Category Archive for: Monetary Policy [Return to Main]

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

'Fed Should Push Unemployment Well Below 5%, Paper Says'

Larry Ball tells the Fed to be very patient when it comes to satisfying its mandate to pursue full employment:

Fed Should Push Unemployment Well Below 5%, Paper Says: The Federal Reserve should hold short-term interest rates near zero long enough to drive unemployment well below 5%, even if it means letting inflation exceed the central bank’s 2% target. That’s according to Laurence Ball, economics professor and monetary policy expert at Johns Hopkins University...
Mr. Ball says the Fed could create more jobs by letting the unemployment rate fall lower. It should seek to push the rate “well below 5%, at least temporarily,” he writes. That could help bring some discouraged workers to reenter the labor market, as well as help the long-term unemployed find work and involuntary part-time workers find full-time jobs, he said.
“A likely side effect would be a temporary rise in inflation above the Fed’s target, but that outcome is acceptable,” writes Mr. Ball... U.S. inflation has been undershooting the Fed’s target for nearly three years.
Mr. Ball’s view is not shared by many Fed officials...

The 'Audit' the Fed Crowd

Audit the Fed?:

The "Audit" the Fed Crowd, by David Andolfatto: Alex Pollock says that It's High Time to "Audit" the Federal Reserve. ...just the other day, Senator Rand Paul, a leader in "Audit-the-Fed" movement (a significant step down from his father's "End-the-Fed" movement) was making statements like this one:

“[An] audit of the Fed will finally allow the American people to know exactly how their money is being spent by Washington.”

Of course, the Fed does not control how money is being spent by Washington. The Fed prints money to buy government securities. It sometimes extends loans against high-grade collateral. Everything you want to know about these purchases and loans is publicly available. ...

Let's be honest here. There is nothing new to discover in further auditing. This movement is motivated by what they perceive to be bad monetary policy. It doesn't even make sense to say we want to "audit" the Fed's policy because the policy is already transparent (which is what permits critics to label it "bad").

There is, of course, nothing wrong with critiquing Fed policy. Indeed, there are many economists working inside the Fed that critique various aspects of Fed policy all the time. And, as we all know, members of the FOMC can hold very different opinions ("hawks" and "doves"). Thoughtful critiques of policy should be welcomed. Policymakers and researchers at the Fed do welcome them.

Moreover, I'm all for full accountability. The Fed should be accountable to the American people--it is, after all, a creation of the American people through their representatives in Congress. But as I have said, the issue here is not about accountability. It is about a group of individuals who want to see their preferred monetary policy adopted. That's fair enough. I just ask that they be honest about their motives. It has nothing to do with audits or accountability.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

'The Assumptions Behind the Federal Reserve’s Choice of 2% per Year Were Erroneous'

Brad DeLong:

The Assumptions Behind the Federal Reserve’s Choice of 2% per Year Were Erroneous: Focus: ...The decision by the Federal Reserve in the mid-1990s to settle on a 2% per year target inflation rate depended on three facts — or, rather, on three things that were presumed to be facts back in the mid-1990s:

  1. That the long run Phillips curve was vertical even with an inflation rate averaging 2% per year, so that there was no production or employment cost of such a target.
  2. That the safe real interest rate would be positive and significant, so that a 2% per year inflation target would not entail disturbingly low levels of nominal interest rates that might lead to instabilities in velocity.
  3. That shocks to the economy would be small, so that the Federal Reserve would never seek to compensate with an interest-rate reduction in the range of 5% or more.

We now know that all three of these were and are false.

The easiest way to fix this problem would be to revise the Federal Reserve Act — perhaps to add “healthy rate of nominal wage growth” to the list of Federal Reserve monetary policy objectives.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Fed Watch: Yellen Strikes a Dovish Tone

Tim Duy:

Yellen Strikes a Dovish Tone, by Tim Duy: The FOMC concluded its two-day meeting today, and the results were largely as I had anticipated. The Fed took note of the recent data, downgrading the pace of activity from "solid" to "moderated." They continue to expect inflation weakness to be transitory. The risks to the outlook are balanced. And "patient" was dropped; April is still off the table for a rate hike, but data dependence rules from that point on.
Growth, inflation and unemployment forecasts all came down. Especially important was the decrease in longer-run unemployment projections. The Fed's estimates of NAIRU are falling, something almost impossible to avoid given the stickiness of wage growth in the face of falling unemployment. The forecast changes yielded a downward revision to the Fed's interest rate projections. In addition, the strong dollar was clearly on the Fed's mind. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen often referred to the dollar and its impact on growth in the press conference, much more than I expected. I think they are probably happy the dollar took a hit today. On net, I think this from last week stood up well:
...assuming the Federal Reserve takes sufficient note of the rising dollar, and its impact on inflation, by lowering the expected path of short term interest rates. And perhaps this is exactly what is revealed in next week's Summary of Economic Projections. Look for the possibility next week that the Fed is both hawkish - by opening the door for a June hike - and dovish - by lowering the median rate projections in the dot plot.
Note that the Fed is capitulating here. The distance between the bond market and the Fed rate expectations has been something of a conundrum for policymakers. But it is now clear the bond market is not moving toward the Fed; the Fed is moving toward the bond market. Going forward, they still believe that their rate forecast is accommodative. Based on the new estimate of NAIRU and New York Federal Reserve President William Dudley's recent estimate of the equilibrium rate, they are correct:

FOMCa

But if you assume a lower equilibrium interest rate, the Fed's rate forecast has more downside to it if they wish to remain accommodative:

FOMCb

For what it's worth, this is what San Fransisco Federal Reserve President John Williams' research suggests about the current equilibrium rate:

FOMCc

Is June really on the table? Regarding the timing of the first rate hike, the FOMC had this to say:
The Committee anticipates that it will be appropriate to raise the target range for the federal funds rate when it has seen further improvement in the labor market and is reasonably confident that inflation will move back to its 2 percent objective over the medium term.
Yellen was pushed to quantify "reasonably confident" during the press conference, but she declined to give a mechanical answer. Actual inflation, the path of the labor market, wage growth, and measures of inflation expectations were all fair game in the assessment. She did say wage growth was not a precondition for rate hike. I tend to think that unemployment dropping to 5% or an acceleration in wage growth is sufficient to prompt the first rate hike, either of which could still happen by the time of the June meeting. That said, at this point, the inflation and growth data point to a later lift-off, and weighting the expectations for a rate hike at a later date seems appropriate at this juncture.
Bottom Line: Yellen does it again - she moves the Fed both closer to and further from the first rate hike of this cycle. By moving toward the markets on the path of rate hikes, the Fed acknowledges that they are eager to let this recovery run on. Moreover, they proved that they are in fact data dependent by moving policy in the direction of the data. Overall, Yellen has managed the transition away from what the Fed came to see as excessive forward guidance just about as well as could be expected.

FOMC Press Release

The Fed has lost its patience (i.e. it dropped the word patience from its forward guidance even as it increases its estimate of the amount of slack in the economy by lowering its estimate of the natural rate of unemployment -- that gives it more reason to remain patient -- though the statement does say "This change in the forward guidance does not indicate that the Committee has decided on the timing of the initial increase in the target range"):

Press Release, Release Date: March 18, 2015, For immediate release, FOMC: Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in January suggests that economic growth has moderated somewhat. Labor market conditions have improved further, with strong job gains and a lower unemployment rate. A range of labor market indicators suggests that underutilization of labor resources continues to diminish. Household spending is rising moderately; declines in energy prices have boosted household purchasing power. Business fixed investment is advancing, while the recovery in the housing sector remains slow and export growth has weakened. Inflation has declined further below the Committee's longer-run objective, largely reflecting declines in energy prices. Market-based measures of inflation compensation remain low; survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations have remained stable.
Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability. The Committee expects that, with appropriate policy accommodation, economic activity will expand at a moderate pace, with labor market indicators continuing to move toward levels the Committee judges consistent with its dual mandate. The Committee continues to see the risks to the outlook for economic activity and the labor market as nearly balanced. Inflation is anticipated to remain near its recent low level in the near term, but the Committee expects inflation to rise gradually toward 2 percent over the medium term as the labor market improves further and the transitory effects of energy price declines and other factors dissipate. The Committee continues to monitor inflation developments closely.
To support continued progress toward maximum employment and price stability, the Committee today reaffirmed its view that the current 0 to 1/4 percent target range for the federal funds rate remains appropriate. In determining how long to maintain this target range, the Committee will assess progress--both realized and expected--toward its objectives of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation. This assessment will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial and international developments. Consistent with its previous statement, the Committee judges that an increase in the target range for the federal funds rate remains unlikely at the April FOMC meeting. The Committee anticipates that it will be appropriate to raise the target range for the federal funds rate when it has seen further improvement in the labor market and is reasonably confident that inflation will move back to its 2 percent objective over the medium term. This change in the forward guidance does not indicate that the Committee has decided on the timing of the initial increase in the target range.
The Committee is maintaining its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its holdings of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in agency mortgage-backed securities and of rolling over maturing Treasury securities at auction. This policy, by keeping the Committee's holdings of longer-term securities at sizable levels, should help maintain accommodative financial conditions.
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.
Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Janet L. Yellen, Chair; William C. Dudley, Vice Chairman; Lael Brainard; Charles L. Evans; Stanley Fischer; Jeffrey M. Lacker; Dennis P. Lockhart; Jerome H. Powell; Daniel K. Tarullo; and John C. Williams.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Fed Watch: The End of "Patient" and Questions for Yellen

Tim Duy:

The End of "Patient" and Questions for Yellen, by Tim Duy: FOMC meeting with week, with a subsequent press conference with Fed Chair Janet Yellen. Remember to clear your calendar for this Wednesday. It is widely expected that the Fed will drop the word “patient” from its statement. Too many FOMC participants want the opportunity to debate a rate hike in June, and thus “patient” needs to go. The Fed will not want this to imply that a rate hike is guaranteed at the June meeting, so look for language emphasizing the data-dependent nature of future policy. This will also be stressed in the press conference.

Of interest too will be the Fed’s assessment of economic conditions since the last FOMC meeting. On net, the data has been lackluster – expect for the employment data, of course. The latter, however, is of the highest importance to the Fed. I anticipate that they will view the rest of the data as largely noise against the steadily improving pace of underlying activity as indicated by employment data. That said, I would expect some mention of recent softness in the opening paragraph of the statement.

I don’t think the Fed will alter its general conviction that low readings on inflation are largely temporary. They may even cite improvement in market-based measures of inflation compensation to suggest they were right not to panic at the last FOMC meeting. I am also watching for how they describe the international environment. I would not expect explicit mention of the dollar, but maybe we will see a coded reference. Note that in her recent testimony, Yellen said:

But core PCE inflation has also slowed since last summer, in part reflecting declines in the prices of many imported items and perhaps also some pass-through of lower energy costs into core consumer prices.

Stronger dollar means lower prices of imported items.

The press conference will be the highlight of the meeting. Presumably, Yellen will continue to build the case for a rate hike. Since the foundation of that case rests on the improvement in labor markets and the subsequent impact on inflationary pressures, it is reasonable to ask:

On a scale of zero to ten, with ten being most confident, how confident is the Committee that inflation will rise toward target on the basis on low – and expected lower - unemployment?

Considering that low wage growth suggests it is too early to abandon Yellen’s previous conviction that unemployment is not the best measure of labor market tightness, we should consider:

Is faster wage growth a precondition to raising interest rates?

I expect the answer would be “no, wages are a lagging indicator.” The Federal Reserve seems to believe that policy will still remain very accommodative even after the first rate hike. We should ask for a metric to quantify the level of accommodation:

What is the current equilibrium level of interest rates? Where do you see the equilibrium level of interest rates in one year?

A related question regards the interpretation of the yield curve:

Do you consider low interest long-term interest rates to be indicative of loose monetary conditions, or a signal that the Federal Reserve needs to temper its expectations of the likely path of interest rates as indicated in the “dot plot”?

Relatedly, differential monetary policy is supporting capital inflows, depressing US interest rates and strengthening the dollar. This dynamic ignited a debate of what it means for the economy and how the Fed should or should not respond. Thus:

The dollar is appreciating at the fastest rate in many years. Is the appreciating dollar a drag on the US economy, or is any negative impact offset by the positive demand impact of looser monetary policy abroad? How much will the dollar need to appreciate before it impacts the direction of monetary policy?

Given that the Fed seems determined to raise interest rates, we should probably be considering some form of the following as a standard question:

Consider the next six months. Which is greater - the risk of moving too quickly to normalize policy, or the risk of delay? Please explain, with specific reference to both risks.

