growth to eventually rise above pre-recession rates.
If you want the Fed to make such a departure, start laying the groundwork soon.  The best I can offer is my expectation that Fed Chair Janet Yellen is more inclined than the average policymaker to wait until wages actually rise before acting.  I have trouble believing that even she would wait until wage growth accelerates to pre-recession trends.
Second, the Washington Post's Ylan Mui has this:
But a funny thing happens once unemployment hits 6.5 percent: The behavior of inflation starts to become random, as illustrated in this chart by HSBC chief U.S. economist Kevin Logan.

  MUI030614

The black line represents the average annual unemployment rate for the past 30 years. You can see that in all but two cases (both of which were temporary shocks), inflation declined when the jobless rate was above 6.5 percent. But when unemployment rate fell below that point, inflation was almost as likely to increase as it was to decrease. In other words, what happens to inflation below the Fed’s threshold is anybody’s guess.
I would take issue with the idea that inflation behavior becomes "random" at unemployment rates below 6.5%.  You need to consider this kind of chart in the context of expected inflation and expected policy.  If inflation expectations are stable, and if the Federal Reserve provides policy to ensure that stability, you would expect random errors around expected inflation.  Couple this with downward nominal wage rigidities, and you should expect the same even under circumstances of high unemployment.  Here is my version of the same chart:

  UNINF030614

The data is monthly.  This y-axis is the change in inflation from a year ago, where inflation is measured as the year-over-year change in core-pce.  Unsurprisingly, since 2000, changes in core-inflation vary around zero.  Stable and low inflation expectations.  During periods of the 1970's and 1980's you see the impact of unstable expectations as the relationship circles all over the place.  But you also see the general pattern of disinflation since the early 1980's with the downward sloping relationship and many inflation observations, even at low unemployment rates, below zero.
Now it is fairly easy to put both of these posts together.  The Fed, wanting to ensure stable inflation expectations, begins raising interest rates well before wage rates begin rising.  This is turn controls the growth of actual inflation so that inflation rates do not rise as unemployment falls further.  The deviations of inflation from expectations are then just noise.  But actual inflation is not "random."  It is the result of specific monetary policy.
Bottom Line:  If the Fed follows historical behavior, they will beginning tightening before wages rise and in an environment of low inflation such that inflation remains stable even as unemployment falls.  In other words, in recent history that have not exhibited a tendency to overshoot.  Explicit overshooting would represent a very significant shift in the Fed's modus operandi

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Fed Watch: Tapering is Sooo 2013

Tim Duy:

Tapering is Sooo 2013, by Tim Duy: New York Federal Reserve President William Dudley had a sit down with the Wall Street Journal in which he provides some key insights into Fed thinking. First, regarding the tepid pace of data, it's the weather:
Mr. Dudley said that he still expects, "the economy should do better" relative to last year, growing at around 3% this year.
He said, however, it appears very likely that harsh weather slowed economic growth in the first quarter to under a 2% annual rate.
See also this Wall Street Journal report on weak February retail sales. As expected, the Fed will dismiss soft numbers as an artifact of the cold. (although I think the acceleration at the end of 2013 was less than meets the eye to begin with). That means the pace of tapering is not going to change at the next meeting. But guess what? Tapering is not really data dependent in any event. It is more appropriately described as "outlier dependent":
"If the economy decided it was going to grow at 5% or the economy decided it wasn't going to grow at all, those would be the kind of changes in the outlook that I think would warrant changing the pace of taper," Mr. Dudley said Thursday.
How this is really any different from a fixed time-line is beyond me. If the range of acceptable outcomes to justify tapering is anywhere between 0 and 5% growth, the FOMC statement can be reduced by simply admitting that asset purchases are on a preset course. As I have said many times, the Fed wants out of the asset purchase business. It's all about interest rates now:
Mr. Dudley affirmed that nothing's changed when it comes to the short-term interest rate outlook. He said "we have a long time to go before we have to think about raising short-term interest rates."
Sometime in 2015. The weaker the data, the deeper into 2015 is the first rate hike, all else equal.
Finally, look for changes in the next FOMC statement to reflect what has been true for some time:
The 6.5% marker "is already a little bit obsolete in the sense we are really close to it," Mr. Dudley said. The level is "not really providing a lot of value in terms of our communications."
The meeting later this month would be a "a reasonable time to revamp (the) statement to take out that 6.5% threshold," he said. The Fed has amended its guidance to say rates could stay near zero well past that point as long as inflation remains in check.
The 6.5% marker is not a "little" obsolete. It is a "lot" obsolete. It became obsolete the minute the Fed made clear it was irrelevant as they had no intention of raising rates at that point. The are not going to replace it with another numerical guide. It will be replaced with qualitative, and ultimately discretionary, guidance.
Meanwhile, Dallas Federal Reserve President Richard Fisher made clear his view that asset bubbles are brewing left and right:
...there are increasing signs quantitative easing has overstayed its welcome: Market distortions and acting on bad incentives are becoming more pervasive.
Stock market metrics such as price to projected forward earnings, price-to-sales ratios and market capitalization as a percentage of GDP are at eye-popping levels not seen since the dot-com boom of the late 1990s. In the words of James Mackintosh, writer of the Financial Timescolumn “The Short View,” a not insignificant number of stocks in the S&P 500 have valuations “that rely on belief in a financial fairy.” Margin debt is pushing up against all-time records. And, in the bond market, narrow spreads between corporate and Treasury debt reflect lower risk premia on top of already abnormally low nominal yields. We must monitor these indicators very carefully so as to ensure that the ghost of “irrational exuberance” does not haunt us again.
Interestingly, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan writes today that such bubbles are just part of the territory:
Successful financial policy, in my experience, ironically spawns the emergence of bubbles. There was never anything resembling financial euphoria, or the bubbles it creates, in the old Soviet Union, nor is there in today’s North Korea. At the Federal Reserve during my tenure, we often joked that our greatest fear was that policy might be too successful. Achieving an underlying stable rate of growth and low inflation appears to have been a necessary and sufficient condition for the emergence of a bubble. We would conclude with mock seriousness that optimum monetary policy for bubble prevention was to create destabilizing inflation.
There is much of interest in the Greenspan piece (including his claims that the 1994 tightening was an attempt to derail the bubble of the 1990s) and little time to take it up now. As if on cue, the Federal Reserve release the latest flow of funds data. Check out net worth:

Worth030614

Approaching the high seen in the last asset price bubble. Doesn't mean it can't go higher.
Tomorrow is employment report day. The general expectation is that weather played a starring role in depressing job growth while the ACA had a supporting role. Consensus is for 150k gain in payrolls with forecasts ranging from 80k to 203k. My recent track record has been a little (lot) shaky on this number of late, but maybe third time is a charm. Usual caveats apply about the insanity of forecasting a heavily revised rounding error of the massive monthly churn in the labor market. I will take the under this month and am looking for a gain of 118k:

Nfpfor030614

More interesting will be the unemployment rate (what is the impact of the end of extended benefits?) and wage growth (are we seeing any yet?).

Bottom Line: Barring the outlier outcomes of either recession or explosive growth, tapering is on autopilot. Rate guidance is now qualitative and actual policy is discretionary. Incoming data is interesting for what it says about the timing of the first rate hike. So far, though, it is not telling us much given the Fed's belief that weak data is largely weather related. The degree to which asset bubbles are a concern varies greatly accross Fed officials but the general consensus is that such concerns are of second or third order magnitude compared to missing on both sides of the dual mandate.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Fed Watch: Fed Talk Shifts to Higher Rates

Tim Duy:

Fed Talk Shifts to Higher Rates, by Tim Duy: First off, sorry for the limited blogging of recent weeks. In the weeds at the office and the time to complete my winter to-do list before spring break is growing short.
With the end of asset purchases in sight (and assuming activity does not lurch downward) Fed officials will increasingly turn the discussion toward raising interest rates. It is not as if the anticipated time line has been any secret. The Fed's forecasts clearly show an expectation of higher rates in 2015 with the exact timing and pace of that tightening dependent upon each participant's growth and inflation forecast. Fed officials would want to clearly telegraph such a move well in advance. Hence they will pivot from talk of sustained low rates to raising rates. Of course, we would expect hawks to be first in line, as they have been. For instance, Philadelphia Federal Reserve President said last week (via the Wall Street Journal):
“Most formulations of standard, simple policy rules suggest that the federal funds rate should rise very soon–if not already,” Mr. Plosser told a conference sponsored by the University of Chicago‘s Booth School of Business.
Such warnings from Plosser are not new. More notable is San Fransisco Federal Reserve President John Williams' interview with Robin Harding at the Financial Times. Williams is generally seen as a dove, but he was also was one of the first to telegraph the end of asset purchases. Williams on the forecast:
In his own economic forecast, Mr Williams said, the Fed will raise interest rates in the middle of next year with the unemployment rate at about 6 per cent, inflation at 1.5 per cent and “everything moving in the right direction”.
“At that point if we don’t start to adjust monetary policy there’d be a risk of overshooting,” he said. “You don’t wait until you’re at full employment before you start to raise interest rates from zero.”
There is a lot to think about in those two paragraphs. First is a forecast of 6% unemployment 15 months or so from now. Given the rapid drop in the unemployment rate, it is completely believable that we reach 6% before asset purchases are predicted to end later this year. Given Williams' forecast, this suggests to me that the risk here is a more rapid tapering or earlier rate hike. The second is the idea of raising rates when inflation is only 1.5%. This to me suggests that Williams is expecting to reach the 2% target from below, not above. This seems clear from the next point: Williams wants to take the possibility of overshooting off the table.
Note that Williams' position differs greatly from that of Chicago Federal Reserve President Charles Evans. From a speech last week:
A slow glide toward our goals from large imbalances risks being stymied along the way and is more likely to fail if adverse shocks hit beforehand. The surest and quickest way to get to the objective is to be willing to overshoot in a manageable fashion. With regard to our inflation objective, we need to repeatedly state clearly that our 2 percent objective is not a ceiling for inflation. Our “balanced approach” to reducing imbalances clearly indicates our symmetric attitudes toward our 2 percent inflation objective.
Evans is obviously willing to overshoot, where Williams is not. Whether the consensus sides with Williams or Evans is critical to the timing of the first rate hike. If the consensus is set on hitting the inflation target from below, then we have have to consider the Fed's own forecasts as suspect. They will find themselves moving sooner than they expect.
I would say, however, it is widely believed, on the basis of her "optimal control" analysis, that Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen leans toward Evans. Any suggestion that Yellen leans toward Williams on the overshooting question would be notable.
Regarding asset purchases, Williams joins the chorus indicating the bar to change is high:
Mr Williams said it would take a “substantial change in the outlook” before he was willing to revisit the Fed’s plan to slow purchases by $10bn at each meeting, and despite some weak data, that has not yet happened. “We haven’t really changed our basic outlook for the economy.”...
...Mr Williams said that as long as average monthly jobs growth stays well above 100,000 then unemployment will continue to come down. “What would worry you is if you don’t have an explanation for why it’s weaker and you get multiple months below that,” he said.
I don't think this should come as a surprise. The Fed has been looking to get out of the asset purchase business since the beginning of 2013. The end is now in sight, and only the most disconcerting of data will change that. They may say they are data dependent (Williams of course adds that he could envision circumstances in which the Fed slow or even reverse tapering), but the reality is they have a bias against asset purchases.
The desire to exit asset purchases only increases as the unemployment rate falls. I think that Joe Weisenthal is on the money here when he points out that economists are gravitating toward the idea the the changes in the labor market are largely structural. In other words, as St. Louis Federal Reserve puts it (via the Wall Street Journal):
“I think that unemployment is really sending the right signal about the labor market” and the decline in the labor force participation rate is largely a demographic issue that will play out over a long time horizon, he said.
I think that Fed officials have long seen the risk that this might be true, which is one factor that biases them against asset purchases. Increasing, though, I suspect they do not see is as a risk, but as reality. Again, the consequence is that rates might be rising sooner than Fed officials currently anticipate. It is worth repeating this chart:

NfpD020714

In the past, wage growth accelerates as unemployment hits 6%. With unemployment well above 6%, it was difficult to conclusively say much one way or another about the exact amount of slack in the labor market as there was certainly enough slack to keep wage growth in check. If the unemployment rate is no longer the appropriate indicator of labor market slack, then we should not expect to see upward wage pressure as 6% looms. If that pressure does emerge, then I think we learn something about the amount of slack. From the Fed's point of view, if they see wage growth, they will suspect their isn't much. Wage growth will raise concerns about unit labor costs, which will in turn raise concerns about inflation.
Weisenthal, however, adds:
The view from the left is basically: Even if the labor market is getting tight (which they deny), the Fed should press hard on the gas pedal, so that employers start to employ the long-term unemployed.
And that might be the proper path, and if there's anyone who has the stomach to engage in the strategy, it's probably Janet Yellen.
Once again, this implies that Yellen is willing to risk overshooting. Her views on overshooting are critical to the evolution of policy at this point.
Bottom Line: Put aside the possibility of an international crisis-fueled collapse in activity. The Fed's baseline view is that economic growth continues this year at a pace sufficient to end the asset purchase program. The Fed will resist changing that plan for any minor stumble in activity. The pace of job creation itself might not be that critical; it simply needs to be fast enough to lower unemployment to justify continuing the taper. Moreover, we are reaching a point where the Fed will need to decide to what extent it will risk overshooting. That was never really a risk of overshooting above 6% unemployment. Soon it will be an interesting question. The timing of the first rate hike and the subsequent tightening is dependent upon the consensus on overshooting. If wage growth starts to accelerate, the Fed's focus will shift from fears of too much to too little slack. If they are concerned about overshooting, they will need to accelerate the tightening time line. Where Yellen ultimately falls on the issue is critical.

