Fed Updates Ahead of FOMC Meeting: I have tended to think that there is a tendency to underestimate the potential for a more hawkish Fed. From last week:
Dudley appears to be increasingly concerned that the evolution of financial conditions this year suggests the Fed needs to pursue a more aggressive policy stance or else risk a repeat of 04-07. If this concern is being felt more generally within the Fed, it clearly puts a more hawkish bias to the Fed's reaction function. And, in my opinion, I think the risk of a more hawkish Federal Reserve is under-appreciated. Few are expecting a hawkish Federal Reserve, reasonably so given the path of policy since 2008. But I don't think the data are that far from a tipping point for the Federal Reserve. Of course, take that in the context of my general optimism.
I think policymakers have been falling in line with the idea of a mid-2015 rate hike, somewhat earlier than market expectations. In a great piece, Gavyn Davies concurs:
One of the most successful rules for investors in the past few years has been never to underestimate the innate dovishness of the Federal Reserve. Whenever there has been a scare that the Fed might move in a hawkish direction, this has quickly proven to be a mistake. Forward curves for short term interest rates have consistently moved “lower for longer”, and incoming economic data have always ensured that the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) has remained comfortable with this tendency.
In recent months, however, the markets may have become over confident about the Fed’s dovishness in the face of a large and persistent decline in the US unemployment rate...
...The controlling group may be shifting towards the median dot, rather than the dovish end of the spectrum. This may even include Ms Yellen herself, if the Stanley Fischer interview is any guide. Mr Fischer is universally regarded as an intellectual heavyweight, but he has said very little about his personal views on monetary policy since taking office last May. He is unlikely to have broken this silence without the knowledge and support of the Chair.
Davies summarizes Federal Reserve Vice Chair Stanley Fischer's recent interview and concludes that "Mr Fischer is building a high hurdle to any delay in lift-off beyond mid 2015." Many policymakers are ready and eager to normalize policy, and they see economic improvements as consistent with normalization. Just like they wanted out of the asset purchase business, they want out of the zero rate business, and they see fewer and fewer reasons why this isn't possible.
A small step to that rate hike is the removal of the "considerable time" language in the FOMC policy statement on the basis that too much improvement in labor markets has occurred to justify a certain position on zero interest rates. If the Fed is looking for flexibility and does not want to surprise market participants with an unexpectedly hawkish position next year, they will soon need to loosen up the language. Hence sometime soon "considerable time" will be replaced, perhaps with the term "patience."
Jon Hilsenrath at the Wall Street Journal puts us on alert that next week may be just that time:
Federal Reserve officials are seriously considering an important shift in tone at their policy meeting next week: dropping an assurance that short-term interest rates will stay near zero for a “considerable time” as they look more confidently toward rate increases around the middle of next year.
Senior officials have hinted lately that they’re looking at dropping this closely watched interest-rate signal, which many market participants take as a sign rates won’t go up for at least six months.
“It’s clearer that we’re closer to getting rid of that than we were a few months ago,” FedVice Chairman Stanley Fischer said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal last week. New York Fed President William Dudleyhas avoided using the “considerable time” phrase in recent speeches and instead said the Fed should be “patient” before raising rates.
I find this piece of logic, however, to be irritating:
Fed officials have several tactical issues to consider that could prompt them to shift their rate assurance now, while they’re still taking measure of the economy’s strength. Ms. Yellen has a news conference after the policy meeting ends Dec. 17 to explain the central bank’s decision. The Fed doesn’t have another news conference scheduled until March. If officials wait to change the words until then, the market could take it as a signal officials are pushing off planned rate increases until the second half of next year.
It is not Hilsenrath I am irritated with, it is the Fed. It is fairly clear that the Fed has set expectations such that major policy moves can only be made in meetings with press conferences. It's the reason that June 2015 comes into focus for a rate hike - given the repeated warnings about the "middle of next year," March seems too early, and September too late. April and July are deemed not real policy meetings because they don't have press conferences. This really needs to end. The Fed needs to move to a press conference with every meeting.
If they feel they need a press conference to announce the end of the "considerable time" language, supporters of such a change will argue strongly for next week and probably win. It also opens up the possibility of a March hike, something the hawks would be keen on. Delaying the removal of "considerable time" to March would likely close off a June hike, but the moderates want to retain that option. I think both moderates and doves would be willing to wait until the January meeting, but that meeting has no press conference. So at this point I would be expecting that a change in the language next week is likely, and by the end of January is certain.
But make no mistake that I think that having to set policy by the timing of press conferences rather than the meetings is just stupid.
Finally, another line from Hilsenrath leaves me cautious:
At the same time, a stronger dollar and falling commodities prices—including the sharp decline in oil prices—are putting downward pressure on inflation.
I can certainly imagine that the stronger dollar is a consequence of stronger economic growth, which supports consumer prices. On the declining oil prices, I tend to view those as primarily supply side related and almost certainly a net positive for the US economy. Over the weekend Matt Busigin reminded us of this:
In April of 2011, Ben Bernanke was universally lambasted and lampooned for claiming that inflation, which was accelerating and running above 3%, was “transitory”. He used this view to justify loosening monetary policy. The next few months of CPI were not favourable to the Fed chairman’s views: it peaked at 3.8% (nearly double the implicit target at that point) in September of 2011, sparking a feverishly pitched cacophony of criticism that the Fed chair was out of touch, and tone-deaf in his theoretical ivory tower to the practical realities on the ground.
This, however, proved to be Bernanke’s finest hour. Yes, even more so than the extraordinary measures taken during the height of the credit crisis. His detractors then, of which there were still many, included people and institutions on the brink that needed the Fed to extend them a hand. In September of 2011, the chairman stood very much alone in his call for moderated inflation now that the acute disaster removed influential institutions and people from needing the Fed to act in order to survive....
...This is why Ben Bernanke’s 2011 triumph is relevant today. The same framework for understanding inflation through commodity prices and wages that successfully predicted the deceleration of inflation against the tidal wave of popular belief now finds itself in the inverse position: the expectations of inflation are very low, and despite low commodity prices, it expects inflation will accelerate...
You can read this for my similar take back in 2011. Rather than preventing inflation from returning to target, the oil price decline is likely to have the opposite impact and push inflation back to target. Hence the low-inflation argument for holding rates near zero will look weaker by June if not March.
Bottom Line: Fed is still positioning to begin normalizing rates in the middle of 2015. The data is less of an impediment with each passing day. The time to eliminate the "considerable period" language is fast approach. The press conference calendar argues for next week. Honestly, I hope they will skip this meeting in favor of the January meeting just to prove that every FOMC meeting is a live meeting. Alas, I think they believe they need the press conference to temper any adverse reactions from market participants. Finally, I am wary with the consensus view that the oil price decline in disinflationary. Open up to the possibility of the opposite. Look back to what you believed in 2011.