Finally, a couple of communications questions. First, the Fed is signaling that they do not intend to raise rates on a preset, clearly communicated path like the last hike cycle. Hence, we should not expect “patient” to be replaced with “measured.” But it seems like the FOMC is too contentious to expect them to shift from no hike one meeting to 25bp the next, then back to none – or maybe 50bp. So, let’s ask Yellen to explain the plan:

There appears to be an effort on the part of the FOMC to convince financial markets that rate hikes, when they begin, will not be on a pre-set path. Given the need for consensus building on the FOMC, how can you credibly commit to renegotiate the direction of monetary policy at each FOMC meeting? How do you communicate the likely direction of monetary policy between meetings?

Finally, as we move closer to policy normalization, the Fed should be rethinking the “dot plot,” which was initially conceived to show the Fed was committed to a sustained period of low rates. Given that the dot-plot appears to be fairly hawkish relative to market expectations, it may not be an appropriate signal in a period of rising interest rates. Time for a change? But is the Fed considering a change, and when will we see it? This leads me to:

Cleveland Federal Reserve President Loretta Mester has suggested revising the Summary of Economic Projections to explicitly link the forecasts of individual participants with their “dots” in the interest rate projections. Do you agree that this would be helpful in describing participants’ reaction functions? When will this or any other revisions to the Summary of Economic Projections be considered?

Bottom Line: By dropping "patient" the Fed will be taking another step toward the first rate hike of this cycle. But how long do we need to wait until that first hike? That depends on the data, and we will be listening for signals as to how, or how not, the Fed is being impacted by recent data aside from the positive readings on the labor market.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Paul Krugman: Strength Is Weakness

Is the rising value of the dollar good news?:

Strength Is Weakness, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: We’ve been warned over and over that the Federal Reserve, in its effort to improve the economy, is “debasing” the dollar..., the Fed’s critics keep insisting that easy-money policies will lead to a plunging dollar. Reality, however, keeps declining to oblige. Far from heading downstairs to debasement, the dollar has soared through the roof. ... Hooray for the strong dollar!
Or not. ... Currency markets ... always grade countries on a curve. The United States isn’t exactly booming, but it looks great compared with Europe... Markets have responded to those poor prospects by pushing interest rates incredibly low. In fact, many European bonds are now offering negative interest rates.
This remarkable situation makes even those low, low U.S. returns look attractive by comparison. So capital is heading our way, driving the euro down and the dollar up.
Who wins from this market move? Europe: a weaker euro makes European industry more competitive against rivals, boosting both exports and firms that compete with imports, and the effect is to mitigate the euroslump. Who loses? We do, as our industry loses competitiveness, not just in European markets, but in countries where our exports compete with theirs. ...
In effect, then, Europe is managing to export some of its stagnation to the rest of us. ... And the effects may be quite large. ...
One thing that worries me is that I’m not at all sure that policy makers have fully taken the implications of a rising dollar into account. The Fed, still eager to raise interest rates despite low inflation and stagnant wages, seems to me to be too sanguine about the economic drag. ...
Oh, and one more thing: a lot of businesses around the world have borrowed heavily in dollars, which means that a rising dollar may create a whole new set of debt crises. Just what the global economy needed.
Is there a policy moral to all this? One thing is that it’s really important for all of us that Mario Draghi at the European Central Bank and associates succeed in steering Europe away from a deflationary trap; the euro is their currency, but it turns out to be our problem. Mainly, though, this is another reason for the Fed to fight the urge to pretend that the crisis is over. Don’t raise rates until you see the whites of inflation’s eyes!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Fed Watch: Will the Dollar Impact US Growth?

Tim Duy:

Will the Dollar Impact US Growth?, by Tim Duy: A quick one while I wait for my flight at National. Scott Sumner argues that the strong dollar will not impact US growth. In response to a Washington Post story, he writes:

This is wrong, one should never reason from a price change. There are 4 primary reasons why the dollar might get stronger:

1. Tighter money in the US (falling NGDP growth expectations.)
2. Stronger economic growth in the US.
3. Weaker growth overseas.
4. Easier money overseas.

In my view the major factor at work today is easier money overseas. For instance, the ECB has recently raised its growth forecasts for 2015 and 2016, partly in response to the easier money policy adopted by the ECB (and perhaps partly due to lower oil prices—but again, that’s only bullish if the falling oil prices are due to more supply, not less demand–see below.) That sort of policy shift in Europe is probably expansionary for the US.

The initial point is correct - arguing from a price change is a risky proposition. Go to the underlying factors. But I think the next paragraph is a bit questionable. I think that the policy shift in Europe does reduce tail risk for the global economy, and is therefore a positive for the US economy (I suspect the Fed thinks so as well). But it reduces tail risk because ECB policy is supporting not one but two positive economic shocks - both falling oil and a rising falling Euro. And, all else equal, a rising falling euro means a stronger dollar, which means a negative for the US economy. Tail risk for Europe is reduced at a cost for the US economy (a cost that the Federal Reserve and US Treasury both seem willing to endure).

That said, all this means is that Sumner is right, you can't reason from a price change, but reasoning in a general equilibrium framework is very, very hard. Sumner gets closer here, but still I think falls short:

However NGDP growth forecasts in the Hypermind market have trended slightly lower in the past couple of months. Unfortunately, this market is still much too small and illiquid to draw any strong conclusions. Things will improve when the iPredict futures market is also up and running, and even more when the Fed creates and subsidizes a NGDP prediction market. But that’s still a few years away. Nonetheless, let’s assume Hypermind is correct. Then perhaps money in the US has gotten slightly tighter, and perhaps this will cause growth to slow a bit. But in that case the cause of the slower growth would be tighter money, not a stronger dollar.

So let's try to close the circle - not only can't you reason from a price change, but also you need to pay attention to the entire constellation of prices. If ECB policy - and, by extension, the falling euro - was a net positive for the US economy, shouldn't we expect higher long US interest rates? But long US rates continue to hover around 2%, which seems crazy given the Fed's stated intention to start raising rates. Consider, however, that the stronger dollar does in fact represent tighter monetary conditions, but long interest rates are falling, which acts as a counterbalance by loosening financial conditions. Essentially, markets are anticipating that the stronger dollar saps US growth, but the Fed will respond with a slower pace of policy normalization, which acts in the opposite direction. So the stronger dollar does negatively impact growth, but market participants expect a monetary offset.

Hence - and I think Sumner would agree with this - the ball is in the Federal Reserve's court. The stronger dollar is a negative for the US economy, while the expected impact on monetary policy is a positive. The net impact is neutral. You should anticipate a stronger domestic economy offset by a larger trade deficit.

That is, of course, assuming the Federal Reserve takes sufficient note of the rising dollar, and its impact on inflation, by lowering the expected path of short term interest rates. And perhaps this is exactly what is revealed in next week's Summary of Economic Projections. Look for the possibility next week that the Fed is both hawkish - by opening the door for a June hike - and dovish - by lowering the median rate projections in the dot plot.

Update: I see Paul Krugman is lamenting the possibility that some FOMC members interpret falling interest rates as reason to tighten policy more aggressively - a view primarily outlined by New York Federal Reserve President William Dudley. My read of the bond market implies that market participants expect the opposite - the Fed needs to accept additional financial accommodation. That said, Dudley's stance clearly opens the door to the possibility of the Fed running an excessively tight policy stance, which wouldn't happen if they took their inflation target seriously.

Monetary and Fiscal Policy in a Post-Inflation World

Alice Rivlin:

Thoughts about monetary and fiscal policy in a post-inflation world, Brookings: ... Why are we still so focused on fighting inflation? Why are so many people in this room devoting so much time and attention to guessing when the Federal Reserve will start raising short-term interest rates and get back to its “normal” job of protecting us from inflation? Is inflation an important threat to our economic well-being? Is when to raise interest rates the most urgent question facing the Fed at the moment? Or are we suffering from cultural lag?
Collecting linguistic evidence of cultural lags is a minor hobby of mine. I smile when I catch myself referring to the refrigerator as the “ice box,” because that was what my mother called it... I am amused when young people tell me their phones are “ringing off the hook.” Have they ever used a phone with a receiver on a hook? When bureaucrats say they are eager to break out of their silos, I wonder if they if they have ever lived on a farm or anywhere close to a silo. So when politicians and financial journalists ask me earnestly, as they do, whether the Federal Reserve isn’t risking devastating “run-away” inflation by buying all those bonds, I suspect cultural lag. What Inflation? We should be so lucky! Central banks have amply proved that they know how to stop inflation—Paul Volcker showed that. They have been much less successful in getting little inflation going.
A lecture in honor of Paul Volcker is the perfect occasion for raising the fundamental question: are the major advanced economies (US, Europe, Japan) facing a new normal for which current tools of monetary, fiscal, and regulatory policy need to be restructured? ...
Over-coming cultural lag in order to prosper in a post-inflation world will take significant shifts in the mind-set of economists, economic policy-makers, politicians and the public. I see four major challenges to current thinking:
  • We have to recognize that the main job of central banks is avoiding financial crisis.
  • We will have to get used to central banks operating at quite low interest rates much of the time and managing big balance sheets without apologies.
  • We have to rehabilitate budget policy to make it useable again and move to a sustainable debt track at the same time
  • We have to find constitutional ways of reducing the power of big money in politics and economic policy—or change the Constitution.

I will get back to these four challenges, but first a very quick tour through the macro-policy landscape of the last five or six decades. ...

And, later in the essay (it is relatively long, and I don't agree with every single point that is made, e.g. when she defends ‘Simpson-Bowlesism’ and discusses the need to rein in entitlement spending, and when she argues against selling the idea "that unspecified government spending would add to aggregate demand and accelerate the recovery without adverse consequences to the long-run debt... Unspecified spending and near-term debt increase are what the public and elected officials fear, and they are skeptical of fee lunches. Instead, we have to make the case for very specific public investments that can be shown to have positive impacts on productivity growth and future prosperity" -- deficit spending in a recession has a role to play in stimulating the economy in the short-run, we shouldn't focus only on the long-run growth potential of policy -- but I do agree with the the general thrust of her comments):

... Political polarization has led to angry confrontations over the budget for the last several years complete with threats to shut down the government or default on the national debt and bizarre budget decision processes, such as the Super Committee, the fiscal cliff, and sequestration. These shenanigans are unworthy of a mature democracy and horrendously destructive of confidence in rational economic governance. The result has been worse than gridlock. It has been insanely counterproductive budget policy at a time when the federal budget could have been contributing both to faster recovery and to longer run productivity growth.
I believe the Great Recession would have been longer and deeper without the stimulus package of 2009.[8] If the stimulus had been larger and lasted longer, recovery would have been more robust and the Fed might not have found it necessary to do so much quantitative easing. Indeed, it is pretty crazy economics for a country trying to climb out of a deep recession to put the burden of accelerating a recovery on the monetary authorities—a job they have never been great at—in the face of sharply declining federal deficits that made the task of stimulating recovery with monetary tools a lot more challenging. But that is what we did.
I also believe that the United States has been dangerously under-investing in public infrastructure, scientific research, and the skills of our future labor force. Doing everything we can to nudge productivity growth back up again is essential to future prosperity. With the private investment awaiting more demand and confidence, the public sector should be moving strongly into the breach with well-structured investment in everything from roads to technical training to basic research. Instead, our bizarre budget process has been squeezed the very budget accounts that contain most opportunity for public investment. Discretionary spending is at record lows in relation to the size of the economy and headed lower while the highway trust fund is running dry. How crazy is that?
Making budget policy useful again will take major shifts in political thinking, and here I think economists can help if they use arguments the public and politicians can relate to. First, I would recommend not pushing the argument that unspecified government spending would add to aggregate demand and accelerate the recovery without adverse consequences to the long-run debt. Ball, Summers and DeLong may well be right that hysteresis is so serious a consequence of recession that spending now would juice recovery enough to bring down long run debt.[9] But they are never going to sell that argument. Unspecified spending and near-term debt increase are what the public and elected officials fear, and they are skeptical of fee lunches.
Instead, we have to make the case for very specific public investments that can be shown to have positive impacts on productivity growth and future prosperity. This should not be an argument for larger government, but for shifting from less to more effective government spending and from consumption-oriented spending (including spending in the tax code) to growth oriented spending over time. And, oh yes, that means making the tax code more progressive, more pro-growth, and raising additional revenue, as well as restructuring entitlement programs. There is plenty is such an agenda for both liberals and conservatives to like—if only they could be persuaded to talk about it. ...