Monday, March 03, 2014

'Fed Tapering News and Emerging Markets'

How much did Fed tapering affect emerging markets?:

Fed Tapering News and Emerging Markets, by Fernanda Nechio, FRBSF Economic Letter: In the wake of the global financial crisis and recession of 2007–09, the Federal Reserve carried out a series of large-scale purchases of government and asset-backed securities to lower longer-term interest rates and provide additional stimulus to the economy. Following then-Chairman Ben Bernanke’s May 22, 2013, congressional testimony about the possibility that the Federal Reserve would begin scaling back these purchases—a reduction widely known as tapering—some financial market participants revised their beliefs about when the central bank would begin normalizing its highly accommodative monetary policy. Market participants moved forward the dates they expected the Fed to start reducing its large-scale asset purchases as well as the dates when they expected it to start raising the federal funds rate, its short-term policy interest rate (Bauer and Rudebusch 2013).
These changes in policy expectations led to reductions in market participants’ tolerance for risk and in particular to a downward reassessment of the probable returns from investing in emerging market economies. Following the global financial crisis, advanced economies put in place exceptionally easy monetary policy. During this period, many emerging market economies had received large waves of capital inflows. By contrast, after Chairman Bernanke’s testimony, many emerging market economies in Asia and Latin America experienced sharp capital flow reversals.
However, the distribution of these capital movements was not uniform. Patterns of capital outflows appeared to be related to a country’s macroeconomic fundamentals. Those in turn reflected to some degree the policies a country pursued during the years that followed the global financial crisis. This Economic Letter assesses how recent emerging market capital movements are related to a country’s economic situation. In particular, countries with larger external and internal imbalances during the low interest rate period faced larger currency depreciations when interest rate expectations for advanced economies tightened. ...

'Trimmed Mean PCE Inflation Rate'

Following up on the post below this one, from the Dallas Fed today:

Trimmed Mean PCE Inflation Rate: The Trimmed Mean PCE inflation rate is an alternative measure of core inflation in the price index for personal consumption expenditures (PCE). It is calculated by staff at the Dallas Fed, using data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA).

January 2014

The Trimmed Mean PCE inflation rate for January was an annualized 0.6 percent. According to the BEA, the overall PCE inflation rate for January was 1.2 percent, annualized, while the inflation rate for PCE excluding food and energy was 1.1 percent.

The tables below present data on the Trimmed Mean PCE inflation rate and, for comparison, the overall PCE inflation and the inflation rate for PCE excluding food and energy. The tables give annualized one-month, six-month and 12-month inflation rates.

One-month PCE inflation, annual rate
  Aug-13 Sep-13 Oct-13 Nov-13 Dec-13 Jan-14
PCE 1.2 1.3 0.6 0.8 2.0 1.2
PCE excluding food & energy 1.3 1.1 1.4 1.4 1.0 1.1
Trimmed Mean PCE 1.3 1.8 1.6 1.4 1.2 0.6

 

Six-month PCE inflation, annual rate
  Aug-13 Sep-13 Oct-13 Nov-13 Dec-13 Jan-14
PCE 0.6 1.0 1.6 1.6 1.2 1.2
PCE excluding food & energy 1.0 1.1 1.4 1.4 1.2 1.2
Trimmed Mean PCE 1.2 1.3 1.6 1.6 1.5 1.3

 

12-month PCE inflation
  Aug-13 Sep-13 Oct-13 Nov-13 Dec-13 Jan-14
PCE 1.1 0.9 0.8 1.0 1.1 1.2
PCE excluding food & energy 1.2 1.2 1.1 1.2 1.2 1.1
Trimmed Mean PCE 1.3 1.3 1.4 1.4 1.4 1.3
NOTE: These data are subject to revision

The following chart plots the evolution of the distribution of price increases in the monthly component data over the past year. The chart shows the percentage of components each month, weighted by their shares in total spending, for which prices grew between 0 and 2 percent (at an annual rate); between 2 and 3 percent; between 3 and 5 percent; between 5 and 10 percent; and more than 10 percent.

Evolution of the distribution of component price increases

Paul Krugman: The Inflation Obsession

Why has the Fed been so concerned about inflation?

The Inflation Obsession, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Recently the Federal Reserve released transcripts of its monetary policy meetings during the fateful year of 2008. And boy, are they discouraging reading. ... The economy was plunging, yet all many people at the Fed wanted to talk about was inflation. ...
Historians of the Great Depression have long marveled at the folly of policy discussion at the time. For example, the Bank of England, faced with a devastating deflationary spiral, kept obsessing over the imagined threat of inflation. ... But it turns out that modern monetary officials facing financial crisis were just as obsessed with the wrong thing as their predecessors three generations before.
And it wasn’t just a bad call in 2008..., inflation obsession has persisted, year after year, even as events have refuted its supposed justifications. And this tells us that something more than bad analysis is at work. At a fundamental level, it’s political.
This is fairly obvious... The overall picture is that most conservatives are inflation obsessives, and nearly all inflation obsessives are conservative.
Why...? In part it reflects the belief that the government should never seek to mitigate economic pain, because the private sector always knows best. ...
The flip side of this antigovernment attitude is the conviction that any attempt to boost the economy, whether fiscal or monetary, must produce disastrous results — Zimbabwe, here we come! And this conviction is so strong that it persists no matter how wrong it has been, year after year.
Finally, all this ties in with a predilection for acting tough and inflicting punishment whatever the economic conditions. ...William Keegan once described this as “sado-monetarism,” and it’s very much alive today.
Does any of this matter? It’s true that the Fed hasn’t surrendered to the sado-monetarists. Notably, it didn’t panic in 2011, when another blip in gasoline prices briefly raised the headline rate of inflation, and Republicans began inveighing against the “debasement” of the dollar.
But I’d argue that the clamor from inflation obsessives has intimidated the Fed, which might otherwise have done more. And it has also been part of a general climate of opposition to anything that might address our continuing jobs crisis.
As I suggested, we used to marvel at the wrongheadedness of policy makers during the Great Depression. But when the Great Recession struck, and we were given a chance to do better, we ended up repeating all the same mistakes.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Fed Watch: Tarullo on Monetary Policy and Financial Stability

Tim Duy is helping to fill the void -- thanks Tim:

Tarullo on Monetary Policy and Financial Stability, by Tim Duy: Federal Reserve Governor Daniel Tarullo tackled the issue of financial stability in a speech that I think is well worth the time to read. The starting point is that many lessons have been learned over the past two cycles, including the perils of ignoring financial stability issues. But how should such concerns be incorporated into the policymaking process? Tarullo:

While few today would take the pre-crisis view common among central bankers that financial stability should not be an explicit concern of monetary policy, there is considerable disagreement over--among other things--the weight that financial stability concerns should carry compared with traditional monetary policy goals of price stability and maximum employment.

Tarullo begins with a brief overview of the financial crisis and the Fed's response, declaring partial victory:

...while the recovery has been frustratingly slow and remains incomplete, there has been real progress, despite the fact that in the past couple of years a restrictive fiscal policy has been working at cross-purposes to monetary policy, and that balance sheet repair and financial strains in Europe have made it more difficult for the economy to muster much self-sustaining momentum.

As Tarullo notes, the Fed's actions have not come without backlash. Of much focus is the size of the balance sheet, and the likelihood of unwinding the resulting liquidity should inflation rear its head. Tarullo quickly dismisses this concern as no longer of major concern given the expansion of the Fed's toolkit. He turns his attention toward bigger game:

The area of concern about recent monetary policy that I want to address at greater length relates to financial stability. The worry is that the actual extended period of low interest rates, along with expectations fostered by forward guidance of continued low rates, may be incentivizing financial market actors to take on additional risks to boost margins, thereby contributing to unsustainable increases in asset prices and a consequent buildup of systemic vulnerabilities. Indeed, in the years preceding the crisis, a few prescient observers swam against the tide of conventional wisdom to argue that a sustained period of low rates was inducing investors to "reach for yield" and thereby endangering the financial system.

Policymakers currently anticipate the Fed will hold interest rates near zero into 2015, followed by only a gradual path of tightening. The concern is that such a long period of low rates will spawn an asset bubble, or bubbles, similar to the process that many feel fueled the housing boom last decade. The eventual unwinding of any bubbles would likely be unpleasant. But, presumably, the period of low rates occurred for a reason - to support economic activity. Therein lies the conundrum for policymakers:

The very accommodative monetary policy that contributed to the restoration of financial stability could, if maintained long enough in the face of slow recovery in the real economy, eventually sow the seeds of renewed financial instability. Yet removal of accommodation could choke off the recovery just as it seems poised to gain at least a bit more momentum.

So how can the Federal Reserve protect against financial instability? Tarullo here makes a point I think the Fed will frequently reiterate:

As a preliminary matter, it is important to note that incorporating financial stability considerations into monetary policy decisions need not imply the creation of an additional mandate for monetary policy. The potentially huge effect on price stability and employment associated with bouts of serious financial instability gives ample justification.

By addressing financial instability risks, they are attempting to minimize deviations in inflation and unemployment. In effect, they might slow the pace of activity on the upside in return for minimizing the downside. This, however, is easier said then done, as it is difficult to sell delaying progress on the real problems of low inflation and high unemployment to fight against a phantom downturn:

Of course, this preliminary observation underscores the fact that the identification of systemic risks, especially those based on the putative emergence of asset bubbles, is not a straightforward exercise. The eventual impact of the bursting of the pre-crisis housing bubble on financial stability went famously underdiagnosed by policymakers and many private analysts. But there would be considerable economic downside in reacting with policy measures each time a case could be made that a bubble was developing.

The Fed is actively paying attention to markets in the search for stability risks. Tarullo reports the outcome of the Fed's new macroprudential efforts:

At present, our monitoring does find some evidence of increased duration and credit risk, but the increases appear relatively moderate to date--particularly at the largest banks and life insurers. Moreover, valuations for broad categories of assets such as real estate and corporate equities remain within historical norms, suggesting that valuation pressures, if present, are confined to narrower segments of assets. For example, valuations do appear stretched for farmland, although recent data are suggesting some slowing, and for the equity prices of some small technology firms.

No broad-based concerns such as the equity surge of the 1990s or the housing boom of the 2000s. Just pockets of issues here and there. That said, all is not perfect:

Still, there are areas where investors appear to have been very sanguine regarding certain types of exposure and modest in their demands for compensation to assume such risk. High-yield corporate bond and leveraged loan funds, for instance, have seen strong inflows, reflecting greater investor appetite for risky corporate credits, while underwriting standards have deteriorated, raising the possibility of large losses going forward.

Weak underwriting for risky, leveraged assets that investors seem eager to acquire for unusually little reward. This is the kind of situation, especially with leveraged assets, that will repeatedly gain the Fed's attention going forward. What action has the Fed taken? Tarullo:

In these circumstances, it has to date seemed appropriate to rely on supervisory responses. For example, in the face of substantial growth in the volume of leveraged lending and the deterioration in underwriting standards, the Federal Reserve, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation issued updated guidance on leverage lending in March 2013. This guidance outlined principles related to safe and sound leveraged lending activities, including the expectation that banks and thrifts originate leveraged loans using prudent underwriting standards regardless of their intent to hold or distribute them.

In addition, the Federal Reserve, alongside other regulators, has been working with the firms we supervise to increase their resilience to possible interest rate shocks...Our analysis to this point (undertaken outside of our annual stress test program) suggests that banking firms are capitalized to withstand the losses in asset valuations that would arise from large spikes in rates, which, moreover, would see an offset from the increase in the value of bank deposit franchises. This finding is consistent with the lack of widespread stress during the period of May through June 2013 when interest rates increased considerably. The next set of stress-test results, which we will release next month, will provide further insight on this point, both to regulators and to markets.

Some enhanced guidance and additional stress tests. I think it would be reasonable to describe this response as underwhelming. Would "additional guidance" have deterred lending activity during the housing bubble? I somehow doubt it. Indeed, Tarullo has his doubts:

While ad hoc supervisory action aimed at specific lending or risks is surely a useful tool, it has its limitations. First, it is a bit too soon to judge precisely how effective these supervisory actions--such as last year's leveraged lending guidance--have been. Second, even if they prove effective in containing discrete excesses, it is not clear that the somewhat deliberate supervisory process would be adequate to deal with a more pervasive reach for yield affecting many areas of credit extension. Third, and perhaps most important, the extent to which supervisory practice can either lean against the wind or increase the overall resiliency of the financial system is limited by the fact that it applies only to prudentially regulated firms. This circumstance creates an incentive for intermediation activities to migrate outside of the regulated sector.

The last point is critical. Increased regulatory activity might just push more activity into the shadow banking realm. There the threat of financial instability might increase exponentially, but without a regulator as a backstop. I think this issue will tend to restrain the Fed's interest in heavy-handed regulatory activity.

Tarullo follows with a discussing of time-varying policies, citing the example of increased loan-to-value requirements for mortgages as lending accelerates. This is an area to watch, as Tarullo sees value in this approach:

...I would devote particular attention to policies that can act as the rough equivalent of an increase in interest rates for particular sources of funding. Such policies would be more responsive to problems that were building quickly because of certain kinds of credit, without regard to whether they were being deployed in one or many sectors of the economy...

Such policies could slow the progress of an asset bubble and, as Tarullo points out, provide additional time for policymakers to determine if the situation requires a change in overall monetary policy. Ultimately, however, Tarullo is a realist. He doesn't intent to put all his eggs in the macroprudential basket:

The foregoing discussion has considered the ways in which existing supervisory authority and new forms of macroprudential authority may allow monetary policymakers to avoid, or at least defer, raising interest rates to contain growing systemic risks under circumstances in which policy is falling well short of achieving one or both elements of the dual mandate. However, as has doubtless been apparent, I believe these alternative policy instruments have real limitations.

As he later says, this means that the Fed should not take the direct monetary policy action "off the table" when it comes to addressing financial instability. What does that mean for policy in the near term? Tarullo:

As I noted earlier, I do not think that at present we are confronted with a situation that would warrant a change in the monetary policy we have been pursuing...

Not terribly surprising. After all, given that policymakers expect a long period of low rates, they obviously are not expecting sufficient financial instability to justify changing that outcome. But expect more talk about the topic:

...But for that very reason, now is a good time to consider these issues more actively. One useful step would be development of a framework that would allow us to make a more analytic, less instinctual judgment on the potential tradeoffs between enhanced financial stability and reduced economic activity. This will be an intellectually challenging exercise, but in itself does not entail any changes in policy.

Bottom Line: The Fed continues to explore the role of monetary policy in addressing asset bubbles. But engaging such concerns head on with tighter policy remains a secondary option. The first option is a variety of macroprudential tools. Moreover, policymakers believe they have the time to explore such tools, much as they have had time to consider managing their expanded balance sheet. They will also remain cautious to act out fear of increasing the risk of instability by driving activity out from under their purview. At this point, my gut reaction is that by the time the Fed feels they are left with no other option but to tighten policy to limit financial instability risks, the damage will already have been done.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Legal Scholarship and Monetary Policy

This will be good for my monetary theory and policy class:

...should scholars refrain from writing about legal issues in macroeconomics, specifically monetary policy?

One thinks of monetary policy decisions—whether or not to raise interest rates, purchase billions of dollars of securities on the secondary market ("quantitative easing"), devalue or change a currency—as fundamentally driven by political and economic factors, not law. And of course they are. But the law has a lot to say about them and their consequences, and legal scholarship has been pretty quiet on this.

Some concrete examples of the types of questions I’m talking about would be:

  • Pursuant to its dual mandate (to maintain price stability and full employment), what kinds of measures can the Federal Reserve legally undertake for the purpose of promoting full employment?  More generally, what are the Fed’s legal constraints?
  • What recognition should American courts extend to an attempt by a departing Eurozone member state to redenominate its sovereign debt into a new currency?

When it comes to issues like these, it is probably even more true than usual that law defines the boundaries of policy. Legal constraints in the context of U.S. monetary policy appear fairly robust even in times of crisis. For example, policymakers themselves often cite law as a major constraint when speaking of the tools available to the Federal Reserve in combating unemployment and deflation post-2008. Leading economics commentators do too. Yet commentary on “Fed law” is grossly underdeveloped..., legal academics have largely left commentary on the Fed and macroeconomics to the econ crowd....

[There's quite a bit more in the full post.]

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Permanent Scars of Economic Pessimism'

As a follow-up to the post below this one, Antonio Fatas:

The permanent scars of economic pessimism: Gavyn Davies at the Financial Times reflects on the growing pessimism of Central Banks regarding the growth potential of advanced economies. In the US, the Euro area or the UK, central banks are reducing their estimates of the output gap. They now think about some of the recent output losses as permanent as opposed to cyclical.
It output is not far from what we consider to be potential, there is less need for central banks to act and it is more likely that we will see an earlier normalization of monetary policy towards a neutral stance...
But it is important to understand that the permanent effects are the consequence of the recession itself. If we could manage to reduce the length and depth of the recessions we would be minimizing those permanent effects. And in that sense, accepting these changes as structural and unavoidable is too pessimistic, leads to inaction and just makes matters worse. If you read the evidence properly, you want to do the opposite, you want to be even more aggressive to avoid what it looks at a much bigger cost of recessions.

'A Second Look at the Employment-to-Population Ratio'

Some of the Federal Reserve regional banks appear to be moving toward the conclusion that we are closer to full employment than we thought (and hence the need for stimulus, while not yet eliminated, is diminished).

My view is that the Fed has been overly optimistic throughout this long ordeal called the Great Recession, and, therefore, given that inflation is not a problem, if the Fed is going to make a mistake, it ought to be on the side of doing too much for too long rather than ending stimulus too soon:

A Second Look at the Employment-to-Population Ratio, by Pat Higgins, Macroblog, FRB Atlanta: This analysis is a companion piece to my Atlanta Fed colleague John Robertson's recent macroblog post. John's blog highlighted some findings of a recent New York Fed study by Samuel Kapon and Joseph Tracy on the employment-to-population (E/P) ratio. Their work has received considerable attention in the media and blogosphere (for example, here, here, and here). Kapon and Tracy's final chart (reproduced below) has received particular scrutiny.
The blue line represents the authors' estimate of the demographically adjusted E/P ratio purged of business-cycle effects. This line can be thought of as "trend." The chart shows that as of November 2013, the E/P ratio was only –0.7 percentage point below trend. Was the "gap" between actual and trend E/P really this small?
Attempting to answer this question requires digging into the details of Kapon and Tracy's method for estimating trend. One key excerpt is the following:
To overlay our demographically adjusted E/P ratio with the actual E/P ratio, we need to adopt a normalization… [W]e adopt the normalization that over the thirty-one years in our data sample [1982–2013] any business-cycle deviations between the actual and the adjusted E/P ratios will average to zero.
This methodology seems reasonable since one might typically expect business cycle effects to average out over 30 years. However, the 1982–2013 sample period is somewhat unusual in that the unemployment rate was elevated at both the starting and ending points.
The chart below shows estimates of three labor market gaps derived from the Congressional Budget Office's (CBO) estimates—released on February 4, 2014—of the potential labor force and the long-term natural rate of unemployment. (This rate is often referred to as the nonaccelerating inflation rate of unemployment, or NAIRU, and refers to the level of unemployment below which inflation rises.)
On average, the trend E/P ratio is below the actual rate by 0.86 percentage point. If one were to normalize the Kapon and Tracy E/P trend so that its average value was equal to CBO's trend, then the November 2013 E/P gap is about 1.5 percentage points. Whether or not the CBO estimate is the right benchmark is a matter of taste. CBO's recent estimate of NAIRU in the fourth quarter of 2013—5.5 percent—is lower than the 6 percent median estimate from the Survey of Professional Forecasters in the third quarter of 2013.
A second, more subtle issue in the Kapon and Tracy analysis is their treatment of cohorts:
We divide these individuals into 280 different cohorts defined by each individual's decade of birth, sex, race/ethnicity, and educational attainment. We assume that individuals within a specific cohort have similar career employment rate profiles. We use the 10.2 million observations [of CPS microdata] to estimate these 280 career employment rate profiles.
A well-known 2006 Brookings paper by Stephanie Aaronson and other Fed economists modeled trend labor force participation rate(LFPR) using birth-year cohorts. With estimates of trend LFPR and NAIRU, we can back out a trend E/P ratio. The chart below, adapted from Aaronson et al., plots age-group LFPRs against birth year.
We see that successive birth-year cohorts born between 1925 and 1950 had steadily increasing labor force attachment. Attachment for more recently born cohorts has leveled off and even declined slightly. People born in the 1990s have very low labor force attachment by historical standards. The inclusion of the "1990s—decade of birth" dummy variable in the Kapon and Tracy research probably implies that their model is interpreting much of this decline as structural. However, an alternative interpretation is that the decline is cyclical, because persons born after 1990 have been in an environment of high unemployment for most of their short working lives.
To gauge the sensitivity of trend or structural LFPR to how the youngest cohorts are treated, I used a stripped-down version of a model similar to Aaronson et al. Monthly LFPRs are modeled as a function of age, sex, birth date, and the CBO's estimate of the output gap during the January 1981 to January 2014 period. Time series published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for 30 different age-sex cells are used so that the regression has 11,550 observations. Structural LFPR is constructed with the fitted values of the regression with a value of 0 percent for the output gap at all points in time. The trend E/P ratio is then backed out with the CBO's estimate of NAIRU.
The model is run with two different assumptions: First, following the approach of Aaronson et al., people born after 1986 have the same birth-year cohort effects as those born in December 1986. Second, no constraints are placed on birth-year cohort effects. Trend values of LFPR and E/P (taking on board the CBO's NAIRU) are plotted in the two charts below:

 

The January 2014 E/P gap with unconstrained cohort effects, as in Kapon and Tracy, is –1.0 percent, well below the –1.7 percent gap in the model with constrained cohort effects. Ultimately, both models are still very consistent with Kapon and Tracy's bottom line:
It is important to control for changing demographic factors when looking at the behavior of the E/P ratio over time. This step is particularly important today when these demographic factors are exerting downward pressure on the actual E/P rate, suggesting that the recent lack of improvement in the E/P ratio does not imply a lack of progress in the labor market. The adjusted E/P rate corroborates the basic picture from the unemployment rate that the labor market has been recovering over the past few years, but that it still has a ways to go to reach a full recovery.

Friday, February 14, 2014

'How Persistent are Monetary Policy Effects at the Zero Lower Bound?'

Another paper I need to read:

How Persistent are Monetary Policy Effects at the Zero Lower Bound?, by Christopher J. Neely, FRB St. Louis: Abstract Event studies show that Fed unconventional announcements of forward guidance and large scale asset purchases had large and desired effects on asset prices but do not tell us how long such effects last. Wright (2012) used a structural vector autoregression (SVAR) to argue that unconventional policies have very transient effects on asset prices, with half-lives of 3 months. This would suggest that unconventional policies can have only marginal effects on macroeconomic variables. The present paper shows, however, that the SVAR is unstable, forecasts very poorly and therefore delivers spurious inference about the duration of the unconventional monetary shocks. In addition, implied in-sample return predictability from the SVAR greatly exceeds that which is consistent with rational asset pricing and reasonable risk aversion. Restricted models that respect plausible predictability in asset returns are more stable and imply that the unconventional monetary policy shocks were fairly persistent but that our uncertainty about their effects increases with forecast horizon. Estimates of the dynamic effects of shocks should respect the limited predictability in asset prices.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Fed Watch: Yellen's Debut as Chair

Tim Duy:

Yellen's Debut as Chair, by Tim Duy: Janet Yellen made her first public comments as Federal Reserve Chair in a grueling, nearly day-long, testimony to the House Financial Services Committee. Her testimony made clear that we should expect a high degree of policy continuity. Indeed, she said so explicitly. The taper is still on, but so too is the expectation of near-zero interest rates into 2015. Data will need to get a lot more interesting in one direction or the other for the Fed to alter from its current path.
In here testimony, Yellen highlighted recent improvement in the economy, but then turned her attention to ongoing underemployment indicators:
Nevertheless, the recovery in the labor market is far from complete. The unemployment rate is still well above levels that Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) participants estimate is consistent with maximum sustainable employment. Those out of a job for more than six months continue to make up an unusually large fraction of the unemployed, and the number of people who are working part time but would prefer a full-time job remains very high. These observations underscore the importance of considering more than the unemployment rate when evaluating the condition of the U.S. labor market.
A visual reminder of the issue:

NfpC020714

This is a straightforward reminder of the Fed's view that the unemployment rate overstates improvement in labor markets and thus should be discounted when setting policy. Consequently, policymakers believe they have room to hold interest rates at rock bottom levels for an extended period. To be sure, there are challenges to this view, both internally and externally. For instance, Philadelphia Federal Reserve President Charles Plosser today reiterated his view that asset purchases should end soon and also fretted that the Fed will be behind the curve with respect to interest rates. Via Bloomberg:
“I’m worried that we’re going to be too late” to raise rates, Plosser told reporters after a speech at the University of Delaware in Newark. “I don’t want to chase the market, but we may have to end up having to do that” if investors act on anticipation of higher rates.
That remains a minority view at the Fed. Matthew Boesler at Business Insider points us at UBS economists Drew Matus and Kevin Cummins, who challenge Yellen's belief that the long-term unemployed will keep a lid on inflation:
We do not view the long-term unemployed as necessarily "ready for work" and therefore believe that their ability to restrain wage pressures is limited. In other words, the unusually high number of long-term unemployed suggests that the natural rate of unemployment has increased. Indeed, when we have tested various unemployment rates' ability to predict inflation we found that the standard unemployment rate outperforms all other broader measures reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Although we disagree with Yellen regarding the long-term unemployed, our research does suggest that, perhaps unsurprisingly, the number of part-timers does have an impact on restraining inflation.
I tend to think that we will not see clarity on this issue until unemployment approaches even nearer to 6%. That level has traditionally been associated with rising wages pressures in the past: 

NfpD020714The Fed would likely see a faster pace of wage gains as lending credence to the story that the drop in labor force participation is mostly a structural story. At that point the Fed may begin rethinking the expected path of interest rates, depending on their interest in overshooting. But in the absence of such early signs of inflationary pressures, the Fed will be content to raise rates only gradually.