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

'Hard Money'

Brad DeLong:

Austerity, Gramscian Hegemony, and Hard Money: To the Re-Education Camp! Weblogging: ... Paul Krugman tries to untangle why so many center-right and right-wing economists are so resistant to the elementary logic of Hicks (1937) and the IS-LM model—even those who, like Marty Feldstein, teach the IS-LM model to their students, and teach it very well (after all: he taught it to me).

Back in 2009 ... Mark Thoma wrote a good piece giving what seemed to me to be the correct answer to the inflationistas: He wrote that there was some reason to fear an outburst of inflation when and if the long run came in which the government budget constraint bound and yet congress was continuing to refuse to either:

  • curb the growth of public health care costs, or
  • raise taxes to pay for them.

But, he went on, the IS-LM logic meant that that was not a risk in the short run. And the cost of the stimulus program and how much debt was "monetized" by QE had at best a second decimal-place effect on the vulnerability of the U.S. to long-run inflation driven by the fiscal theory of the price level. The big enchilada was health-care costs...[quotes my old post]...

That seemed and seems to me to be right, and that is driven by a coherent theoretical view: (i) an unemployment short-run until production returns to potential output, (ii) a medium run in which confidence and interest rates and full-employment growth rates depend on market assessments of how the long-run fiscal gap will be closed, and (iii) a long run in which, perhaps suddenly and unexpectedly, the fiscal theory of the price level binds.

The only thing wrong with Mark's analysis back in 2009 that I saw then and that I see now--other than the short run being a very long time indeed, the bending of the health care costs curve occurring much more sharply than I had imagined possible, and a configuration of interest rates which raises the strong possibility that the long-run in which the fiscal theory of the price level binds has been put off to infinity--was that it missed the easiest way of shrinking the velocity of money in a recovery: raising reserve requirements. So I always had a very hard time figuring out what Feldstein and company were fearing at all...

Indeed, it seemed to me not to be coherent:

 Martin Feldstein: "The unprecedented explosion of the US fiscal deficit raises the spectre of high future inflation. ... It is surprising that the long-term interest rates do not yet reflect the resulting risk of future inflation...

... As I looked back on the situation in 2009 and 2010--with a dead housing credit channel, and the increasing likelihood of a recovery characterized not as a V or as a U but as an L--I find myself thinking that Marty Feldstein and the others had turned all their smarts to trying to find reasons not to believe the IS-LM models that they (or at least Feldstein and Taylor) had taught, and not to believe that the marginal investor in financial markets was not-stupid. That fiscal and monetary ease would bring back the 1970s in short order was their conclusion. The task was to think of not-implausible reasons and mechanisms that would make this so.

The corollary, of course, is that for them the only good policies are hard-money austerity policies; and the only good portfolios are those that assume a departure from hard-money austerity will produce inflation.

So perhaps there is a deeper problem somewhere..., it really makes no sense for my contemporaries to be hard-money believers. Yet an astonishing share of the rich among them are.

A great and enduring puzzle...

So: To the re-education camp! I have a lot of rethinking to do--but not about IS-LM, hysteresis, or the fiscal theory of the price level; rather, about the connecting-belts between asset values, wealth levels, and people's ideal interests of what proper monetary and fiscal policy should be.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Paul Krugman: Partying Like It’s 1995

Patience!:

Partying Like It’s 1995, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Six years ago, Paul Ryan,... the G.O.P.’s leading voice on matters economic,... warned that the efforts of the Obama administration and the Federal Reserve to fight the effects of financial crisis would bring back the woes of the 1970s, with both inflation and unemployment high.
True, not all Republicans agreed with his assessment. Many asserted that we were heading for Weimar-style hyperinflation instead.
Needless to say, those warnings proved totally wrong. ... Far from seeing a rerun of that ’70s show, what we’re now looking at is an economy that in important respects resembles that of the 1990s. ... The Fed currently estimates the Nairu at between 5.2 percent and 5.5 percent, and the latest report puts the actual unemployment rate at 5.5 percent. So we’re there — time to raise interest rates!
Or maybe not. The Nairu is supposed to be the unemployment rate at which ... an inflationary spiral starts to kick in. But there is no sign of inflationary pressure. ...
The thing is, we’ve been here before. In the early-to-mid 1990s, the Fed generally estimated the Nairu as being between 5.5 percent and 6 percent, and by 1995, unemployment had already fallen to that level. But inflation wasn’t actually rising. So Fed officials ... held their fire... And it turned out that the ... economy was capable of generating millions more jobs, without inflation...
Are we in a similar situation now? Actually, I don’t know — but neither does the Fed. The question, then, is what to do in the face of that uncertainty...
To me, as to a number of economists ... the answer seems painfully obvious: Don’t ... pull that rate-hike trigger until you see the whites of inflation’s eyes. If it turns out that the Fed has waited a bit too long, inflation might overshoot 2 percent for a while, but that wouldn’t be a great tragedy. But if the Fed moves too soon, we might end up losing millions of jobs we could have had — and in the worst case, we might end up sliding into a Japanese-style deflationary trap...
What’s worrisome is that it’s not clear whether Fed officials see it that way. They need to heed the lessons of history — and the relevant history here is the 1990s, not the 1970s. Let’s party like it’s 1995; let the good, or at least better, times keep rolling, and hold off on those rate hikes.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

'Remembrance of NAIRUs Past'

Paul Krugman:

...the current situation looks quite a lot like the mid-90s, with unemployment basically at the Fed’s estimate of “full employment” but no sign of inflation — except that back then wages were rising much more vigorously than now. Now, as then, there is a very real possibility that we have lots more room to run, if the Fed lets us.

[Travel day today, will post more if and as I can.]

Friday, March 06, 2015

Fed Watch: 'Patient' is History

Tim Duy:

Patient' is History: The February employment report almost certainly means the Fed will no longer describe its policy intentions as "patient" at the conclusion of the March FOMC meeting. And it also keep a June rate hike in play. But for June to move from "in play" to "it's going to happen," I still feel the Fed needs a more on the inflation side. The key is the height of that inflation bar.

The headline NFP gain was a better-than-expected 295k with 18k upward adjustment for January. The 12-month moving average continues to trend higher:

NFPa030615

Unemployment fell to 5.5%, which is the top of the central range for the Fed's estimate of NAIRU. Still, wage growth remains elusive:

NFPb030615

Is wage growth sufficient to stay the Fed's hand?  I am not so sure. I recently wrote:

My take is this: To get a reasonably sized consensus to support a rate hike, two conditions need to be met. One is sufficient progress toward full-employment with the expectation of further progress. I think that condition has already been met. The second condition is confidence that inflation will indeed trend toward target. That condition has not been met. To meet that condition requires at least one of the following sub-conditions: Rising core-inflation, rising market-based measures of inflation compensation, or accelerating wage growth. If any were to occur before June, I suspect it would be the accelerating wage growth.

I am less confident that we will see accelerating wage growth by June, although I should keep in mind we still have three more employment reports before that meeting. Note, however, low wage growth does not preclude a rate hike. The Fed hiked rates in 1994 in a weak wage growth environment:

NFPg030615

And again in 2004 liftoff occurred on the (correct) forecast of accelerating wage growth:

NFPf030615

So wage growth might not be there in June to support a rate hike. And, as I noted earlier this weaker, I have my doubts on whether core-inflation would support a rate hike either. That leaves us with market-based measures of inflation compensation. And at this point, that just might be the key:

NFPe030615

If bond markets continue to reverse the oil-driven inflation compensation decline, the Fed may see a way clear to hiking rates in June. But the pace and timing of subsequent rate hikes would still be data dependent. I would anticipate a fairly slow, halting path of rate hikes in the absence of faster wage growth.

Bottom Line:  "Patient" is out. Tough to justify with unemployment at the top of the Fed's central estimates of NAIRU. Pressure to begin hiking rates will intensify as unemployment heads lower. The inflation bar will fall, and Fed officials will increasingly look for reasons to hike rates rather than reasons to delay. They may not want to admit it, but I suspect one of those reasons will be fear of financial instability in the absence of tighter policy. June is in play.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Fed Watch: Does The Fed Have a Currency Problem?

Tim Duy:

Does The Fed Have a Currency Problem?, by Tim Duy: The PCE inflation data was released today, and I have been seeing commentary on the relative strength of the core-inflation numbers. This, for example, from the Wall Street Journal:
A key gauge of U.S. consumer prices sank in January due partly to cheaper oil, undershooting the Federal Reserve’s goal of 2% annual inflation for the 33rd consecutive month. But a gauge of underlying price pressures remained resilient headed into 2015.
The picture:

PCEa030215

Core-PCE is hovering around 1.3%, and the stability relative to last month is supposedly supportive of Federal Reserve plans to hike interest rates later this year.  
I would caution against that interpretation just yet. While it is true that the year-over-year change is how the Fed measures its progress toward price stability, you should also be watching the near term changes to see the likely direction of the year-over-year message. And in recent months, near-term core inflation has been falling at a rapid pace:

PCEb030215

On a 3-month basis, core inflation is at its lowest since the plunge in 2008. Year-over-year inflation has been held up by a basis effect from a jump in early 2014, but unless we get another jump in the monthly data, you can guess where the year-over-year number will be heading in the next few months:

PCEc030215

Which means that unless the numbers turn soon, there is a fairly good chance the Fed's preferred inflation guide (I say guide because headline inflation is truly the target) drifts lower as the year progresses. Hence I am less eager to embrace that today's release is supportive of the Fed's plans.  
Why is core-inflation drifting lower?  Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen offered this in her testimony last week:
But core PCE inflation has also slowed since last summer, in part reflecting declines in the prices of many imported items and perhaps also some pass-through of lower energy costs into core consumer prices.
 While oil prices have stabilized, the dollar continues to gain ground, hitting an 11-year high today:

DOLLAR030215

If the dollar continues its upward gains - as might be expected given divergent monetary policy across the globe - further downward pressure on core-inflation is likely. This clearly throws a wrench into the Fed's plans. It would be hard to justify confidence in the inflation outlook if core-inflation trends lower in the months ahead.
The Fed could be headed for a very uncomfortable place. The dollar is rising, tightening financial conditions and placing downward pressure on inflation. At the same time, interest rates remain low while equities push higher, loosening financial conditions, arguably an equilibrating response to the rising dollar.  On net, then, the US economy keeps grinding upward, the labor market keeps improving, and the unemployment rate sinks lower. Yellen & Co. would want to resist tightening in the face of low inflation, but they would be increasingly tempted to react to low unemployment. Moreover, concerns of financial instability would mount if longer-term rates remained low and equities pushed higher. All in all, sounds like an increasingly hawkish FOMC coupled with a sluggish global economy and dovish central bankers elsewhere is raising the odds of a US policy error. 
Bottom Line: The rising dollar may be causing the Fed more headaches than they like to admit. To the extent that it is pushing inflation lower, the dollar should be delaying the time to the first rate hike as well as lowering the subsequent path of rates. The Fed may have to respond to the so-called "currency wars" whether they like it or not. That said, I can't rule out that they ignore the inflation numbers given the tightening labor market and what they perceive to be loose financial conditions. The Fed could fail to see the precarious nature of the current environment and move forward with plans to normalize policy. Increasingly likely to be a very interesting summer for monetary policy.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Fed Watch: Game On

Tim Duy:

Game On, by Tim Duy: Almost too much Fed news last week to cover in one post.

The highlight of the week was Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen's testimony to the Senate and House. On net, I think her assessment of the US economy was more optimistic relative to the last FOMC statement, which gives a preview of the outcome of the March 17-18 FOMC meeting. Labor markets are improving, output and production are growing at a solid pace, oil is likely to be a net positive, both upside and downside risks from the rest of the world, and, after the impact of oil prices washes out, inflation will trend toward the Fed's 2% target. To be sure, some challenges remain, such as still high underemployment and low levels of housing activity, but the overall picture is clearly brighter. No wonder then that the Fed continues to set the stage for rate hikes this year. Importantly, Yellen gave the green light for pulling "patient" at the next FOMC meeting:

If economic conditions continue to improve, as the Committee anticipates, the Committee will at some point begin considering an increase in the target range for the federal funds rate on a meeting-by-meeting basis. Before then, the Committee will change its forward guidance. However, it is important to emphasize that a modification of the forward guidance should not be read as indicating that the Committee will necessarily increase the target range in a couple of meetings. Instead the modification should be understood as reflecting the Committee's judgment that conditions have improved to the point where it will soon be the case that a change in the target range could be warranted at any meeting.