With regards to monetary policy, Yellen reminds everyone that she helped design the current policy:
Turning to monetary policy, let me emphasize that I expect a great deal of continuity in the FOMC's approach to monetary policy. I served on the Committee as we formulated our current policy strategy and I strongly support that strategy, which is designed to fulfill the Federal Reserve's statutory mandate of maximum employment and price stability.
Yellen makes clear that the current pace of tapering is likely to continue:
If incoming information broadly supports the Committee's expectation of ongoing improvement in labor market conditions and inflation moving back toward its longer-run objective, the Committee will likely reduce the pace of asset purchases in further measured steps at future meetings.
Later, during the question and answer period, Yellen does however, open the door for a pause in the taper. Via Pedro DaCosta and Victoria McGrane at the Wall Street Journal:
“I think what would cause the committee to consider a pause is a notable change in the outlook,” Ms. Yellen told lawmakers...
...“I was surprised that the jobs reports in December and January, the pace of job creation, was running under what I had anticipated. But we have to be very careful not to jump to conclusions in interpreting what those reports mean,” Ms. Yellen said. Recent bad weather may have been a drag on economic activity, she added, saying it would take some time to get a true sense of the underlying trend.
The January employment report was something of a mixed bag, with the unemployment rate edging down further to 6.6% while nonfarm payrolls disappointed again (!!!!) with a meager gain of 113k. That said, I still do not believe this should dramatically alter your perception of the underlying pace of activity. Variance in nonfarm payrolls is the norm, not the exception:

Nfp020714

Her disappointment in the numbers raises the possibility - albeit not my central case - that another weak number in the February report could prompt a pause. My baseline case, however, is that even if it was weak, it would not effect the March outcome but instead, if repeated again, the outcome of the subsequent meeting. Remember, the Fed wants to end asset purchases. As long as they believe forward guidance is working, they will hesitate to pause the taper.
Yellen was not deterred by the recent turmoil in emerging markets:
We have been watching closely the recent volatility in global financial markets. Our sense is that at this stage these developments do not pose a substantial risk to the U.S. economic outlook. We will, of course, continue to monitor the situation.
Yellen reiterates the current Evans rule framework for forward guidance, giving no indication that the thresholds are likely to be changed. Jon Hilsenrath at the Wall Street Journal interprets this to mean that when the 6.5% unemployment rate threshold is breached, the Fed will simply switch to qualitative forward guidance. I tend to agree.
Bottom Line: Circumstances have not change sufficiently to prompt the Federal Reserve deviate from the current path of policy.

Monday, February 10, 2014

When Will the Fed End Its Zero Rate Policy?

In case you were wondering:

When Will the Fed End Its Zero Rate Policy?, by Jens Christensen, FRBSF Economic Letter: The severe shock of the 2007–08 financial crisis prompted the Federal Reserve to quickly lower its target for its primary policy rate, the overnight federal funds rate, near to zero, where it has remained since. Despite this highly stimulatory stance of conventional monetary policy, the economic recovery has been sluggish and inflation has been low. For that reason, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), the Fed’s policy body, has provided additional monetary stimulus by using unconventional measures to push down longer-term interest rates. One element of this unconventional policy has been large-scale asset purchases (LSAPs). Another has been public guidance about how long the FOMC expects to keep its federal funds rate target exceptionally low. The effect of this forward guidance depends on how financial market participants interpret FOMC communications, in particular when they expect the Fed to exit from its near-zero rate policy, a shift often called “liftoff” (see Bauer and Rudebusch 2013).
This Economic Letter examines recent research estimating when bond investors expect liftoff to take place (see Christensen 2013). This research suggests that bond investor expectations for the date of exit have moved forward notably in recent months, probably because they anticipated the FOMC’s decision at its December 2013 meeting to cut back large-scale asset purchases. This research suggests that market participants expect the FOMC to start raising rates in the spring of 2015, but the exact timing is highly uncertain.
Unconventional monetary policy 
Unconventional monetary policy designed to put downward pressure on longer-term interest rates has two aspects: large-scale asset purchases and forward guidance, that is, Fed communications about its expectations for future policy. LSAPs affect longer-term interest rates by shifting the term premium, the higher yield investors demand in exchange for holding a longer-duration debt security (see Gagnon et al. 2011). LSAPs were first announced in late 2008. The most recent program, initiated in September 2012, originally involved purchasing $40 billion in mortgage-backed securities (MBS) every month. It expanded in December 2012 to include $45 billion in monthly Treasury security purchases. The FOMC stated that it intended to continue the program until the outlook for the labor market improved substantially, provided inflation remained stable. Since then, the labor market has improved and the unemployment rate has dropped. As a result, the FOMC decided at its December 2013 meeting to reduce the pace at which it adds to its asset holdings to $75 billion per month.
Forward guidance affects longer-term rates by influencing market expectations about the level of short-term interest rates over an extended period. In August 2011, the FOMC stated that it intended to keep its federal funds rate target near zero until mid-2013, the first time it projected a liftoff date. More recently, Fed policymakers have indicated that they anticipate keeping the federal funds rate at that exceptionally low level at least as long as the unemployment rate remains above 6½%, inflation one to two years ahead is projected to be no more than one-half percentage point above the FOMC’s 2% longer-run target, and longer-term inflation expectations remain in check. In December 2013, the FOMC added that, based on current projections, it expects to maintain the zero interest rate policy well past when the unemployment rate falls below 6½%.

Figure 1
FOMC member projections of appropriate policy rate

FOMC member projections of appropriate policy rate
FOMC projections versus Treasury market data
Forward guidance also includes a set of projections on future federal funds rate levels that each FOMC participant makes four times per year, released in conjunction with the FOMC statement. Based on their views of appropriate monetary policy, these policymakers also forecast overall inflation; core inflation, which excludes volatile food and energy prices; the unemployment rate; and output growth. Figure 1 shows FOMC median, 25th percentile, and 75th percentile federal funds rate projections made in September and December. Only minor changes occurred from September to December.

Figure 2
Treasury yield curves on three dates in 2013

Treasury yield curves on three dates in 2013
The relatively stable FOMC projections stand in contrast to changes in the U.S. Treasury bond market over the same period. Figure 2 shows the Treasury yield curve, that is, yields on the full range of Treasury maturities, on the days of the September and December 2013 FOMC meetings as well as the December 27 reading. (The research is based on weekly Treasury yields recorded on Fridays. December 27 was the last Friday in 2013.) Medium- and longer-term Treasury yields increased notably during that period.
Other analysis suggests that much of this increase in longer-term Treasuries reflected an increase in the term premium. But did the rise in longer-term rates also involve a shift in the market’s views about expected short-term rates that seems out-of-step with FOMC guidance? To address this question, I use an innovative model of the Treasury yield curve developed in Christensen (2013) that delivers a distribution of estimates derived from Treasury security prices for the exit from the zero interest rate policy.
A model of the Treasury yield curve
In this model, it is assumed that the economy can be in one of two states: a normal state like that which prevailed before December 2008, and a state like the current one in which the monetary policy rate is stuck at its lower bound near zero. In the normal state, yield curve variation is captured by three factors that are not directly observable, but can be derived from the underlying data: the general level of rates; the slope of the yield curve; and the curvature, or shape, of the yield curve. Furthermore, it is assumed that, in the normal state, investors consider the possibility of the policy rate reaching zero to be negligible. This assumption implies that the transition to the zero-bound state that occurred in December 2008 was a surprise and did not affect bond prices before that, when the economy was in the normal state.
The zero-bound state is characterized by two key features. First, the shortest rate in the Treasury bond market is assumed to be constant at zero. Second, the state is viewed by bond investors and monetary policy makers as undesirable and temporary. They believe that the FOMC would like to return to normal as quickly as possible, consistent with the Fed’s price stability and maximum employment mandates. This implies that news about the U.S. economy prompts bond investors to revise their views about when the FOMC is likely to exit from its zero interest rate policy. In the model, that exit defines the transition from the zero-bound state to the normal state of the economy. One component of the variation of Treasury bond yields in the zero-bound state is how probable bond investors believe a return to the normal state to be. However, because bond investors are forward looking and consider the possibility of such a shift when they trade, the three factors that affect the yield curve in the normal state continue to affect it in the zero-bound state.

Figure 3
Intensity of exit time from the zero interest rate policy

Intensity of exit time from the zero interest rate policy
Results
To derive estimates of the date of the FOMC’s first federal funds rate increase, I use weekly Treasury yields starting in January 1985 of eight maturities ranging from three months to ten years. The novel feature of the model I use is consideration of the implicit probability bond investors attach to a transition back to the normal state. This allows the entire distribution of probable dates of exit from the zero-bound state to be examined. Figure 3 shows the likelihood of leaving the zero-bound state at any point in time as of December 27, 2013. The exit date distribution is heavily skewed so that very late exit times are significantly probable. Still, the median exit date is in March 2015. In other words, the economy is just as likely to remain in the zero-bound state at that date as to have exited before it. One takeaway is the considerable level of uncertainty about the exit date. The model suggests that there is about a one-in-three chance of remaining in the zero-bound state past 2015.

Figure 4
Median exit time from the zero interest rate policy

Median exit time from the zero interest rate policy
Figure 4 shows the variation in the estimated median exit time since December 16, 2008, when the economy shifted to the zero-bound state. Included are five dates from 2009 to 2012 of major FOMC announcements regarding LSAPs or guidance about future monetary policy. The estimated median exit time from the zero-bound state moved notably later in the weeks after each announcement, except when the FOMC extended its forward guidance in January 2012. This suggests that unconventional policies derive part of their effect by sending signals that bond market participants interpret to mean that the federal funds rate will remain at its zero bound longer than previously expected (see Christensen and Rudebusch 2012).
Consistent with these observations, Figure 4 also shows that the estimated median exit date from the near-zero federal funds rate moved forward significantly between the September and December 2013 FOMC meetings as market participants began anticipating the Fed’s decision to scale back LSAPs. According to the model, in anticipating the decision to trim LSAPs, the market also thought the first federal funds rate hike might come sooner than previously anticipated. This latter change in expectations held even though the FOMC’s projections of the appropriate future fed funds rate hardly changed from September to December. As of December 27, 2013, the median exit time for the market was estimated at one year and three months, which implies that the odds of keeping the near-zero interest rate policy past March 2015 are identical to the odds of exiting before that date.
Conclusion
A novel model of the Treasury yield curve allows an assessment of investor expectations of the exit date from the Fed’s near-zero interest rate policy. The results suggest that, as of the end of 2013, the expected exit date has moved forward notably since September 2013 despite only minor changes between September and December in FOMC participants’ projections of appropriate future monetary policy. However, the estimated distribution of the probable exit date is skewed so that the likelihood of an earlier or later exit is sizable. This finding is consistent with the inherent uncertainty about the outlook for inflation and unemployment, the economic variables that guide FOMC rate decisions.
References
Bauer, Michael, and Glenn Rudebusch. 2013. “Expectations for Monetary Policy Liftoff.” FRBSF Economic Letter 2013-34 (November 18).
Christensen, Jens H. E. 2013. “A Regime-Switching Model of the Yield Curve at the Zero Bound.” FRB San Francisco Working Paper 2013-34.
Christensen, Jens H. E., and Glenn D. Rudebusch. 2012. “The Response of Interest Rates to U.S. and U.K. Quantitative Easing.” Economic Journal 122, pp. F385–F414.
Gagnon, Joseph, Matthew Raskin, Julie Remache, and Brian Sack. 2011. “The Financial Market Effects of the Federal Reserve’s Large-Scale Asset Purchases.” International Journal of Central Banking 7(1), pp. 3–43.
[Opinions expressed in FRBSF Economic Letter do not necessarily reflect the views of the management of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco or of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.]