She is under pressure from both hawks and moderates to leave June open for a rate hike, which requires pulling "patient" from the statement. But at the same time, they don't want the end of "patient" to be a guarantee of a rate hike in June. And that is the message Yellen sends here.

More broadly, though, Yellen is signaling the end of extensive forward guidance. They don't know how the data will unfold at this point, so they are no longer willing to guarantee one particular monetary policy path or another. This was also the message sent by Federal Reserve Vice Chair Stanley Fischer. Via the Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Fischer said that while many believe the Fed will move rates steadily higher, meeting by meeting, in modest increments, it is unlikely the world will allow that to happen. “I know of no plans to follow one of those deterministic paths,” he said, adding, “I hope that doesn’t happen, I don’t believe that will happen.”

Instead, Mr. Fischer affirmed that whatever the Fed does with short-term rates will be determined by the performance of the economy, which will almost certainly offer the unexpected.

Mr. Fischer said there is value in making sure you don’t take markets “by surprise on a regular basis.” But at the same time, offering too much guidance can shackle monetary policy makers, and “there’s no good reason to telegraph every action.”

It's "game on" for Fed watchers! Figure it out, because the Fed will no longer be holding our hands.

Separately, San Francisco Federal Reserve President John Williams echoes Yellen's assessment of the US economy. Via the Wall Street Journal:

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Williams expressed a good deal of confidence in the U.S. outlook, especially on hiring. He said the jobless rate could fall to 5% by the end of the year, which means the central bank is getting closer to boosting its benchmark short-term interest rate from near zero, where it has been since the end of 2008.

“We are coming at this from a position of strength,” Mr. Williams said. “As we collect more data through this spring, as we get to June or later, I think in my own view we’ll be coming closer to saying there are a constellation of factors in place” to make a call on rate increases, he said.

He also gives guidance on why the Fed will soon be confident that inflation will trend back toward target. It's all about the labor market:

Mr. Williams said it is likely that the Fed will see a hot labor market that should in turn produce the wage pressures that will drive inflation back up to desired levels. He said much of the weakness seen now in price pressures is due to the sharp drop in oil prices, which he said isn’t likely to last.

“The cosmological constant is that if you heat up the labor market, get the unemployment rate down to 5% or below, that’s going to create pressures in the labor market” causing wages to rise, he said.

Williams also bemoans the failure of financial market participants to, as he sees it, catch a clue:

Mr. Williams said there is a “disconnect” between Fed officials’ and markets’ expectations for the path of short-term rates. He said he hopes that can be bridged by effective communication explaining central bank policy choices.

St. Louis Federal Reserve President James Bullard has often stated the same concern, and does so again in yet another interview with the Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Bullard said he is worried financial markets aren’t fully taking on board the likely path of monetary policy, and are underpricing what the Fed will do with interest rates.

“The market is pricing in a later and slower and shallower pace of increases” compared to what central bankers think, the official said. “The mismatch has to get resolved at some point, and I think there’s some risk it could be resolved in a violent way,” which he suspects no one would like to see.

Similarly, New York Federal Reserve President William Dudley warns that the Fed will need to choose a more aggressive rate path if financial market participants don't figure it out after the Fed starts raising rates:

As an example, one significant conundrum in financial markets currently is the recent decline of forward short-term rates at long time horizons to extremely low levels—for example, the 1-year nominal rate, 9 years forward is about 3 percent currently. My staff’s analysis attributes this decline almost entirely to lower term premia. In this case, the fact that market participants have set forward rates so low has presumably led to a more accommodative set of financial market conditions, such as the level of bond yields and the equity market’s valuation, that are more supportive to economic growth. If such compression in expected forward short-term rates were to persist even after the FOMC begins to raise short-term interest rates, then, all else equal, it would be appropriate to choose a more aggressive path of monetary policy normalization as compared to a scenario in which forward short-term rates rose significantly, pushing bond yields significantly higher.

All of which sounds to me like the Fed wants to see the term premium start drifting higher - in other words, the situation is now the opposite of the unintended climb in term premiums during the 2013 "Taper Tantrum" incident.

When will that first hike occur? Far too much attention is placed on that question says Fischer:

He said there has been “excessive attention” paid to the issue of when rates will be lifted, and not enough to attention to what happens with short-term rates once they’ve been boosted off of their current near-zero levels.

That I suspect is correct; I am more interested in how the Fed proceeds after the first rate hike (June still on the table, but I don't know if they will have sufficient data to be confident in the inflation outlook) than the timing of the rate hike itself. Is the Fed really as eager to challenge financial markets as Dudley suggests? I am a little nervous this is shaping up to be a repeat of the Riksbank incident.

Bottom Line: The Fed's confidence in the US economy is driving them closer to policy normalization. The labor market improvements are key - as long as unemployment is falling, confidence in the inflation outlook is rising. The more important message, however, is as the timing of the first rate hike draws closer, the level of uncertainty is rising. And it is not just about the timing of that rate hike. The Fed is sending a clear message that the subsequent path of rates is also very uncertain, and they don't think that uncertainty is being taken seriously by market participants. In their view, financial markets are too complacent about the likely path of interest rates.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

'What is the New Normal for the Real Interest Rate?'

Jim Hamilton:

What is the new normal for the real interest rate?: The yield on a 10-year Treasury inflation protected security was negative through much of 2012 and 2013, and remains today below 0.25%. Have we entered a new era in which a real rate near zero is the new normal? That’s the subject of a new paper that I just completed with Ethan Harris, head of global economics research at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Jan Hatzius chief economist of Goldman Sachs, and Kenneth West professor of economics at the University of Wisconsin...
For the project we assembled annual data on the interest rate set by the central bank (or close substitute) along with inflation estimates for 20 different countries going back in some cases to 1800, along with more detailed quarterly data since 1970. ...
We found little support in these data for two of the popular conceptions many people have about real interest rates. First, although it is often assumed in theoretical models that there is some long-run constant value toward which the real interest rate eventually returns, our long-run data lead us to reject that hypothesis, consistent with other studies...
We also found little support for the popular assumption that the long-run economic growth rate is the primary factor driving changes in the equilibrium real interest rate over time. ...
We conclude that changes in personal discount rates, financial regulation, trends in inflation, bubbles and cyclical headwinds have had important effects on the average real rate observed over any given decade. We examine the secular stagnation hypothesis in detail. On balance, we find it unpersuasive, concluding that it confuses a delayed recovery with chronically weak aggregate demand. ...
It’s worth remembering that recoveries from financial crises often take many years. ... Our paper reviews a great deal of evidence that leads us to conclude that those who see the current situation as a long-term condition for the United States are simply over-weighting the most recent data from an economic recovery that is still far from complete...
Finally, our paper discusses the implications of these findings for monetary policy. ... We conclude that, given that we do not know the equilibrium real rate, there may be benefits to waiting to raise the nominal rate until we actually see some evidence of labor market pressure and increases in inflation. ...

Thursday, February 26, 2015

'Can Helicopter Money be Democratic?'

Simon Wren-Lewis:

Can helicopter money be democratic?: Helicopter money started as an abstract thought experiment..., in technical terms this is a combination of monetary policy (the creation of money) and fiscal policy (the government giving individuals money). Economists call such combinations a money financed fiscal stimulus. With the advent of Quantitative Easing (QE), it has also been called QE for the people.
Some have tried to suggest that central banks could undertake helicopter money for the first time without the involvement of governments. This is a fantasy that those who dislike the idea of government have concocted. Others who dislike the idea of fiscal policy have suggested that helicopter money is not really a fiscal transfer. That is also nonsense. ...
If initiation by the central bank is the defining feature of helicopter money, and this policy always requires the cooperation of government, might it be possible to imagine a form of helicopter money that was more ‘democratic’? ... A left wing government might decide that, rather than giving money to everyone including the rich, it would be better to increase transfers to the poor. A right wing government might decide it should only go to ‘hard working families’, and turn it into a tax break. We could call this democratic helicopter money.
I can see two problems with democratic helicopter money. ...
Given these problems, why even think about democratic helicopter money? One reason may be political. A long time ago I proposed giving the central bank limited powers to make temporary changes to a small set of predefined tax rates, and I found myself defending that idea in front of the UK’s Treasury Select Committee. To say that the MPs were none too keen on my idea would be an understatement. Making helicopter money democratic may be what has to happen to get politicians to support the idea.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Fed Watch: Yellen Heading to the Senate

Tim Duy:

Yellen Heading to the Senate, by Tim Duy: All eyes will be focused on Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen as she presents the semi-annual monetary policy testimony to the Senate Banking Committee. I anticipate that she will stick to an economic outlook very similar to that detailed in the last FOMC statement and related minutes. Expect her to indicate that the Fed is closing in on the time of the first rate hike - after all, this was clearly the topic of conversation at the January FOMC meeting. I anticipate the "Audit the Fed" movement will be on display in the Q&A, which will provide Senators the opportunity to display their ignorance of monetary policy. And with any luck, we will learn how "patient" the Fed really is.
That said, I am wary of expecting much in the way of insight on "patient." The Fed has trapped itself with that language, and I am thinking that it will take the collective power of the FOMC to devise a way out. And they have little choice but to deal with that issue at the March FOMC meeting. The basic problem is this: The hawks would be happy with pulling the trigger on 25bp at the March meeting. The center isn't ready to go along with that, but they want the option of being able to pull the trigger in June. But Yellen, in trying to signal in December that a rate hike was not imminent, linked the term "patient" to two meetings. So if they keep "patient" in the statement, it seems to imply that June is off the table, but that message will brings squeals of unhappiness from the hawks and even leave the center uncomfortable. But just pulling "patient" risks leaving the impression that a June hike is a certainty, which is a message the center doesn't want to send.
If you think this is a dumb way to manage monetary policy, you are correct. Now that the Fed is closer to meeting their employment mandate, they simply cannot credibly signal intentions six months in advance. They need to let the data start doing the work for them, but don't know how to make that transition.  
It something of a shame that Yellen couldn't leave well enough alone in December and let financial market participants believe that "patient" would be used as it had been in 2004. In that case, "patient" would have no time horizon other than that dropping the word "patient" meant that a rate hike was likely just one meeting away. They could credibly manage such a signal. Anything more than one meeting ahead is problematic.
On the economic outlook, I would say that if Yellen were to deviate from the January FOMC meeting, it would be in a generally positive direction. I think they will take the subsequently released upbeat employment report as strong evidence that underlying trends remain solid. The news that Wal-Mart is raising salaries will likely be viewed as just the tip of the iceberg. I doubt anyone on the FOMC believes Wal-Mart leadership acted out of the kindness of their hearts. Yellen herself will probably think something to the effect that "I told you that the quits rate was important."  

RETAILQUITS

Assuming the Greece situation holds together for another 24 hours, that coupled with easing by global central banks in recent weeks will lead FOMC members to believe that global risks have dissipated. And to top it off, US equities pushed back to record highs. What's not to like? Maybe the GDP numbers, but Cleveland Federal Reserve President Loretta Mester gave what I think is the consensus view on the topic:
WSJ: Putting aside the tailwinds that you’re seeing. The growth data look a little soft at the moment.
MESTER: Not really. The fourth quarter came in after two quarters of really robust growth. The employment report actually was revised up for those last couple of months. There is this tendency to look at the last data point. I’m just not that concerned. I think we’ve seen growth pickup. I think there is more momentum in the economy.
Hence why I also don't agonize about what a snowstorm means for monetary policy. It means nothing.
There is plenty on the docket beyond Yellen this week. Existing and new home sales, consumer confidence, regional Fed manufacturing indexes, durables goods orders, CPI, Case-Shiller, GDP revisions, and, if that weren't enough, speeches by Fed Presidents of Atlanta (Lockhart), Cleveland (Mester), and New York (Dudley), and Federal Reserve Governor Stanley Fischer. The fun just won't stop!
Bottom Line:  I expect the Fed will continue to walk the fine line between keeping June in play while signaling that the data will soon justify a rate hike though not necessarily in June. And watch for signs of an effort to shift the focus to the expected gradual pace of rate hikes in an effort to minimize adverse market reaction to the possibility of June. Expect generally positive views of recent data; the Fed thinks the economy is finally on the right path.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

'Helicopter Money and the Government of Central Bank Nightmares'

Simon Wren-Lewis:

Helicopter money and the government of central bank nightmares: If Quantitative Easing (QE), why not helicopter money? We know helicopter money is much more effective at stimulating demand. Helicopter money is a form of what economists call money financed fiscal stimulus (MFFS). In their current formulation independent central banks (ICB) rule out MFFS, because the institution that can do the stimulus (the government) is not allowed to cooperate on this with the institution that creates money (the ICB). In a world where governments - through ignorance or design - obsess about deficits when they should not, it turns out that MFFS or helicopter money is all we have left to prevent large negative demand shocks leading to deep and prolonged recessions. So why is it taboo? 
One reason why it is taboo among central banks is that they want an asset that they can later sell when the economy recovers. QE gives them that asset, but helicopter money does not. The nightmare (as ever with ICBs) is not the current position of deficient demand, but a potential future of excess inflation that they are unable to control. .... Helicopter money ... puts money into the system at the ZLB, in a much more effective way than QE, but it cannot be put into reverse by central banks alone. The central bank cannot demand we pay helicopter money back. [4] 
If the government cooperates, this is no problem. The government just ‘recapitalises’ the central bank, by either raising taxes or selling more of its own debt. Economists call this ‘fiscal backing’ for the central bank. In either case, the government is taking money out of the system on the central bank’s behalf. So the nightmare that makes helicopter money taboo is that the government refuses to do this. [1] ...

After explaining, he concludes

So this nightmare that makes helicopter money taboo is as unrealistic as most nightmares. The really strange thing is that ICBs have already had to confront this nightmare. It is more than possible that when central banks sell back their QE assets, they will make a loss, and so will be faced with exactly the same problem as with helicopter money. [3] A central banker knows better than not to worry about something because it might not happen. So the nightmare has already been faced down. It therefore seems doubly strange that the taboo about helicopter money remains. ...

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Fed Watch: January FOMC Minutes

Tim Duy:

January FOMC Minutes, by Tim Duy: Minutes from the January FOMC meeting were released today. It is fairly clear that the Fed is gearing up for rates hikes:

Participants discussed considerations related to the choice of the appropriate timing of the initial firming in monetary policy and pace of subsequent rate increases. Ahead of this discussion, the staff gave a presentation that outlined some of the key issues likely to be involved...

The debate sounds familiar. On one side are those concerned that the Fed's zero rate policy will overstay its welcome:

Several participants noted that a late departure could result in the stance of monetary policy becoming excessively accommodative, leading to undesirably high inflation. It was also suggested that maintaining the federal funds rate at its effective lower bound for an extended period or raising it rapidly, if that proved necessary, could adversely affect financial stability...

while on the other side doesn't want to pull the trigger too early:

In connection with the risks associated with an early start to policy normalization, many participants observed that a premature increase in rates might damp the apparent solid recovery in real activity and labor market conditions, undermining progress toward the Committee's objectives of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation. In addition, an earlier tightening would increase the likelihood that the Committee might be forced by adverse economic outcomes to return the federal funds rate to its effective lower bound.

I would say that "many" is greater than "several," which means that as of January, the consensus leaned toward later than sooner. Indeed:

Many participants indicated that their assessment of the balance of risks associated with the timing of the beginning of policy normalization had inclined them toward keeping the federal funds rate at its effective lower bound for a longer time...

Here it would be helpful to know the expected time horizons. How long is a "longer" time? My sense is that the possibility of a March hike was on the table at the request of the hawks, and "longer" meant sometime after March. But when after March? That is data dependent, but the Fed is challenged to describe exactly what conditions need to be met before justifying a rate hike:

Participants discussed the economic conditions that they anticipate will prevail at the time they expect it will be appropriate to begin normalizing policy. There was wide agreement that it would be difficult to specify in advance an exhaustive list of economic indicators and the values that these indicators would need to take.

Still, they have some broad guidelines:

Nonetheless, a number of participants suggested that they would need to see further improvement in labor market conditions and data pointing to continued growth in real activity at a pace sufficient to support additional labor market gains before beginning policy normalization. Many participants indicated that such economic conditions would help bolster their confidence in the likelihood of inflation moving toward the Committee's 2 percent objective after the transitory effects of lower energy prices and other factors dissipate.

It seems then that "many" participants are focused primarily on the labor market. It would be interesting to see how "many" of those "many" saw their confidence increase after the positive January numbers. Others pointed to inflation measures and wages as important indicators:

Some participants noted that their confidence in inflation returning to 2 percent would also be bolstered by stable or rising levels of core PCE inflation, or of alternative series, such as trimmed mean or median measures of inflation. A number of participants emphasized that they would need to see either an increase in market-based measures of inflation compensation or evidence that continued low readings on these measures did not constitute grounds for concern. Several participants indicated that signs of improvements in labor compensation would be an important signal, while a few others deemphasized the value of labor compensation data for judging incipient inflation pressures in light of the loose short-run empirical connection between wage and price inflation.

My take is this: To get a reasonably sized consensus to support a rate hike, two conditions need to be met. One is sufficient progress toward full-employment with the expectation of further progress. I think that condition has already been met. The second condition is confidence that inflation will indeed trend toward target. That condition has not been met. To meet that condition requires at least one of the following sub-conditions: Rising core-inflation, rising market-based measures of inflation compensation, or accelerating wage growth. If any were to occur before June, I suspect it would be the accelerating wage growth.

On communication, the Fed sees that is has trapped itself:

Participants discussed the communications challenges associated with signaling, when it becomes appropriate to do so, that policy normalization is likely to begin relatively soon while remaining clear that the Committee's actions would depend on incoming data. Many participants regarded dropping the "patient" language in the statement, whenever that might occur, as risking a shift in market expectations for the beginning of policy firming toward an unduly narrow range of dates. As a result, some expressed the concern that financial markets might overreact, resulting in undesirably tight financial conditions.

If "patient" means exactly two meetings as is widely believed, then why would dropping patient imply higher rates in an "unduly narrow range of dates"? Isn't "two" two? If "two" is two, why the need for the adjective "unduly"? The definition of "unduly" according to the dictionary is:

to an extreme, unreasonable, or unnecessary degree

So "two" is thus extreme or unreasonable? Either "two" isn't two or patient wasn't meant to imply always two meetings. Indeed, Cleveland Federal Reserve President Loretta Mester suggests that "two" is only one interpretation. Via the Wall Street Journal:

WSJ: When you say that, do you have April in mind or do you have June in mind?

MESTER: Given what we’ve communicated, June is a viable date. We have the patient language which has been interpreted as two meetings.

The language "has been interpreted" not "means" two meetings. If "two" is plainly two, how can it have any other interpretation? And "has been interpreted" by whom, for that matter?

You get the point. The Fed can't keep itself from making calendar dependent statements, and thus undermines it's own communications. Yellen should have said "patient" means "until the data says otherwise." But she couldn't help herself by not including some kind of calendar dependent qualifier. As a consequence, now the Fed is stuck with modifying the language to keep a June rate hike on the table.

Wait, is a June rate hike still on the table? Although the minutes were interpreted dovishly by financial market participants, I doubt the Fed will want to pull the plug on June just yet. Incoming Fed speak continues to signal a rate hike is coming (including Mester describing June as a "viable option" this week), the January labor report was solid, via the minutes the Fed sees external risks as dissipating, we have four more employment reports before the June meeting, and I doubt the Fed really wants to start signaling policy two periods in advance. Too early to pull June off the table, but they can't move in June without something solid on the inflation front. So the March statement, or subsequent press conference, will be about dealing with the "patient" language, and the April meeting will be about whether they really expect to move in June or not.

One more consideration. It has been noted that the length of the minutes ballooned in January. Less noted is that the FOMC has a new secretary, Thomas Laubach, who succeeds William English. The additional detail may reflect that change, and the additional detail may swing our interpretation of the minutes relative to past minutes.

Bottom Line: The Fed is plainly focused on raising rates. As a group, they sense the time is coming to begin policy normalization. But they don't yet know when exactly that time will be. They don't yet have everything they need to begin, and they don't know when they will have everything (which is why they need to end calendar-dependent language). We know not yet. June? Maybe, maybe not.

'Betting the House: Monetary Policy, Mortgage Booms and Housing Prices'

How risky is it when interest rates are held too low for too long?:

Betting the house: Monetary policy, mortgage booms and housing prices, by Òscar Jordà, Moritz Schularick, and Alan Taylor: Although the nexus between low interest rates and the recent house price bubble remains largely unproven, observers now worry that current loose monetary conditions will stir up froth in housing markets, thus setting the stage for another painful financial crash. Central banks are struggling between the desire to awaken economic activity from its post-crisis torpor and fear of kindling the next housing bubble. The Riksbank was recently caught on the horns of this dilemma, as Svensson (2012) describes. Our new research provides the much-needed empirical backdrop to inform the debate about these trade-offs.
The recent financial crisis has led to a re-examination of the role of housing finance in the macroeconomy. It has become a top research priority to dissect the sources of house price fluctuations and their effect on household spending, mortgage borrowing, the health of financial intermediaries, and ultimately on real economic outcomes. A rapidly growing literature investigates the link between monetary policy and house prices as well as the implications of house price fluctuations for monetary policy (Del Negro and Otrok 2007, Goodhart and Hofmann 2008, Jarocinski and Smets 2008, Allen and Rogoff 2011, Glaeser, Gottlieb et al. 2010, Williams 2011, Kuttner 2012, Mian and Sufi 2014).
Despite all these references, there is relatively little empirical research about the effects of monetary policy on asset prices, especially house prices. How do monetary conditions affect mortgage borrowing and housing markets? Do low interest rates cause households to lever up on mortgages and bid up house prices, thus increasing the risk of financial crisis? And what, if anything, should central banks do about it?
Monetary conditions and house prices: 140 years of evidence
In our new paper (Jordà et al. 2014), we analyse the link between monetary conditions, mortgage credit growth, and house prices using data spanning 140 years of modern economic history across 14 advanced economies. Such a long and broad historical analysis has become possible for the first time by bringing together two novel datasets, each of which is the result of an extensive multi-year data collection effort. The first dataset covers disaggregated bank credit data, including real estate lending to households and non-financial businesses, for 17 countries (Jordà et al. 2014). The second dataset, compiled for a study by Knoll et al. (2014), presents newly unearthed data covering long-run house prices for 14 out of the 17 economies in the first dataset, from 1870 to 2012. This is the first time both datasets have been combined. ...

After lots of data and analysis, they conclude:

... We have established that loose/tight monetary conditions make credit cheaper/dearer and houses more expensive/affordable. But what about the dark side of low interest rates – do they also increase the risk of a financial crash?
The answer to this question is clearly affirmative, as we show in the last part of our paper using crisis prediction models. Over the past 140 years of modern macroeconomic history, mortgage booms and house price bubbles have been associated with a higher likelihood of a financial crisis. This association is even stronger in the post-WW2 era, which was marked by the democratization of leverage through the expansion of housing finance relative to GDP and a rapidly growing share of real estate loans as a share of banks’ balance sheets.
Conclusion
Our findings have important implications for the post-crisis debate about central bank policy. We provide a quantitative measure of the financial stability risks that stem from extended periods of ultra-low interest rates. We also provide a quantitative measure of the effects of monetary policy on mortgage lending and house prices. These historical insights suggest that the potentially destabilizing by-products of easy money must be taken seriously and considered against the benefits of stimulating flagging economic activity. Policy, as always, must strike a fine balance between conflicting objectives.
An important implication of our study is that macroeconomic stabilization policy has implications for financial stability, and vice versa. Resolving this dichotomy requires central banks to make greater use of macroprudential tools alongside conventional interest rate policy. One tool is insufficient to do two jobs. That is the lesson from modern macroeconomic history. ...

Monday, February 16, 2015

'The Congressional Reserve Board: A Really Bad Idea'

Cecchetti & Schoenholtz:

The Congressional Reserve Board: A Really Bad Idea: “We are – I’ll be blunt – audited out the wazoo. Every Federal Reserve Bank has a private auditor. We have our auditor of the system. We have our own inspector general. We are audited. What he’s talking about is politicizing monetary policy.” Richard Fisher, President, Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Dallas Morning News, February 9, 2015.
What would you think if you were to open your morning newspaper to find the following headline?
“Congress Closes Down Fed, Takes Over Monetary Policy”
If you’re like us, you’d panic. In short order, you’d think that long-term inflation expectations would rise, pushing bond yields higher. You’d anticipate an increase in the volatility of growth, employment and inflation. That more volatile environment would drive up the risk premium required on new investments, hindering long-term economic growth. Finally, you'd be very worried about how these Congressional policymakers would manage the next financial crisis.
This is not a pretty picture. Why would anyone want it to become a reality? Well, these are surely not the intended goals, but they are the likely outcomes should lawmakers ever replace the Federal Reserve Board with what we would call a Congressional Reserve Board.
While the Federal Reserve Transparency Act of 2015 – aka, the “Audit the Fed” Act – doesn’t shut down the Federal Reserve, it would go a long way to putting Congress directly in charge of monetary policy and to weakening the Fed’s effectiveness as a lender of last resort.
To explain our concerns, we will start by describing why it has become almost universally accepted practice to make the institution setting monetary (and regulatory) policy independent of political interference. That is, why most advanced and emerging market economies have opted to make their central banks “independent.” We will also explain why the “Transparency Act” is really about controlling monetary policy, not about making the Fed accountable (the short answer: it already is). And, finally, we will explain the bill’s impact on the Fed’s lender of last resort powers. ...