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Fed Watch: Another Month, Another Employment Report

Tim Duy:

Another Month, Another Employment Report, by Tim Duy: Tomorrow brings the January 2014 employment report. The usual caveats apply:

  • The monthly change in payrolls is a net number and represents only a fraction of the churn in the labor market.
  • The employment data is heavily revised. The preliminary number can greatly understate or overstate actual labor market behavior.
  • Nasty weather might also have impacted the numbers. Robin Harding at the Financial Times identifies other factors - expiration of unemployment benefits and annual revisions - that can also scramble the final numbers in the report.
  • Forecasting the change in payrolls is thus something of a fool's game. A game we all play nonetheless.

With all that said, I will venture a guess of a 200k gain in nonfarm payrolls for January:

Nfpfor

This is a bit over consensus of 181k, but pretty much right in the middle of the range of estimates (125k-270k). Full disclosure: Last month my forecast was wildly optimistic. Still, I think that report was an outlier. Overall I don't see that the pace of improvement in the labor market has changed dramatically one way or another in the last few months. The economy have been generating 180-200k jobs a month for two years despite the ups and downs in the data. I suspect underlying activity continues to support a similar trend. Any improvements that were evident prior to the December report were likely modest. Indeed, I am skeptical that the pace of activity overall has dramatically improved either.
As far as monetary policy, it is likely that only a very, very weak report would deter Fed officials from the current tapering agenda. Even that is in question given that we will see another employment report - not to mention a plethora of other data - before the mid-March FOMC meeting. It seems that hawks and doves alike want to wind down the asset purchase program, with the only difference being the pace of tapering. Atlanta Federve Reserve President Dennis Lockhart sums up what I believe is the consensus view:
Absent a marked adverse change in the outlook for the economy, I think it is reasonable to expect a progression of similar moves, with the asset purchase program completely wound down by the fourth quarter of the year...
...But given my current views on the economy, I like the current positioning of policy.
It's in the right place for now, in my opinion. I think we policymakers should be patient—not too quick to respond to zigs and zags in the data.
Hawks, of course, would like a more rapid pace of tapering. Philadelphia Federal Reserve President Charles Plosser basically said "enough is enough" yesterday:
Notice that even though we are reducing the pace at which we are purchasing longer-term assets, we are still adding monetary policy accommodation. As I noted earlier, I believe the economy has already met the criteria of substantial improvement in labor market conditions, and the economic outlook has improved as well. So my preference would be that we conclude the purchases sooner rather than later...
...If the unemployment rate continues to drop at that pace, we will soon be at the 6.5 percent threshold in our forward guidance for interest rates.
Although the FOMC has indicated that it doesn't anticipate raising rates when the economy crosses that threshold, I do believe that we will have complicated our communications if we are still purchasing assets at that point. What is the argument for continuing to increase monetary policy accommodation when labor market conditions are improving rapidly, inflation has stabilized, and the outlook is for it to move back to goal?
Plosser would like to end asset purchases prior to hitting the unemployment threshold. Problem is, that threshold could easily be hit tomorrow if not at the next meeting. So, I guess all I can say to Plosser is "good luck with that."
Bottom Line: Even a weak employment report may not be immediately pivotal for monetary policy; there is still another report to go before the next FOMC meeting. A solid report, however, will further entrench the Fed's commitment to the current policy path.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

How Much Influence Does the Fed Chair Have Over Monetary Policy?

At MoneyWatch:

How much does the Fed chair influence monetary policy?, by Mark Thoma: With Janet Yellen taking over as head of the Federal Reserve earlier this week, a natural question to ask is how much power the Fed chair has over monetary policy decisions. ...

Fed Watch: No End To Tapering Yet

Tim Duy:

No End To Tapering Yet, by Tim Duy: Yesterday I said:
Altogether, the desire to end asset purchases suggests to me that what we have seen so far is insufficient to prompt the Fed to change their plans. That is especially the case if the data does not soften further - if, for example, the next employment report shows a rebound in payroll growth and a further decline in the unemployment rate.
Today we learn via Bloomberg:
“The hurdle ought to remain pretty high for pausing in tapering,” Richmond Fed President Jeffrey Lacker said after a speech today in Winchester, Virginia. Chicago’s Charles Evans said in Detroit that policy makers probably face “a high hurdle to deviate” from $10 billion cuts in monthly bond buying at each of their next several meetings. Evans and Lacker don’t vote on policy this year.
One hawk, one dove, both concluding that the bar to stopping the taper is quite high. Things need to get worse. This just won't cut it:

SP020414

Also take note of Jon Hilsenrath's view via the Wall Street Journal:
Last summer, as U.S. stock prices and emerging markets wobbled, the Federal Reserve was at the center of the turmoil. This time, the Fed might be just a bystander in the stock market selloff and not the proximate cause...
...The market, in short, is now pricing in a much easier Fed, not a tighter Fed. Movements in 10-year Treasury notes are telling the same story. Last summer, 10-year yields were rising because investors saw a tighter Fed. Now they’re falling. Investors seem to be reading a string of soft economic data – weaker car sales, a manufacturing slowdown, disappointing job growth – and concluding the economic coast is not as clear as it appeared just a few weeks ago.
I would suggest that the decline in rates indicates the Fed is too tight, not too easy. Indeed, we would hope that they would only be tapering in the context of a rising interest rate environment as it would suggest that market participants were anticipating higher growth and inflation. But the Fed doesn't see it that way. They see lower rates as a signal that policy is easier. And hence are not inclined to react to ease policy further by stopping the taper.
Moreover, I don't think the Fed believes that the end of asset purchases is impacting global markets because they are convinced that tapering is not tightening. If it is tightening, then why should global markets react? And even if it was tightening, the Fed wouldn't see it as their problem in the first place. (To be sure, you may or may not agree, and I suggest you read Izabella Kaminska, Frances Coppola, and Felix Salmon for further insight into the topic.)
Bottom Line: The Fed isn't ready to change course. Recent turbulence is enough to peak their curiosity, not enough to suggest that tapering was premature.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Fed Watch: Markets Tumble. How Will the Fed React?

Tim Duy:

Markets Tumble. How Will the Fed React?, by Tim Duy: The financial markets are not being kind to freshly minted Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen. The level of scrutiny she will face when she makes what is likely to be her first public appearance as Chair next week was already high, and is rising by the minute. Global markets are faltering, and US equity markets tumbled Monday, with the weak ISM numbers reported to be the proximate cause of the sell-off:

ISMa020314

The decline was driven by what can only be described as a jaw-dropping decline in the new order component:

ISMb020314

Weather is suspected in the decline, and the ISM report offered some anecdotal support in that direction:

  • "Poor weather impacted outbound and inbound shipments." (Fabricated Metal Products)
  • "Good finish to 2013, but slow start to 2014, mostly attributed to weather." (Petroleum & Coal Products)
  • "We have experienced many late deliveries during the past week due to the weather shutting down truck lines." (Plastics & Rubber Products)

That said, this is arguably more than about just weather, and at least partially should trigger a fresh assessment on the strength of the US economy. To be sure, 2013 finished off with strong GDP numbers, strong enough to give the Fed hope that their 2014 forecast will be realized:

GDP020314

I suspect, however, that it is a bit too early to break out the bubbly. Recent gains have been driven by inventory build-up. Underlying growth still seems a bit tepid, in my view:

GDPRFS020314

Moreover, concerns about the health of the global economy are growing. Indeed, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard sees the threat of a global policy tightening in the making:
We now have a situation where the world's two biggest economies – the US and China – are both winding down stimulus in lockstep. Call it simultaneous G2 tightening if you want. Europe is tightening passively as its balance sheets shrinks, and M3 money fizzles out. So let us call it G3 tightening (even if the Europeans are doing it by mistake)
This amounts to something of a shock to large parts of the emerging market nexus. Is it therefore proper for these EM states to further compound the shock with pro-cyclical monetary (or fiscal) tightening, and to do so on a scale that could ultimately push the global economy closer to a deflation trap?
Sounds very similar to my concerns from last week:
Funny thing is that what the Fed sees as no tightening is evolving into a global tightening now as central banks rush to raise rates. Consequently, money surges into the global safe asset - US Treasuries. And, interestingly, I think that you can argue that this is much, much more disconcerting than last year's taper tantrum. This seems to me to be a pretty clear global disinflationary shock. And it isn't like inflation was on a runaway train to begin with.
To reiterate the last point, the Fed's decision to taper despite the obvious challenge to their inflation target looks increasingly questionable:

PCEa020314

Fed policymakers don't even really have any positive near-term trends to hang their hats on:

PCEb020314

Across the Curve points us to the Wall Street Journal's anecdotal account of intense pricing pressures (and still weak demand) facing firms:
Executives from companies as varied as General Electric Co. ,Kimberly-Clark Corp. and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. said some prices slipped in the last three months of the year—sometimes significantly—amid intense competition, weaker demand and pressure from cost-conscious customers.
Falling prices for adhesives weighed on Eastman Chemical Co., cheaper packaged coffee dragged on Starbucks Corp. , and “value and discounts” hit McDonald’s Corp. in the fourth quarter in what the fast food chain called a “street fight” for market share. Xerox Corp. is eyeing acquisitions that can “help us be more competitive on price pressure.”
Corporate revenues are showing the strain, whether from lower prices, weak demand or a combination of the two.
Despite the Fed's claim that tapering is not tightening, that it is the stock of assets held, not the flow, that matters, that they could change the policy mix without changing the level of accommodation, market participants are acting as if tapering is indeed tightening. Five year, five year forward inflation expectations have tumbled:

INFEX020314

And bond market participants, who had been starting to get optimistic that improving economic conditions would prompt the Fed to tighten sooner than later are now rethinking that scenario:

RATES020314

If this keeps up, it looks like Yellen will face an early test in her first few weeks as Chair. And I would say there is a good chance this does keep up until the Fed changes direction and decides that the US economy may not have reached escape velocity as believed. Of course, the early voice was a hawkish voice which signaled exactly the opposite, as reported by Michael Derby at the Wall Street Journal:
With regard to Fed policy, “I can’t say that things have changed just because of this market action,” Mr. Fisher said in an interview on Fox Business Network after the markets closed Monday.
The hawks fought long and hard for the taper; they will not be easily dissuaded from by a few sloppy days on Wall Street. Remember, the hawks believe asset purchases are fueling a potential asset bubble to begin with. Falling stock prices will only verify their bias and justify the policy.
Of course, the hawks will not be driving a policy shift. That shift would come from the center. But I sense that the center have something in common with the hawks - the center wants out of asset purchases too, which makes me think the bar to holding asset purchases steady at the next meeting is relatively high. Still, a deflationary shock should make them think twice. Then again, already low inflation should have made them think three or four times before tapering in the first place. Altogether, the desire to end asset purchases suggests to me that what we have seen so far is insufficient to prompt the Fed to change their plans. That is especially the case if the data does not soften further - if, for example, the next employment report shows a rebound in payroll growth and a further decline in the unemployment rate.
Another problem we have at the moment is the transition at the Federal Reserve. In many respects, Yellen is still an unknown commodity. Will she live up to her dovish reputation, or will she surprise on the hawkish side? I have to imagine that Yellen is not thrilled by this turn of events. Of course, no one would be, but she is in the unfortunate position of facing the House Financial Services Committee for the first time next week, and her words will carry an extra weight. If she opens the door to tapering the taper, so to speak, odds are she will be credited for a global rally - but then she has to follow through. If she acts as if the Fed is moving full steam ahead, then she will be blamed for the turmoil that ensues - and maybe have to reverse course after all.
Bottom Line: The Fed is once again in a familiar place. They try to pull back on policy, and markets tumble. Tightening has repeatedly proved to come too early; one wonders if the Fed would have had to keep doing more if they didn't keep promising to do less. If history is any guide, they will eventually reverse course. But that same history would suggest that they need to see conditions deteriorate further before they act.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Fed Watch: And The Taper Continues

Tim Duy:

And The Taper Continues, by Tim Duy: The FOMC meeting came and went with the expected result - the tapering process continued on schedule, undeterred by the current emerging market turmoil. Of course, the Fed doesn't want to be seen as reacting to every gyration financial markets. But even more importantly, the Fed wants out of the asset purchase business on the belief that a.) tapering is not tightening and b.) even if it was tightening, they could compensate via forward guidance. The global stumble, however, is challenging that thinking. Regardless of financial markets or US data, the Fed was not likely to launch into a new policy direction on the eve of incoming Chair Janet Yellen's coronation. It's her show now.