Friday, February 13, 2015

Paul Krugman: Money Makes Crazy

Why are conservatives so crazy about money?:

Money Makes Crazy, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Monetary policy probably won’t be a major issue in the 2016 campaign, but it should be. It is, after all, extremely important, and the Republican base and many leading politicians have strong views about the Federal Reserve and its conduct. And the eventual presidential nominee will surely have to endorse the party line.
So it matters that the emerging G.O.P. consensus on money is crazy — full-on conspiracy-theory crazy. ...
So monetary crazy is pervasive in today’s G.O.P. But why? Class interests no doubt play a role — the wealthy tend to be lenders rather than borrowers, and they benefit at least in relative terms from deflationary policies. But I also suspect that conservatives have a deep psychological problem with modern monetary systems.
You see, in the conservative worldview, markets aren’t just a useful way to organize the economy; they’re a moral structure: People get paid what they deserve, and what goods cost is what they are truly worth to society. ...
Modern money — consisting of pieces of paper or their digital equivalent that are issued by the Fed, not created by the heroic efforts of entrepreneurs — is an affront to that worldview. Mr. Ryan is on record declaring that his views on monetary policy come from a speech given by one of Ayn Rand’s fictional characters. And what the speaker declares is that money is “the base of a moral existence. Destroyers seize gold and leave to its owners a counterfeit pile of paper. ... Paper is a check drawn by legal looters.”
Once you understand that this is how many conservatives really think, it all falls into place. Of course they predict disaster from monetary expansion, no matter the circumstances. Of course they are undaunted in their views no matter how wrong their predictions have been in the past. Of course they are quick to accuse the Fed of vile motives. From their point of view, monetary policy isn’t really a technical issue, a question of what works; it’s a matter of theology: Printing money is evil.
So as I said, monetary policy should be an issue in 2016. Because there’s a pretty good chance that someone who either gets his monetary economics from Ayn Rand, or at any rate feels the need to defer to such views, will get to appoint the next head of the Federal Reserve.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

'A Fed Insider Calls for Reform'

Hmm. I must be missing something, for once I don't strongly disagree with Richard Fisher:

A Fed Insider Calls for Reform, by James Freeman, WSJ: Richard Fisher, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, believes “there’s too much power concentrated in the New York Fed.” And that goes as well for the Fed’s Washington headquarters. ... It’s ... an effort to head off Congressional efforts that Mr. Fisher believes could threaten the independence of the central bank. ...
To reform the Fed while maintaining its independence, Mr. Fisher first proposes to end the long tradition of the New York Fed President serving as the vice chairman of the FOMC. ...
Mr. Fisher would further boost representation for those outside of Washington and New York. Today, the Washington-based Fed governors and the Chairman hold a total of seven votes on the FOMC. That would not change. But whereas today New York gets a permanent seat and the other 11 regional banks take turns sharing four remaining seats, the regional banks would hold six seats under the Fisher plan. New York would lose its permanent seat and instead take its turn in the rotation for one of the six regional seats. So the Fed governors and Chairman, selected by the President and confirmed by the Senate, would still have a majority on the FOMC, but power would be further dispersed outside of the Acela corridor. ...
And to address “the potential for regulatory capture,” Mr. Fisher says that teams in charge of supervision of a “systemically important” bank should come from a district outside where the giant bank is based. ...

There is resistance to giving the regional banks more power (in part because of people like Fisher), but I think the Fed is viewed suspiciously by most. If we can make typical households believe the Fed is representing their interests, it would help. Not sure this proposal is the best way to do that, but I do feel that most people have the perception (as opposed to the reality) that the Fed has been captured by interests other than their own.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Fed Watch: Fedspeak Points To June

Tim Duy:

Fedspeak Points To June, by Tim Duy: Federal Reserve speakers were out and about today. First off, Richmond Federal Reserve President Jeffrey Lacker set a fairly high bar for NOT hiking in June. Via the Wall Street Journal:
“At this point, raising rates in June looks like the attractive option for me,” Mr. Lacker told reporters following a speech Tuesday in Raleigh, N.C. “Data between now and then may change my mind, but it would have to be surprising data.”...
...“The economy’s clearly growing at a more rapid, sustained pace than it was a year ago,” he said. “Economies that are growing faster need higher real interest rates, and a variety of indicators point to the need for higher real rates.”
What about inflation? It is all about oil:
Mr. Lacker said the effects of lower gasoline prices on inflation should be transitory, and he expects inflation will move back toward the Fed’s 2% annual target over the next year or two. “The inflation rate was clearly moving towards 2% before oil prices began falling last summer,” he said.
Here I worry, because Lacker is clearly ignoring the data, or least weighing the year-over-year changes far too heavily. Inflation actually accelerated in the second half of 2013, but was clearly decelerating by the beginning of 2014 (right idea, wrong dates) first half of 2014, but was clearly decelerating by June, prior to the oil shock. By July, the 3-month annualized change in core was just 0.97% while oil was still above $100 and gas above $3.50:

PCEb020215

But the Fed is close to achieving the employment mandate, so inflation data be damned! Still think the employment part of the dual mandate is really a good idea?
San Francisco Federal Reserve President John Williams digs in his heals and assures us a rate hike is coming. Via the Financial Times:
John Williams, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, said the time for the US central bank to start raising rates is getting “closer and closer” amid faster-than-expected wage rises in January and “really strong” hiring. Some investors may be caught out by a rate increase, but that should not stop the Fed from tightening policy if necessary, he said.
What about inflation? No problem, it is all about the lags:
...Economists including Lawrence Summers, a former US Treasury secretary, have urged the Fed to leave rates unchanged until there is clear evidence that inflation, and inflation expectations, are set to breach its 2 per cent target.
However Mr Williams dismissed such calls, warning of the risk that the Fed gets behind the curve on inflation and that it could end up being forced to hike rates “much more dramatically” to rein in inflation, provoking market turmoil. Given the trails with which monetary policy operates it was better to start raising interest rates “gradually, thoughtfully”, he said.
Note that he pulled out the "if we don't hike now we will need to hike more later" argument. That, along with the financial stability argument, is how they will justify a rate increase in the absence of inflation. Williams, however, hedges on June:
A key question obsessing financial markets is whether the Fed pulls the trigger in the middle of the year or waits longer. Mr Williams did not commit himself to voting for a move in June, saying instead that the decision of whether to hike or delay a bit longer would be “in play” at that point.
Time is growing short for the wage gains necessary to begin hiking in June.
Importantly, Williams also rejects the idea that bond markets are signaling secular stagnation:
He dismissed arguments that low long-term bond yields in the US reflect fears of a gloomy outlook for the American economy, saying they more likely were a result of global financial conditions, amid slowdowns and policy easing in large parts of the rest of the world.
US policy would still be very accommodative even after the Fed raised rates, he stressed. “That first step of raising interest rates is just removing a sliver of that accommodation,” he said.
The last paragraph is key. Williams, like the rest of the FOMC argues that conditions will remain very accommodative after even a small rate hike. As I noted last night, this is not true under the secular stagnation hypothesis:

TAYLORb020815

It would be interesting if we had William's estimate of the equilibrium rate for comparison. Wait, we do - from his January 2014 Brookings paper:

WILLIAMS021015

Oh my, that brownish-greenish line appears to be a fairly pessimistic estimate of the natural rate, certainly one inconsistent the assertion that conditions remain accommodative after even just a small rate hike. Perhaps some journalists should start pressing Williams on the policy implications of his research. And, for that matter, I think the Fed's view on the equilibrium real rate should be a front-and-center topic for the next FOMC press conference.
Meanwhile, soon-to-retire Dallas Federal Reserve President Richard Fisher is pegging his rate outlook to wage gains:
“If we were to see employment continue to increase, we’re getting much, much better on that front and you begin to see the wage price pressures, that should govern what we do with interest rates.”
The Fed simply has no justification to raise rates in June absent acceleration in wage growth. Even Fisher agrees. Fisher also pushes back against the renewed "Audit the Fed" movement:
“We are — I’ll be blunt — we are audited out the wazoo. Every Federal Reserve Bank has a private auditor. We have our auditor of the system. We have our own inspector general. We are audited. That’s not what he’s talking about. What he’s talking about is politicizing monetary policy.”
That's the plain truth. It has nothing to do with economics, and everything to do with politics.
Bottom Line: The Fed wants to hike in June. They continue to dismiss the inflation data, but they still need wage growth to hike. They dismiss the secular stagnation hypothesis. I hope they are right on that, or this is going to get ugly. Quickly.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Only Raise Rates when Whites of Inflation’s Eyes are Visible

Larry Summers:

Only raise US rates when whites of inflation’s eyes are visible: ... Especially after Friday’s very strong employment report, there can be no doubt that cyclical conditions are normalising. ... All of this taken in isolation would suggest that interest rates should not remain at zero much longer.
On the other hand, the available inflation data suggests little cause for concern. ... Perhaps most troubling: market indications suggest inflation is more likely to fall than rise .
The Fed has rightly made clear that its decisions will be data dependent. The further key point is that it should allow the flow of information on inflation rather than on real economic activity to determine its timing in adjusting interest rates. And it should not raise rates until there is clear evidence that inflation, and inflation expectations, are in danger of exceeding its 2 per cent target. Here are four important reasons why. ...

Friday, February 06, 2015

Fed Watch: Upbeat Jobs Report

Tim Duy:

Upbeat Jobs Report, by Tim Duy: The January jobs report came in above expectations, with nonfarm payrolls growing by 257k and, more importantly, there were large upward revisions to the previous two months. Simply put rumors of the demise of the US economy continue to be premature.
The pace of job gains accelerated further on average:

NFPa020615

Oil and gas extraction jobs declined by 1.9k, but we all know more are coming. But outside of that sector, the economy added 255k jobs. The oil and gas extraction sector itself is only 200k jobs. In short, the fears that this sector is going to topple the US economy are just simply not going to come to pass.
In the context of data Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen has previously signaled as important:

NFPc020615

NFPd020615

Ongoing general improvement with measures of underemployment still elevated. There was some excitement about the 12 cent gain in average hourly earnings. I myself am less impressed as to me this largely represents a correction from December's anomalous drop. Wage growth remains fairly anemic year-over-year:

NFPb020615

I would also like to see what happens after the impact of minimum wage hikes dissipates. The Fed, however, my take more comfort in the uptick than me. It goes without saying that a June rate hike remains on the table, although I think it is difficult to justify without faster wage growth. Still four jobs reports till then, so plenty of time to pull that number upward.
Jon Hilsenrath reiterates the view that if the Fed wants to keep the June option open they need to pull the word "patient" in March:
Second, Fed officials will decide at their March meeting whether to change or drop the language in their policy statement pledging to “be patient” in deciding when to raise their benchmark short-term interest rate from zero. That phrase means they won’t move for at least two more meetings.
After the March gathering, the Fed has meetings scheduled for April and June. If the policy makers keep the “patient” language in the statement, that would indicate they don’t think they’ll raise rates at those meetings. If they scrap the phrase, that would give them the option to move as early as June if the economic data hold up.
I doubt this is as black and white as Hilsenrath argues. I don't think Yellen intended to imply that "patient" always means two meetings. Perhaps I just have too many memories about "considerable time" first meaning six months and then not. Plus, the Fed is aware of its past history, and in 2004 "patient" turned to "moderate" just one meeting before the hike. But it was technically the second meeting after "patient" was dropped, so is that two meetings? Also, as we saw with the "considerable" to "patient" transition, the Fed has its own unique way of wordsmithing that can deliver something for everyone. And finally, Yellen has the press conference to redefine her interpretation of "patient." But maybe I am wrong. In any event, I am not taking a fixed stand on what "patient" means until the press conference.
Bottom Line: The US economy has very real momentum on its side at the moment. It is more resilient to shocks than commonly assumed. This isn't 2011. June is still on the table.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Fed Watch: Fed Updates

Tim Duy:

Fed Updates, by Tim Duy: Some quick notes on monetary policy this afternoon:

1.) Another policymaker in favor of a first half rate hike.  Cleveland Federal Reserve President Loretta Mester supports a rate hike by June.  Via Michael Derby at the Wall Street Journal:

Expressing confidence weak inflation will eventually rise again, Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland President Loretta Mester said Wednesday the U.S. central bank remains on track for raising rates in the next few months.

Noting that Fed policy isn’t on a “pre-set path,” Ms. Mester said “if incoming economic information supports my forecast, I would be comfortable with liftoff in the first half of this year.” Because Fed policy actions affect the economy over a long period of time, the central banker said the Fed will need to act before it has fully achieved its job and price mandates.

She is, however, watching the survey data:

The official told reporters after her speech that if inflation expectations began to weaken, especially ones derived from surveys, “that would give me pause” when it comes to advocating for rate increases.

While the timing of any policy move remains in flux, Mester's basic story is close to consensus: The Fed is looking at putting the economy on a glide path to achieving its mandates, which means moving ahead of those mandates.

2.) But another is pointing out the danger of low inflation. Boston Federal Reserve President Eric Rosengren doesn't speak to the timing of rate hikes, but low inflation is clearly on his mind:

Of course today, after significant labor market improvement, and with the horizon over which inflation will return to its target being uncertain, inflation has taken on a more prominent role in our deliberations.

Currently, an obvious caveat in interpreting the low inflation rate in the U.S. is the supporting role played by the recent decline in energy prices. Oil shocks have been associated with major changes in monetary policy before. The failure to control inflation in the United States during the 1970s, in the presence of an adverse oil supply shock, highlighted a serious dilemma facing monetary policy at that time. Importantly in that case, what might have been a temporary pass-through of oil to non-oil prices turned into a more lasting problem with overall inflation, as wage and price dynamics at that time helped turn increases in oil prices into fairly protracted increases in overall inflation. Former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Volcker is rightfully recognized for taking forceful action to address the situation and ultimately tame inflation in the United States.

Currently, a concern is that central banks are facing the mirror image of the problem in the 1970s. The problem of significantly undershooting inflation – a dynamic which could well keep interest rates at the zero lower bound – is likely to be a key challenge to central bankers in the first two decades of the 21st century. And I would say that as with the oil shock in the 1970s, the current shock has served to accentuate a potential monetary policy pitfall – in this case, the failure to quickly and vigorously address a significant undershooting of inflation targets, potentially leaving economies stagnant at the zero lower bound. 

He would support later rather than sooner with regards to the first rate hike.  

3.) Fed ready to lower NAIRU?  I have argued in the past that if the Fed is faced with ongoing slow wage growth, they would need to reassess their estimates of NAIRU.  Cardiff Garcia reminded me:

@TheStalwart @TimDuy Whether/extent to which Fed reverts nat-rate estimates to pre-2010 range is one of 2015's big Qs pic.twitter.com/CKieHx2zRC

— Cardiff Garcia (@CardiffGarcia) February 4, 2015

While David Wessel adds today:

JPMorgan run the Fed's statistical model of the economy and says the NAIRU (which was 5.6%+ through 2013 data) is now down to 5%.

— David Wessel (@davidmwessel) February 5, 2015

Jim O'Sullivan from High Frequency Economics says not yet:

"Hard-to-fill" @NFIB jobs series up to 26 in Jan (+1). Corroborates unempl decline, with no sign of lower #NAIRU pic.twitter.com/DVYGyGV4e6

— Jim O'Sullivan (@osullivanEcon) February 5, 2015

A reduction in the Fed's estimate of the natural rate of unemployment would likely mean a delayed and more gradual path of policy tightening, should of course the Fed ever get the chance to pull off the zero bound.  Keep an eye on this issue!

4.) Will the Fed remain "patient" in March?  Jon Hilsenrath at the Wall Street Journal says the Fed needs to remove "patient" from the FOMC statement in March if they want to move in June:

The “patient” assurance, Fed chairwoman Janet Yellen has said, means no rate increases for at least two more policy meetings. The next two policy meetings after March are in April and June. If officials think they might raise rates in June, they need to remove “patient” in March to give themselves the option to proceed if economic data justify a move by June.

Interesting - this is a stricter interpretation of "patient" than I had from Yellen's comments. I did not think that "patient" would always mean just two more meetings, only that in December "patient" meant two more meetings. During the last rate hike cycle, the Fed maintained "patient" until March, switched to "measured" in May, and hiked in June. So they hiked the second meeting after the last "patient." Does that meet the definition that Yellen gave in December? I don't know, but I an not sure she meant to imply that "patient" always and forever means no hike for the next two meetings. So I guess we have our first question for the next press conference. At the moment, following the last cycle, I don't think that keeping "patient" means they are taking June off the table.

5.) Employment report watch.  Calculated Risk notes that Goldman Sachs cut their forecast for tomorrow's employment report to a 210k gain in nonfarm payrolls and a 5.5% unemployment rate, at the low end of consensus and similar to my forecast. But the January number might be an even bigger crapshoot than usual anyway. Via Bloomberg:

 A significant risk to the January payroll print is that the seasonal adjustment may not be properly calibrated. If employers added more seasonal workers than usual based on a firmer assessment of economic conditions, then there may be more layoffs in January. If the seasonal factors do not properly account for this, then a weaker-than-expected payroll gain could result.

And note that one number doesn't make a trend:

Underlying labor market momentum is largely being sustained, as economic growth remains decent, albeit slower than the mid-year hot streak between Q2 and Q3 of 2014. As such, if January employment disappoints, it is probably an anomaly related to seasonal adjustment issues, not a meaningful downshift in the pace of hiring.

The ongoing improvement in consumer attitudes is an encouraging sign that households continue to sense a healthy labor market.

6.) Falling interest rates worldwide. The global push for easier monetary policy continues. China's central bank is now officially in easing mode, while the Danish Central Bank moves deeper into negative territory. The Fed wants to be able to move in the opposite direction, but financial markets are telling them this isn't the time to move off of zero. The Fed will resist - this isn't 2011 when the US economy was much further from reaching its employment mandate than it is today. That said, they eventually had to relent and ease in 1998, so holding steady would be familiar territory (they are not bringing QE back to life yet). But will they worry that easing then helped sustain an asset bubble, a situation they do not want to repeat? Increasingly, the Fed looks to be back in a place they hoped they had left behind - between a rock and a hard place.

And with that we await tomorrow's employment report. Sorry I don't have time to give each of these topics the time they deserve.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Fed Optimism Could Cost the Economy Dearly

Me, at MoneyWatch:

Fed optimism could cost the economy dearly: Is the Fed overoptimistic about where the economy is headed? If so, that could cause the central bank to raise interest rates too soon, a policy error that could leave the economy stuck in a "deflationary trap" and remain at subpar growth levels for an extended time period.
The answer to that question is yes. The Fed's tendency to be overly optimistic about the economy is documented in a recent Economic Letter from the San Francisco Fed. In the Economic Letter, Kevin Lansing and Benjamin Pyle note that the Fed's economic forecasts "(1) did not anticipate the Great Recession that started in December 2007, (2) underestimated the severity of the downturn once it began, and (3) consistently overpredicted the speed of the recovery..."
The following two charts presented along with the researchers' findings show how far off the Fed's projections for the economy have been...
This had consequences. Although the central bank's monetary policy was much better than Washington's fiscal policy, the "green shoots" the Fed saw around every corner often caused policymakers to be too slow to put new policy in place (e.g. to turn from interest rate policy to quantitative easing, and then to new rounds of quantitative easing), and to be less aggressive than needed. ...
The risk now is that the Fed will repeat these mistakes. ...

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Fed Watch: Brief Comment

Tim Duy:

Brief Comment, by Tim Duy: It is always interesting to see how others perceive you. For instance, I wasn't sure what to make of this from Paul Krugman:

The monetary-policy gap between insiders and outsiders — between economists at the Fed and other policy institutions, who still seem eager to raise rates, and those of us on the outside, who think this is a really, really bad idea — continues to widen. This morning Tim Duy — one of the outsiders who, commenting from his perch at Mark Thoma’s invaluable blog, has seemed most sympathetic to the urge to hike rates — joins the what-are-they-thinking chorus.

When I read that I realized that perhaps I wasn't defining my space quite right. Primarily, I attempt - albeit, admittedly, not always successfully - to understand the world as Federal Reserve policymakers see it. Failing to put your personal opinion in the background is one of the biggest mistakes a Fed Watcher can make. Right now, for example, policymakers are somewhat hawkish relative to market expectations, so my writing has a hawkish tilt, which is what I think Krugman interprets as "sympathetic." 

Occasionally, however, my opinions become more evident, which is what Krugman interprets as joining the "what-are-they-thinking chorus."  In truth I am not particularly sympathetic with the Federal Reserve's campaign to normalize policy. That campaign is predicated on the belief that the economy is close to full employment. Krugman sees the natural rate of unemployment as mostly likely below 5%. I concur. The Fed's Summary of Economic Projections, however, places the natural rate in the 5.2-5.5% range. My thinking is that is as much as 0.5 percentage points or even more too high. That is a big, big error, somewhere around 800,000 real lives impacted. A lot of jobs to risk when inflation is trending downward, in my opinion.

I also believe that the fact that we have experienced two recessions since 1991 yet no outbreak of inflation is prima facie evidence that the Fed, on average, maintains too tight a monetary policy.  Seems likely a little bit looser policy would yield significant welfare gains.

Anyway, I think readers probably get the idea at this point. My expectations of a particular Fed policy does not necessarily indicate support for that policy. In future writing I will endeavor to more clearly delineate between the two.

'Tough Fedding'

Paul Krugman hopes the Fed is listening:

Tough Fedding: The monetary-policy gap between insiders and outsiders — between economists at the Fed and other policy institutions, who still seem eager to raise rates, and those of us on the outside, who think this is a really, really bad idea — continues to widen. This morning Tim Duy — one of the outsiders who ... has seemed most sympathetic to the urge to hike rates — joins the what-are-they-thinking chorus. Core inflation is drifting downward, not upward, and is now well below the Fed’s target. So why hike?
The immediate answer appears to be a fixation on the unemployment rate, which is close to standard estimates of full employment. But is this really a solid justification for raising rates absent any actual sign of the rising inflation we’re supposed to see at full employment?
Actually, what do we mean by full employment, anyway? ...
You don’t want to push this too hard, but my point is that recent data are perfectly consistent with the view that full employment requires an unemployment rate below 5 percent; the most recent data would suggest an even lower rate. This might or might not be right; I don’t know. But the Fed doesn’t know either.
And in the face of that uncertainty, the crucial question is what happens if you’re wrong. And the risks still seem hugely asymmetric. Raise rates “too late”, and inflation briefly overshoots the target. How bad is that? (And why does the Fed sound increasingly as if 2 percent is not a target but a ceiling? Hasn’t everything we’ve seen since 2007 suggested that this is a very bad place to go?) Raise rates too soon, on the other hand, and you risk falling into a deflationary trap that could take years, even decades, to exit.
I really, really hope this is getting through.

Monday, February 02, 2015

'Persistent Overoptimism about Economic Growth'

An SF Fed Economic Letter from Kevin Lansing and Benjamin Pyle:

Persistent Overoptimism about Economic Growth: In November 2007, the Federal Open Market Committee began releasing projections for real GDP growth four times per year in its Summary of Economic Projections (SEP). The SEP reports the central tendency and range for real GDP growth forecasts from the Federal Reserve Board members and Federal Reserve Bank presidents. Over the past seven years, many growth forecasts, including the SEP’s central tendency midpoint, have been too optimistic. In particular, the SEP midpoint forecast (1) did not anticipate the Great Recession that started in December 2007, (2) underestimated the severity of the downturn once it began, and (3) consistently overpredicted the speed of the recovery that started in June 2009. The SEP growth forecasts have typically started high, but then are revised down over time as the incoming data continue to disappoint. Similar patterns are observed in the consensus private-sector growth forecasts compiled by the Blue Chip Economic Survey. This Economic Letter reviews the SEP’s track record of forecasting growth and considers some explanations for the optimistic bias. ...