The statement acknowledged the better tone of the data:

Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in December indicates that growth in economic activity picked up in recent quarters.

while at the same time giving a nod to weak job growth in December:

Labor market indicators were mixed but on balance showed further improvement.

Inflation is low, but that is offset by stable expectations:

Inflation has been running below the Committee's longer-run objective, but longer-term inflation expectations have remained stable.

Upside and downside risks are equally weighted:

The Committee sees the risks to the outlook for the economy and the labor market as having become more nearly balanced.

Low inflation is an issue they are assessing, but it is not sufficiently worrisome to alter the pace of the taper:

In light of the cumulative progress toward maximum employment and the improvement in the outlook for labor market conditions, the Committee decided to make a further measured reduction in the pace of its asset purchases. Beginning in February, the Committee will add to its holdings of agency mortgage-backed securities at a pace of $30 billion per month rather than $35 billion per month, and will add to its holdings of longer-term Treasury securities at a pace of $35 billion per month rather than $40 billion per month.

At these rates, inflation is only a deterrent against higher interest rates, not tapering.

Despite the plunge in the unemployment rate, the combination of the Evans rule and enhanced forward guidance remains unchanged:

The Committee continues to anticipate, based on its assessment of these factors, that it likely will be appropriate to maintain the current target range for the federal funds rate well past the time that the unemployment rate declines below 6-1/2 percent, especially if projected inflation continues to run below the Committee's 2 percent longer-run goal.

I think we can be confident that much of the conversation centered around forward guidance, but there was not quite a pressing need to end or alter the Evans rule with unemployment still above 6.5%. Moreover, any change to the forward guidance needs to be owned by Janet Yellen, and she will not have that opportunity for another six weeks. Which will not be just her first meeting as chair, but also her first press conference as chair. Trial by fire.

The Fed did not, as some supposed they might, react to sliding overseas markets. This, combined with the tempered reaction to weak job growth and the absolute abandonment of the inflation target, speaks to the Fed's determination to end asset purchases. We will need to see the emerging market downturn lapping up more directly on US shores before the Fed reacts. The downturn in US equities is not yet enough. Not only does the Fed not react to every dip in the market, they probably would not be surprised by a correction in any event. The are inclined to believe that while not a bubble, stock prices were getting a little ahead of earnings.

Recent market action is very revealing, in my opinion. First and foremost is that fears that without the Fed "no one will buy US debt" have proved to be completely unfounded. Everyone knows that the Fed is eager to end asset purchases this year, and yet magically there are enough buyers to keep 10 year rates locked below 3%. Without much, much faster growth and a real threat of inflation, we are stuck in a low interest rate world. Get used to it. Indeed, even when the Fed starts raising interest rates, I expect most of the impact will be in the center of the yield curve. We need to jump to a higher equilibrium path to boost long rates sustainably higher.

Also evident is that regardless of the Fed's intentions, tapering is tightening, at least on a global scale. To be sure, emerging markets are under pressure from a number of directions. The yen's decline over the past year was eventually going to pressure emerging market currencies. Commodity prices are softer than expected. Remember just a few years ago when the global commodity super-cycle would propel prices ever higher? That story appears to have come to an end. The ongoing adjustment in the Chinese economy is not helping matters either. Arguably, the Fed is only the icing on the cake.

But it is a cake of their own making. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard reminds us that emerging markets spent years leaning into the Fed's low rate policies instead of leaning against. Now they are caught in the classic currency crisis trap - they try to raise rates to stem currency declines, but higher rates crush the local economy and, by extension, equity markets, which aggravates the currency decline. The process continues until the economy settles into a lower equilibrium. It isn't pretty. Never is.

Funny thing is that what the Fed sees as no tightening is evolving into a global tightening now as central banks rush to raise rates. Consequently, money surges into the global safe asset - US Treasuries. And, interestingly, I think that you can argue that this is much, much more disconcerting than last year's taper tantrum. This seems to me to be a pretty clear global disinflationary shock. And it isn't like inflation was on a runaway train to begin with.

Bottom Line: The Fed wants out of quantitative easing. Policymakers want to normalize policy by bringing it back to interest rates. That sets a high bar to delaying the tapering process. Moreover, the leadership transition at the Federal Reserve also left policy on autopilot from December until March, raising the bar even further. That seemed to sink in today. They lack of offsetting on the part of emerging markets to easy Fed policy is now exacerbating the impact of tapering, creating a more significant monetary tightening than expected by the Fed. It is not clear when this alters the path of Fed policy. But what seems more clear is that the US is about to be hit by another disinflationary shock. That deserves careful attention, because inflation, I think, is at this moment the most important variable to watch as far as Fed policy is concerned. The Fed is pushing forward with tapering on only the forecast of future inflation. That forecast appears under threat.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Fed Watch: The Week That Was

Tim Duy:

The Week That Was, by Tim Duy: Plenty of data and Fedspeak to chew on last week, the sum total of which I think point in the same general direction. Economic activity is on average improving modestly, the Federal Reserve will push through with another round of tapering next week, and low inflation continues to hold back the threat of rate hikes.

After stripping out the auto component, retail sales were solid in December:

RETAILa011714

I think we are at or nearing the point where auto sales will generally move sideways and thus induce some additional volatility in the headline number. Consequently, it will be increasingly important to focus on core sales ("core" meaning less autos and gas). Looking at the three-month change, we see a modest acceleration in the back half of 2013:

RETAILb011714

Likewise, industrial production accelerated in the final months of 2013:

INP011714

The initial read on consumer sentiment was modestly disappointing but not a cause for worry. In general, consumer sentiment has been weaker than what would be suggested by the pace of spending since the recovery began:

SENT011714

Housing starts stumbled in December after surging the previous month:

HOUSEa011714

Housing activity continues to grind higher, with plenty of room left to climb. Increasingly, the gains seem likely to be coming from the single family side of the equation; multifamily has already experienced a solid rebound:

HOUSEb011714

None of the above is meant to imply that we are experiencing runaway growth. Instead, the Beige Book probably sets the right tenor:
Reports from the twelve Federal Reserve Districts suggest economic activity continued to expand across most regions and sectors from late November through the end of the year. Nine Districts indicated the local economy was expanding at a moderate pace; among these, the Atlanta and Chicago Districts saw conditions improve compared with the previous reporting period. Boston and Philadelphia cited modest growth, while Kansas City reported the economy held steady in December. The economic outlook is positive in most Districts, with some reports citing expectations of "more of the same" and some expecting a pickup in growth.
The JOLTS report showed an uptick in the quits rate, something that will likely warm the heart of incoming Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen:

YELLEN11714

It's another quadrant of that chart that is showing improvement, which probably gives Fed officials confidence that they are moving in the right direction by slowly ending the asset purchase program. That said, inflation prevents the Fed from putting their foot on the brakes:

CPI011714

Until we see meaningfully higher inflation numbers, the Fed will be hesitant to deviate from their current expected rate trajectory. Putting aside any financial stability concerns, I am thinking the risk is that unemployment drops to closer to 5.5% when inflation starts to pick up, and policymakers respond with a steeper rate increase fearing they are behind the curve.
Dallas Federal Reserve President Richard Fisher offered-up another colorful speech stressing financial stability concerns. He also revealed he wanted to see the Fed cut asset purchases by $20 billion a month:
I was pleased with the decision to finally begin tapering our bond purchases, though I would have preferred to pull back our purchases by double the announced amount. But the important thing for me is that the committee began the process of slowing down the ballooning of our balance sheet, which at year-end exceeded $4 trillion. And we began—and I use that word deliberately, for we have more to do on this front—to clarify our intentions for managing the overnight money rate.
For all the concerns that the hawks will be persistent policy dissenters, Fisher does not appear to be a likely dissent just yet. For him, it is important just to know the program will end this year.
On the other side of the coin is Minneapolis Federal Reserve President Narayana Kocherlakota. In an interview with Robin Harding at the Financial Times, Kocherlakota makes clear his disappointment with the current policy trajectory:
“We’re running the risk of being content with inflation running consistently below our target. That’s inappropriate,” said Narayana Kocherlakota, who votes on Fed monetary policy this year, in an interview with the Financial Times. “Right now we’re sitting with an outlook for inflation that even by 2016 . . . is not getting back to 2 per cent.”
Importantly, he offers an alternative to the defunct Evans rule:
“We would say we intend to keep the Fed funds rate extraordinarily low in that interval between 6.5 and 5.5 per cent as long as the medium-term outlook for inflation stays sufficiently close to 2 per cent,” he said. “I definitely feel it is important to be numerical about it. Words are always subject, I think, to multiple interpretations.”
The idea of an "interval" gives some insight into the general consensus at the Fed. There does not seem to be considerable support for changing the threshold to 5.5%. Kocherlakota knows this and hopes that he can disguise changing the threshold by calling it an interval. But once you cross 6.5%, the idea of an interval is irrelevant. 5.5% becomes the focus, just as if the threshold has been changed.
Moreover, notice also the change in the inflation threshold from 2.5% to "sufficiently close" to 2%. My sense is that such a change would be interpreted hawkishly. But I think also reveals why policymakers are opposed to changing the unemployment threshold. I am thinking that below 6.5% unemployment, they are less willing to tolerate 2.5% inflation because they worry about falling behind the curve.
I think it is easier to see Kocherlakota dissenting than any of the hawks. It is clear that policy is moving fundamentally in the wrong direction in his opinion:
Mr Kocherlakota said he would not refight the Fed’s decision to taper asset purchases by about $10bn a month. “My point is simply we need to do more. If the committee chose to do that through more asset purchases that’d be fine with me. But we have to be doing more.”
The hawks might want a more rapid end to asset purchases, but at least for them policy is heading in the right direction.
San Francisco Federal Reserve President John Williams questioned the role of asset purchases as part of the Federal Reserve toolkit. Victoria McGrane at the Wall Street Journal has the story here. Williams highlights the uncertain impacts of quantitative easing:
Mr. Williams, who has been supportive of the Fed’s three rounds of bond purchases, said the measures “have proven a potent but blunt tool, with uncertain effects on financial markets and the economy.” The Fed’s bond-buying program, also known as quantitative easing, or QE, aims to lower long-term interest rates in hopes that will spur borrowing, hiring and investment.
Surveying the body of research on such bond purchases, Mr. Williams found that studies consistently find that the purchases have a significant impact on long-term bond yields but it’s harder to tell if they’re doing much to help the overall economy.
“Estimating the effects of large-scale asset purchases on the economy – as opposed to financial markets – is inherently much harder to do and is subject to greater uncertainty,” he said.
WIlliams also acknowledges the difficulties of implementing forward guidance:
“Experience has shown that it is impossible to convey the full reach of factors that influence the future course of policy. As a result, forward guidance ends up being overly simplified and prone to misinterpretation,” Mr. Williams said in his paper. What’s more, markets may not believe promises about policy made several years in advance since the policymakers making those statements could leave, he noted.
Again, isn't the Evans rule something of an oversimplification that has resulted in confusion? Perhaps a simpler target is needed:
A new framework such as nominal GDP-targeting could, in theory, could work better at communicating the Fed’s policy plans than the current approach, he said, but it might have costs as well.
And then comes the third rail of central banking:
Finally, Mr. Williams also said new research should address whether the Fed and other central banks with a 2% inflation target should aim higher. “[D]oes the 2 percent inflation target … provide a sufficient cushion to allow monetary policy to successfully stabilize the economy and inflation in the future?” he asked in his paper.
All of which sums up to: We are still learning from the crisis and thus we will see consideration of even more innovations to central banking going forward.
And last but not least, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke made another victory lap at the inaugural event of the new Hutchins Center on Monetary Policy at the Brookings institute (also where Williams presented). For those of you with four hours to set aside, video is here.
Bottom Line: The US economy is grinding forward. Policymakers are generally comfortable with the pace of tapering at $10 billion per meeting. That could be reconsidered if we see sustained weakness in future data, but I don't think that should be the base case. Not everyone is happy at the Fed, however, and arguably the center has shifted toward the hawks as the doves are clearly not pleased that both asset purchases are ending and the Evans rule does not have an heir apparent. I think it is reasonable to believe the primary conflict at the next FOMC meeting is not over asset purchases, but on the communications strategy. The direction and nature of "enhanced forward guidance" is becoming a contentious issue now that the unemployment rate is just a breath away from the 6.5% threshold.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

'The Potential Effects of QE on Gross Financial Flows to Developing Countries'

Jamus Jerome Lim (World Bank), Sanket Mohapatra (World Bank), and Marc Stocker (World Bank), at econbrowser:

Guest Contribution: "Understanding the Potential Effects of QE on Gross Financial Flows to Developing Countries": In late November 2008, the Federal Reserve announced the first of a series of unconventional monetary policies---quantitative easing (QE)---which, by the beginning of 2014, had swelled its balance sheet to an unprecedented $4 trillion. Although QE was primarily designed to stimulate the U.S. economy, the program was far from innocuous for developing countries; faced with near-zero returns in the U.S. and other high-income countries (many of which were pursuing unconventional monetary policies of their own), financial capital began searching for alternative sources of yield, for which emerging economies were well-poised to offer.
In a background paper written for the thematic chapter of the recently-released Global Economic Prospects, we probe the question of whether QE had an effect on gross financial flows to developing countries. ...
Our baseline estimates place the lower bound of the effect of QE at around 3 percent of gross financial inflows, for the average developing economy. ... Overall, the effects of unconventional monetary policy, insofar as its impact on gross financial inflows, appears to be measurable and nontrivial. However, to the extent that QE appears to operate primarily via portfolio inflows to the largest emerging markets (rather than FDI), the broader benefits of QE for development finance are more likely to be second-order (relaxing financing constraints for firms able to access bond markets, enhancing liquidity in developing-country financial markets, and promoting overall financial development), and may also be more exposed to the risk of sudden reversals.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Evans on the Outlook for Monetary Policy

Chicago Fed president Charlie Evans on what is likely to happen to the federal funds rate as the unemployment rate crosses the 6.5% thresshold:

Back in December 2012, the FOMC introduced conditional forward guidance by saying it would hold the funds rate at exceptionally low levels at least as long as the unemployment rate remains above 6-1/2 percent and the projection for inflation between one and two years ahead is less than 2-1/2 percent and longer-term inflation expectations remain well anchored. Let me emphasize the “at least.” As we often stated, the 6-1/2 percent unemployment number was a threshold and not a trigger. Crossing 6-1/2 percent would not automatically result in an increase in the funds rate. Exactly when we would begin to raise the funds rate once we hit 6-1/2 percent depends critically on whether we are expecting continued improvements in the labor market and on what the outlook for inflation is relative to our 2 percent target.
When evaluating the situation at our meeting this past December, we reasoned that conditions had evolved in a way that meant we could — and should — provide more specificity on what might happen with the federal funds rate when the economy reached this threshold. Importantly, in my mind, the low readings for inflation by themselves now suggest that it likely will be appropriate to keep the funds rate at its current level for quite some time. So I supported our change in language to say that the federal funds rate likely will remain in its current range “well past the time that the unemployment rate declines below 6-1/2 percent, especially if projected inflation continues to run below the Committee’s 2 percent longer-run goal.”[2] This elaboration of our forward guidance should more strongly communicate that we are in no hurry to raise rates: We will not prematurely reduce accommodation in an economy with elevated unemployment and very low inflation pressures.

If that's the case, then why taper QE?:

When the Committee met this past December, with the unemployment rate at 7 percent and other labor market indicators showing improvement, we decided that the cumulative improvement to that point met the criteria for first scaling back purchases. This decision does not, however, mean we thought the economy needed less overall policy accommodation. Rather, the Committee agreed it was time to rebalance the mix of monetary policy. Large-scale asset purchases have been effective in stimulating activity, and their effects have shown more through to top-line gross domestic product (GDP) growth now that the most restrictive fiscal influences in the first half of 2013 have waned some. Nevertheless, QE3 is a nontraditional policy instrument. If in fact monetary policy and the recovery are now gaining better traction, it makes sense to rely more on our traditional short-term interest rate policy tool, the federal funds rate. We have a much better understanding of how changes in the funds rate affect the economy than we do of the benefits and potential costs associated with large-scale asset purchases, largely because we simply have more experience with the former policy tool.
In order to clarify that overall monetary policy will remain highly accommodative as long as necessary, we also decided to strengthen the forward guidance in our policy statement concerning the economic conditions likely to prevail when we might eventually first increase the federal funds rate.

Part of the problem is that fiscal policy has been a "powerful headwind":

Theme 1: Fiscal Restraint Has Been a Powerful Headwind
Heightened fiscal austerity has been front page news in 2013. The year began with both tax hikes and automatic spending cuts known as sequestration. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that federal fiscal restraint reduced real GDP growth by about 1-1/2 percentage points last year.[3] In other words, to get to 2-1/2 percent real GDP growth, the rest of the economy had to generate 4 percentage points of growth. ...
If we look at the entire 2009 through 2013 period, real GDP increased at an average annual rate of 2.2 percent. However, excluding state, local and federal government purchases, private spending grew at a 3.2 percent pace. This isn’t the stellar rate of growth for private spending that one would hope for given the magnitude of the Great Recession, but it is a much healthier number than the 2.2 percent rate of growth for real GDP: At some level, this reflects how private sector strength supported by monetary policy accommodation offset the contraction in government purchases.
Of course, government restraint has not been the only headwind the economy has faced. The fallout from the financial crisis has been large. ... But the restraint from the federal government sector has been a self-inflicted wound, and it has been unusual relative to other historical episodes.
Let me give you an example. In 1981-82, the economy experienced a severe downturn, but it rebounded rapidly. One reason was that increases in government purchases contributed nearly a percentage point to growth, on average, in 1983 and 1984. Large tax cuts also helped fuel the recovery. Contrast that to the fiscal restraint that we’ve seen recently.
In addition to fiscal policy impetus, the Federal Reserve was able to reduce the federal funds rate as much as was necessary to get growth back on track. With the federal funds rate at nearly 15 percent in 1982, it was possible to drop the rate by 6 percentage points. However, in the current environment, monetary policy has less room to maneuver because short-term interest rates are already pushed to their lowest possible limits. We have had to work harder and turn to unconventional tools to help counteract the fiscal restraint and other forces holding back growth. This leads me to the second theme.
Theme 2: The Zero Lower Bound
Today, the federal funds rate is effectively pushed as low as it can go. It stands near zero and has been at that rate since December 2008. Central bankers refer to this as the zero lower bound. Operating near the zero lower bound has limited the Fed’s ability to use its traditional tools to offset the ferocious impediments to growth that I just outlined. We have tried to overcome this obstacle with nontraditional policies. The main two are the ones I discussed earlier — our large-scale asset purchase programs and, separately, forward guidance regarding the economic conditions under which we would consider to begin to raise rates. ...
By mitigating some of the headwinds I mentioned earlier, LSAPs and forward guidance have helped return the economy to better health. There is still a ways to go. Our two nontraditional policy tools have simply not been strong enough to overcome these headwinds and generate an early 1980s “morning in America” recovery yet.[4] Moreover, inflation remains stubbornly low.
This low inflation environment is the third theme I’d like to cover today. ...

He ends with:

In terms of monetary policy strategy, after four years of weak and inadequate growth with low inflation, we need extraordinary monetary accommodation to finish the task at hand. The public must have confidence in the Fed’s ultimate resolve to successfully address economic challenges. We need to be both bold and committed to following through. ...
We often talk about this in terms of credibility. Credibility means that we are clear about our goals, have the tools to achieve those goals and are committed to using those tools.
We have been clear about our goals. We are dedicated to achieving our statutory dual mandate of maximum employment and price stability. We certainly have turned to unprecedented actions to get the job done — near-zero short-term interest rates; strong forward guidance about keeping rates low for well after the economic recovery strengthens; and large-scale assets purchases that have boosted our balance sheet from about $800 billion to more than $4 trillion. And we must continue to be willing to use these tools to put us on a clear track back to full employment and inflation averaging our 2 percent target.

I'm not sure everyone would agree that tapering is simply a step to "rebalance the mix of monetary policy" rather than a change in overall accommodation.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Fed Watch: Lockhart Greenlights Tapering

Tim Duy:

Lockhart Greenlights Tapering, by Tim Duy: Atlanta Federal Reserve President Dennis Lockhart presented his 2014 forecast in a speech today. In short, he expects modestly better growth, ongoing improvement in labor markets, and inflation to gradually rise to the Fed's target. Pretty much the standard 2014 outlook, and with the usual caveats: There is still much progress to be made in labor markets, and inflation is currently on the low side. And, assuming all goes according to plan:

If all goes as expected, there is a policy transition under way from a QE world, so to speak, to a post-QE world. As I said, that decision was made in December.

Some of his more interesting comments come in the post-speech conversation with journalists. Michael Derby at the Wall Street Journal has the story. While the December employment number was a disappointment, it is not itself likely to deter policymakers from tapering plans:

...Mr. Lockhart told reporters what happened in the job market last month has not shaken his monetary policy outlook. “I don’t think we should overreact to one month” and should bear in mind employment data frequently undergoes notable revisions, he said.

Lockhart's views on stock prices are intriguing:

In response to audience questions, Mr. Lockhart rejected the idea that big gains in stock prices over the course of the last year mean the equities market has lost its moorings. When taking stock of what has happened, “I don’t see it as a bubble,” the official said, although he added he would like to see company earnings validate the advances the market has experienced. The official also said “we are watching very carefully to make sure we don’t get into bubble territory.”

He seems to be implying that he believes stock prices are reasonable only if earnings rise. Which is the same thing as saying he really doesn't believe that stock prices are exactly reasonable. They are just not sufficiently unreasonable to define as a "bubble." Combined with the careful "watching," one could interpret Lockhart as saying that the Federal Reserve believes stock markets are starting to get ahead of themselves. They are watching the financial stability issue like hawks...no pun intended.

Regarding the Evans rule, Lockhart admits what already should be evident to everyone:

...The Fed says that it will not raise short term interest rates until the jobless rate falls well under 6.5% so long as inflation remains contained. Mr. Lockhart said the fast approach to that level–unemployment was at 6.7% in December, from 7% the prior month– threatens to complicate the central bank’s message.

Rate hike guidance was supposed to be “easy” to understand, but given what’s happening, it will now require central bankers to have to explain more why they aren’t raising rates when the threshold is crossed, Mr. Lockhart said. He noted the Fed may need to revisit the guidance and refine it to deal with the current “challenges in communications,” and that may mean the central bank may need to make the jobless threshold less connected to the jobless rate.

The Evan's rule is defunct. Like I said yesterday, the Federal Reserve thought the Evans rule would be easy to understand, but the rapid drop in unemployment has greatly complicated their communications strategy. I like the part about making the jobless threshold less connected to the jobless rate. That is pretty much already the case. It seems increasingly evident that Fed communications strategy is at a major inflection point. Do they replace the Evans rule with fresh, specific numerical based guidance? Do they continue to specify labor market indicators? Does the statement get more or less wordy? And shouldn't these changes happen at the December meeting, rather than after unemployment plunges below 6.5%?

Moreover, wouldn't the Fed's communication strategy be easier if they just dropped mention of the employment mandate and focused on the inflation target? As Lockhard notes in his speech:

Over the past 12 months, inflation has averaged only 0.9 percent. Indeed, the broad patterns in the price data suggest we have been on a disinflationary trend for about two years, as shown in this slide.

Continued disinflation could pose risks to economic performance. This slide shows the trend of one key measure of inflation (the personal consumption expenditures inflation index) over the last four years. At the Fed, we follow a number of inflation indices, and they show basically the same picture.

The inflation situation shown here seems disconnected from the recent growth momentum and the outlook that it will continue.

As I mentioned earlier, I think inflation will stabilize and begin to move back in the direction of the FOMC's 2 percent objective as the economy gathers momentum. So I'm interpreting the soft inflation numbers as a risk signal. Through the lens of prices, the economy could be weaker than we currently believe.

The inflation rate alone gives them license to hold rates near zero without the complications of devining the message of the decline in the labor force participation rate. And he also suggests that low inflation is a signal that economic growth is weaker than commonly believed, again suggesting that there is no reason to rate rates.

So why not just focus on the inflation rate? I suspect because the Federal Reserve envisions the possibility that they may raise interest rates even if inflation is low. It's not the base case by any means (no rate hike until 2015 in the absence of real evidence of inflation is the base case), but it is something they don't want to ignore as well. An alternative situation is if unemployment declines further and the Fed fears they will fall behind the curve if they don't tighten. Another situation is that the Fed fears they will need to tighten policy to stifle potential bubbles. Indeed, the latter possibility probably already leads the Fed to hesitate before lowering the unemployment threshold.

In short, I think the Fed is looking to maintain maximum discretion with regards to rate policy; to the extent they want to find a new rule, it will almost certainly be a rule that, like the Evans rule, they were sure they would not want to break. In other words, they would like to find a rule that is clearly time consistent and easy to communicate. But as markets bubble and unemployment drops further, I think it is increasingly difficult for them to find such a rule. Suggestions anyone? And yes, I know one suggestion will be an NGDP target. I don't think the Fed is there yet.

Bottom Line: Another Fed speaker downplaying the December nonfarm payroll number, essentially giving the green light for another $10 billion cut in the pace of asset purchases. Pencil in $10 billion a meeting. But that's not really the big story at this point. The big story is the communications strategy. The era of transparency has arguably delivered only more complicated and confusing targets, thresholds, and statements. With the Evans rule turning into a pumpkin soon, they will need to decide if they want to double-down on this strategy or move onto something else. But what is that something else? Whatever it is, it must be near the top of incoming Chair Janet Yellen's to-do list.

Monday, January 13, 2014

'Discount Window Stigma'

Banks are reluctant to borrow from the discount window:

Discount Window Stigma, by Olivier Armantier: One of the main missions of central banks is to act as a lender of last resort to the banking system. In the United States, the Federal Reserve has relied on the discount window (DW) for nearly a century to fulfill this task. Historically, however, the DW has been little used even when banks may have faced acute liquidity shortages, a phenomenon commonly attributed to stigma. In this post, we show that during the last financial crisis banks were willing to pay large premia to avoid borrowing from the DW, suggesting that DW stigma is an economically important phenomenon.
DW stigma is generally defined as banks’ reluctance to approach the DW out of concerns that, if detected, depositors, creditors, or analysts could interpret DW borrowing as a sign of financial weakness. It is believed that such inferences could have severe consequences for DW borrowers such as a run on deposits, a loss of confidence by market analysts, a drop in the institution’s stock price, or a withdrawal of market sources of liquidity. The economic consequences of DW stigma may be particularly severe during financial crises, preventing the Fed from effectively disseminating liquidity when it is most needed. In addition, a bank that delays accessing the DW may resort instead to costly alternatives (such as fire sales of assets), which may further weaken the bank and add to financial system instability. Finally, a reluctance to borrow at the DW could lead banks to excessively self-insure against tail risks, thereby reducing the loans it extends to other financial firms and to the real economy. ...

Fed Watch: Employment Report Keeps Policymakers on Their Toes

Tim Duy:

Employment Report Keeps Policymakers on Their Toes. by Tim Duy: Just about everyone (myself included) who ventured a payrolls forecast was crushed by the scant December gain of just 74k. How much should you adjust your outlook on the basis of just this one number? Not much, if at all. It is important to watch for trends in the data, and always keep Barry Ritholtz's warning in the back of your mind:
...we know from each month’s revisions that the initial read is off, often by a substantial amount. It’s a noisy series, subject to many errors and subsequent corrections.
To put this into some context, consider what it is we are measuring: The change in monthly hires minus fires. A monthly change in a labor force of more than 150 million people. That turns out to be a tiny net number relative to the entire pool -- about one tenth of one percent.
This is why I continually suggest ignoring any given month, and paying attention to the overall trend. That is the most useful aspect of the monthly NFP data...if you focus on the monthly numbers, you will be given so many false signals and head fakes that you cannot possibly trade on this information in an intelligent manner.
Indeed, the December number was mitigated by an upward revision to November, leaving the growth pattern looking very familiar:

EMPc011214

One interpretation of the December outcome was that it was largely weather related. One would think, however, that such an event would have a forecastable negative impact on payrolls. Regardless, the bigger message is that the monthly change in payrolls is a volatile series, and one should be wary of putting too much emphasis on either small or large gains.
Perhaps the real story then is that another existing trend in the data, the downward pressure on the unemployment rate from a falling labor force participation rate, continues unabated:

EMPa011214

Moreover, the pace of improvement in alternative measures of labor utilization is not accelerating and arguably appears to be slowing as might be expected if the formally cyclically unemployed increasingly become structurally unemployed:

EMPb011214

Altogether, I think the report can be neatly summed up as 1.) indicative of a more modest improvement in activity than suggested by actual and estimated GDP numbers for the final half of 2013 and 2.) suggestive of structural change in labor markets.
The employment report generally complicates monetary policymaking. Not the nonfarm payrolls numbers so much; that number will largely be written off as anomalous in the context of the overall trend. Indeed, this was the first word from Fed officials. St. Louis Federal Reserve President James Bullard, via the Wall Street Journal:
"I would be disinclined to react to one month's number. I think it's important to get future jobs reports and see if new trends are developing," said Mr. Bullard at a press briefing following remarks here to local business leaders.
Richmond Federal Reserve President Jeffrey Lacker offered similar sentiments:
“As a general principle, it’s wise not to overreact to one month’s employment report,” Lacker said. “Employment has been growing along a pretty steady trend this year. It takes a lot more than one labor-market report to be convincing that the trend has shifted, and in my experience one employment report rarely has an effect by itself on monetary policy.”
I think the Fed is generally committed to winding down asset purchases this year, and will not want to be overly sensitive to just one report (that said, they will be overly sensitive to one number if it fits their preferred policy path). Only a more significant change in the overall tenor of the data will alter the pace of tapering.
The drop in the unemployment rate, however, is something more of a challenge. The Evans rule simply isn't looking quite so clever anymore:

EMPd011214

Monetary officials generally believed not only that 6.5% unemployment was far in the future, but also that policy would become much more obvious as we approached that target because inflation pressures would be evident. Neither has been true. Not only has unemployment fallen more quickly than anticipated, but inflation remains stubbornly low. With regards to the former, officials increasingly see the decline in labor force participation as largely structural and outside the purview of monetary policy. Bullard, via the article quoted earlier:
Mr. Bullard signaled he wasn't particularly alarmed by a decline in labor force participation, saying it appears at the right level given current demographics.
And, via a nice Wall Street Journal interview with San Francisco President John Williams by Jon Hilsenrath:
We’re still working hard on this issue of employment-to-population. Everybody is struggling with the puzzle of why the employment-to-population ratio has stayed low. To what extent are movements in labor force participation structural or cyclical? And to what extent can monetary policy have an influence on those developments? I think the majority of the decline in the participation rate is due to structural factors related to the aging of the population and people going into disability. Very few people come back into the labor force from that. I do think part of it is cyclical. The data in the next year or so are going to inform us better about what is the trend.
With each passing month policymakers are increasingly comfortable taking the unemployment rate at face value. That means they increasingly expect the inflation numbers to pick up. Back to Williams:
As the unemployment rate continues to come down, utilization continues to go up, as the economy continues to improve, I would expect the underlying inflation rate to track back towards 2%.
But he clearly recognizes the potential for inflation to remain low:
The second question is why is inflation so low? To what extent does it reflect just some transitory influences, such as health care costs, and to what extent is it really reflecting a persistent ongoing inflation trend that is too low? And again how can monetary policy affect that? We’re in this world where inflation doesn’t move around a lot around 2%. It has become hard to model and to know exactly what are the factors causing inflation to be too low and which are the ones that are going to help bring it back to 2%. That gets to the downside risk question. If inflation does stay stubbornly low, that obviously is an argument for more monetary accommodation than otherwise.
Likewise, Bullard shares these concerns:
Mr. Bullard said he continues to watch inflation closely, saying it should rise as the economy picks up and the jobless rate continues to fall. But the central banker added he wants to actually see that rise come to fruition as the Fed assesses further tapering of its bond-buying.
"If inflation stepped lower in a clear way, I think that would give me some pause," Mr. Bullard said. "I'm looking for signs inflation is going to come back."
So where does this leave us? First of all, I think the Evans rule is already for all intents and purposes defunct. The unemployment rate is just a hair away from 6.5%, and the Fed has no intention of considering raising rates anytime soon. Second, there probably isn't a replacement for the Evans rule in the works. Bullard:
He expects the Fed for now to hold its threshold for unemployment at 6.5%. The Fed has said it won't increase interest rates until the jobless rate falls below that level so long as inflation stays contained.
"Moving (thresholds) around too much is likely to damage our credibility," Mr. Bullard said
And Williams on not setting a lower bound for inflation:
My view is the current [Fed policy] statement does a good job of capturing the fact that once unemployment gets below 6.5%, then obviously we’ll be taking seriously what is happening in inflation, we will be looking at what is happening with employment and growth and everything, and then we’ll be judging what is the appropriate stance of policy. It just gets very complicated quickly when you start adding more and more clauses about what conditions would you or would you not raise interest rates. Unfortunately, that is the game we’re playing … the FOMC statement has gotten awfully long. It has gotten awfully complicated. The statement is probably better used to try to emphasize the key points as opposed to trying to explain everything in our thinking.
My sense is that they thought the Evans rule was clever and simple, but it turns out that fixed numerical objectives are not quite so simple. Well, multiple numerical objectives are not quite so simple. The ironic outcome to the Evans rule experiment is that policy communication would arguably have been smoother if the Fed simply emphasized an inflation target. Policymakers could have been agnostic on the reasons for the declines in labor force participation; it was irrelevant given the path of inflation. Perhaps the focus on the unemployment rate was something of an unnecessary complication that now needlessly leaves the impression that policy will soon turn more hawkish than is the case.
Thus, the third takeaway is that policy is now largely about inflation (although arguably it always is always about inflation). Ann Saphir and Jonathon Spicer at Reuters:
Stubbornly weak inflation is shaping up as the wild card for U.S. monetary policy makers this year, with top Federal Reserve officials stumped by why it has lingered so low for so long and at odds as to what to do about it.
As the Fed wrestled through last year with deciding when to start trimming its massive bond-buying stimulus, the bulk of attention was focused on the unemployment rate, which until recently has been slow to fall following its spike up to 10 percent during the recession.
By last month, policy makers had grown confident enough in the job market to dial back on the program. Figures released Friday showed the jobless rate fell to a five-year low of 6.7 percent in December, despite the smallest monthly job gains in three years. With much of the hiring slowdown attributed to bad weather, however, many analysts say the Fed will stay on track with plans to end bond buying by late this year.
But there is a hitch: inflation has been drifting down for much of the last two years, measuring a feeble 1.1 percent in November by the Fed's preferred gauge.
As long as inflation reverts to target slowly (with a caveat to be noted below), the Fed will not be quick to hike rates. But the Fed will be increasingly nervous that a sudden burst of inflation means they are behind the curve. Williams:
Whether we cut purchases by 10 billion a month or not, we still have a very accommodative stance of policy and that is going to stay with us for quite some time. That is where I worry. If the economy really picks up or inflation or risks to financial stability really do start to emerge in a serious way, we need to be able to move policy back to normal, or adjust policy appropriately, in a timely manner. It’s always a difficult issue. This time it is just a much greater risk because we’re in a much more accommodative stance of policy.
I think it will be the sensitivity to positive inflation surprises that has the potential to add a hawkish tenor to policymaking. Without those surprises, policy will continue along current expectations. There is a caveat - note that Williams essentially admits that the possibility and willingness to use monetary policy to address financial stability. Triple mandate. Watch for it.
Bottom Line: I don't see much in the employment report to indicate any fundamental change to existing trends. Nor do I anticipate any change in policy. Tapering is likely to continue at its modest pace. As expected, the Evans rule is defunct, and it doesn't seem like policymakers are inclined to replace it with another set of fixed numerical guidelines. The primary driver of policy is now the pace of incoming data relative to the inflation outlook. Financial stability is probably something like a third-order concern at this point, at least as far as monetary policy is concerned. But that could change.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

'Bravo for Bernanke and the QE Era'

Austin Goolsbee:

Bravo for Bernanke and the QE Era, by Austan Goolsbee, Commentary, WSJ: ...critics of quantitative easing have condemned the expansion of the balance sheet at the Federal Reserve as risking a hyperinflation, have panned the "forward guidance" of the Fed promising low rates well into the future as ineffectual and dangerous, and have even mocked the Fed's new more-open communications strategy and the chairman's news conferences as demeaning to the office.
As Mr. Bernanke prepares to depart at the end of January and the Fed has initiated the exit-strategy countdown with the start of tapering, it is time to take stock of the QE Era—and time for the critics to admit they were wrong...,the critics were wrong that QE would cause inflation and harm the economy. ...
The research indicates that these Fed policies have helped the economy, albeit modestly. ...

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Fed Watch: Next Up: Employment Report

Tim Duy:

Next Up: Employment Report, by Tim Duy: Another quick post between appointments. Tomorrow is the all-important employment report release day for December. I say "all-important" partly in jest. I would caution against placing too much weight on a preliminary number that is well-known to be heavily revised. But the Federal Reserve seems to place an unusually high weight on the most recent month of data, so we must too.

Since it worked well last time, my quick-and-dirty estimate is a 245k gain for nonfarm payrolls in December:

NFPGUESS010814

Use with caution, usual caveats apply. Forecasting the preliminary nonfarm payroll gain is akin to throwing darts. And my prior is that something that worked well last month probably will not work well this month. That said, while this technique might not predict the exact number, I think it tells us that:

  1. The labor market is improving modestly.
  2. Any large deviation from a gain of 245k - either positive or negative - is likely not indicative of the underlying trend in labor markets.

For comparison, this is a decidedly above consensus forecast. Consensus is for 200k with a range of 120k to 225k. 245k would be a large upward surprise.

Finally, when considering the policy implications of the report (unless I happen to be up at 5:30am tomorrow, I won't get a chance to review the report until well after the market closes), consider the tension between incoming chair Janet Yellen's preferred preferred measures of labor market slack/tightness:

YELLEN010814

The improvement on the left exceeds that on the right. That argues for policy inertia unless policymakers shift their focus toward on side or the other. The obvious concern is that improvement on the left becomes too much for policymakers to easily ignore.