Fed Watch: Fed's Preferred Inflation Measure Dives

Tim Duy:

Fed's Preferred Inflation Measure Dives, by Tim Duy: Not only is core-PCE inflation on a year-over-year basis trending away from the Fed's target:

PCEa020215

but the deceleration in recent months is truly shocking:

PCEb020215

It is hard to see how the Fed can be confident that inflation with trend back to target when looking at these numbers. They need some acceleration in wage growth to justify their intentions to begin normalizing policy, and even with such acceleration, I think their case is fairly weak in the context of the current inflation environment. If they make a case, they will base it on these three pillars:

1.) With unemployment nearing 5%, they have reached their employment mandate.
2.) Monetary policy is exceptionally accommodative even if they raise interest rates.
3.) Failure to raise rates invites asset bubbles.

On point three, refer to New York Federal Reserve President William Dudley:

Quickly, let me give two examples that illustrate how variable this linkage can be.  First, during the 2004-07 period, the FOMC tightened monetary policy nearly continuously, raising the federal funds rate from 1 percent to 5.25 percent in 17 steps.  However, during this period, 10-year Treasury note yields did not rise much, credit spreads generally narrowed and U.S. equity price indices moved higher.  Moreover, the availability of mortgage credit eased, rather than tightened.  As a result, financial market conditions did not tighten.  

As a result, financial conditions remained quite loose, despite the large increase in the federal funds rate.  With the benefit of hindsight, it seems that either monetary policy should have been tightened more aggressively or macroprudential measures should have been implemented in order to tighten credit conditions in the overheated housing sector.

It may be that the Fed looks at the tech and housing bubble episodes and concludes that zero interest rates are not desirable even if inflation is below trend. Yes, I know, macroprudential before interest rates when addressing asset bubbles. But at a point when the economy is at the Fed's idea of full-employment, and given the events of recent decades? Easy to see the Fed seeing danger in putting all of their eggs in the macroprudential basket. 

Bottom Line: Below trend inflation as the economy nears full-employment is a very uncomfortable position for the Federal Reserve. It will be interesting to see how Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen navigates these waters at the upcoming Congressional testimony.

Fed Watch: As of Yet, Fed Not Changing Tune

Tim Duy:

As of Yet, Fed Not Changing Tune, by Tim Duy: Early salvos by Federal Reserve policymakers in the wake of last week's FOMC non-event suggest that recent developments have had little impact on Fed thinking with regards to the appropriate timing of rate hikes. The middle of this year remains the internal forecast. Whether data or events cooperate is of course another question.

I think it is worth viewing Friday's two interviews with St. Louis Federal Reserve President James Bullard at Bloomberg and San Francisco Federal Reserve President John Williams at CNBC. Bullard is fairly clear in his view that financial markets are doing it wrong:

“The market has a more dovish view of what the Fed is going to do than the Fed itself,” Bullard said in an interview Friday in New York. “Markets should take it at face value” from the Fed’s rate projections, and it’s “reasonable” to expect an increase in June or July.

In contrast, I would say that Williams is a bit more cautious:

Given this projection, Williams said he thought "around the middle of this year is the time that I think, in my view, that we'll be getting closer to 'Should we raise rates now, or should we wait a little longer, collect some more data, get more confidence in the forecast?'"

The baseline story, however, is generally the same. They believe the US economy has sufficient momentum to weather any external shocks. They both view the first quarter GDP report as consistent with their underlying forecast. So did I, for that matter. You need to be able to tease out the underlying trend when parsing the data. Calculated Risk gets it right. R-E-L-A-X:

There are legitimate concerns about a strong dollar, and weak economic activity overseas, impacting U.S. exports and GDP growth. However, overall, the Q4 GDP report was solid.

In short, neither Williams nor Bullard is seeing anything in the recent data to worry them significantly. Regarding the timing of a rate hike, I think that if you view the videos, you will see a line of logic fairly similar to what I described last week. They see unemployment falling to 5% or less this year. They do not think that such a situation as consistent with zero rates. They think they need to move ahead of actual inflation. They think that even after hiking rates, monetary policy will remain accommodative.

A couple of clarifications and extensions:

First, my take is that the Fed wants to pull the focus off of the first rate increase to the subsequent path of policy. What comes first is not as important as what comes after. The "comes after" is one reason they want to move sooner than later given the current economic environment. Bullard views it important to narrow the gap between zero and normal rates because he fears that falling behind the curve will necessitate a steeper subsequent policy path. This thinking is probably endemic within the Federal Reserve.

Second, notice that again Bullard dismisses market-based measures of inflation expectations as distorted by the massive drop in the price of oil. And his opinion is not illogical: There is no reason to think 5y5y forward exceptions to be impacted in lock step with the collapse in oil prices. He wants to see how that situation plays itself out.

Third, Bullard says that we are 400bp below normal policy and that his view of normal policy has not changed much. There is no new normal. This too I think is endemic in Fed thinking and where I think lies the greatest potential for a policy error. They should not be holding a dogmatic view of what is normal. The bond markets are telling me that would be a mistake.

Fourth, Bullard was not disturbed by the rise of the dollar as he sees it as a natural consequence of a stronger US economy and weaker economies abroad. This contrasts with the general view that the Fed is panicking over the dollar.

So what does Fed Chair Janet Yellen think? Well, both Bullard and Williams are coming right out of the gates of an FOMC meeting, and I doubt either would take a position that was strongly in contrast to Yellen. That said, expectations seem to be growing for Yellen to head a different direction. Via the Wall Street Journal:

“If the markets stay how they are today three months from now, the Fed would have a hard time raising interest rates,” Alan Rechtschaffen, a financial adviser at UBS, said this week. That would make Ms. Yellen’s twice-yearly testimony before the House and Senate, expected in the third week of next month, a potential opportunity for beginning to show increased concern about low inflation—particularly if measures of prices excluding energy and food costs keep moving lower.

“As early as the Humphrey-Hawkins testimony the Fed could begin to lay the groundwork for a transition in monetary policy” toward a later date for interest-rate increases, Mr. Rechtschaffen said.

Like I thought that there would be little change in the FOMC statement, I am cautious about expecting a change in Yellen's tone. It might be good to consider this anecdote from former Federal Reserve Governor Larry Meyer:

The final question is whether Janet is really a dove. Let me tell you a story. Janet and I held very similar views when we were colleagues on the Committee, despite the fact that I was immediately viewed as a hawk and she was already viewed as a dove. (I thought of myself at the time as being a “hawkish dove.”) In any case, when it comes to ensuring price stability and maintaining well-anchored inflation expectations, there are no doves on the Committee. Before the September 1996 FOMC meeting, Janet and I went to see the Chairman to talk about the policy decision at that meeting and at following meetings. This was the only time I ever visited the Chairman (at my initiative) to talk about monetary policy, before or after a meeting. Janet and I were both worried about inflation, even though it was very well contained at the time. We told the Chairman that we loved him but could not remain at his side much longer if he continued, as he had been doing for some time, to push the next tightening action into the next meeting, and then not follow through. He listened, more or less patiently. I recall, though this may have not been the case, that he just smiled and didn’t say a word. After an awkward silence, we said our good-byes. Needless to say, we didn’t win this argument. Yet, we never dissented. That is another matter of etiquette for the entire Board, at least since when I was there: The Board is a team, always votes as a block, and, therefore, always supports the Chairman.

The reason I bring this up is that if my analysis of the Fed's baseline thinking is generally correct, then Yellen will have a hard time staying a dove if her underlying framework is unchanged from 1996. And I think we are seeing that as the economy heads into more normal territory, that underlying framework is indeed unchanged. This is especially the case when she could view former Federal Reserve's Chair Alan Greenspan's 1996 bet as being a special case attributable to higher productivity, and she does not have productivity in her corner this time around. Just something to think about.

Bottom Line: I am not convinced the Fed is changing its thinking as quickly as markets think the Fed is changing its thinking. That means that Fedspeak might continue to be hawkish relative to expectations.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

'Bad Tayloring'

PK:

Bad Tayloring: Since they aren’t currently able to demand a return to the gold standard — and maybe a ban on paper money? — Republicans are pushing to mandate that the Fed follow the so-called Taylor rule, which relates short-term interest rates to unemployment (and/or the output gap) and inflation. John Taylor, not surprisingly, likes this idea. But it’s a really terrible idea, and not just for the reasons Tony Yates describes. ...
The world has turned out to be a much more dangerous place than Taylor-rule enthusiasts imagined, so why impose a rule devised, we know now, by economists who completely misjudged the risks?
Now Taylor himself has an excuse and rationale: he claims that the whole financial crisis thing was because the Fed departed slightly from his version of the rule in the pre-crisis 2000s. But as Yates points out, this assigns an importance to monetary policy that is wildly at odds with the kind of modeling used to justify the rule in the first place. It also, as Yates does not point out, has the distinct whiff of someone inventing ever-more bizarre stories to avoid admitting having been wrong about something. This is not the kind of argument on which to base rules that permanently constrain policy.

Friday, January 30, 2015

'Audit the Fed? Not So Fast'

Catherine Rampell:

Audit the Fed? Not so fast: Not this again.
Calls to “Audit the Fed” are back. And just as before, they are extraordinarily dangerous to the health of the U.S. economy.
First, a little background. Conspiracy theories about the Federal Reserve’s wacky technical mumbo-jumbo voodoo have a long populist history. Monetary policy is complicated and abstract; entrusting it to a secretive, propeller-headed cabal naturally arouses suspicion. No surprise, then, that libertarian hero and former Texas congressman Ron Paul for years tried to persuade his colleagues to curb the central bank’s power and independence with recurrent calls to “Audit the Fed” (if not kill it entirely). He made Fed audits a centerpiece of his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns.
Now, with Republicans controlling both houses of Congress, he might finally get his way.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has picked up his father’s mantle and reintroduced the proposal as the Federal Reserve Transparency Act of 2015. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) — like Paul a likely 2016 presidential contender — has also joined the cause, along with 29 other co-sponsors. A companion bill was introduced in the House by Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.). ...

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Fed Watch: FOMC Decision

Tim Duy:

FOMC Decision, by Tim Duy: If you were looking for fireworks from today's FOMC statement, you were disappointed. Indeed, you need to work pretty hard to pull a story out of this statement. It provided little reason to believe that the Fed has shifted its view since December. A June rate hike remains the base case.

The Fed's assessment of the current statement is arguably the best in years:

Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in December suggests that economic activity has been expanding at a solid pace. Labor market conditions have improved further, with strong job gains and a lower unemployment rate. On balance, a range of labor market indicators suggests that underutilization of labor resources continues to diminish. Household spending is rising moderately; recent declines in energy prices have boosted household purchasing power. Business fixed investment is advancing, while the recovery in the housing sector remains slow.

The Fed is simply not seeing any warning signs in recent data. Regarding inflation:

Inflation has declined further below the Committee’s longer-run objective, largely reflecting declines in energy prices. Market-based measures of inflation compensation have declined substantially in recent months; survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations have remained stable.

They continue to dismiss headline inflation, and I think they will continue to do so. And if you continue to insist that the Fed is paralyzed with fear over market based measures of inflation expectations, note that they do not refer to these as "expectations" measures. It is inflation "compensation." From Fed Chair Janet Yellen's most recent press conference:

There are a number of different factors that are bearing on the path of market interest rates, I think, including global economic developments. It is often the case that when oil prices move down and the dollar appreciates, that that tends to put downward pressure on inflation compensation and on longer-term rates. We also have safe-haven flows that may be affecting longer-term Treasury yields. So I can’t tell you exactly what is driving market developments. But what I can say is that we are trying to communicate our thoughts as clearly as we can.

And:

Oh, and longer-dated expectations. Well, what I would say, we refer to this in the statement as “inflation compensation” rather than “inflation expectations.” The gap between the nominal yields on 10-year Treasuries, for example, and TIPS have declined—that’s inflation compensation. And five-year, five-year-forwards, as you’ve said, have also declined. That could reflect a change in inflation expectations, but it could also reflect changes in assessment of inflation risks. The risk premium that’s necessary to compensate for inflation, that might especially have fallen if the probabilities attached to very high inflation have come down. And it can also reflect liquidity effects in markets. And, for example, it’s sometimes the case that— when there is a flight to safety, that flight tends to be concentrated in nominal Treasuries and could also serve to compress that spread. So I think the jury is out about exactly how to interpret that downward move in inflation compensation. And we indicated that we are monitoring inflation developments carefully.

They are trying to tell us very clearly that TIPS are not giving a measure of pure inflation expectations. They do not want those measures by themselves to affect market expectations of the path of monetary policy.

Growth risks are balances and low inflation is transitory:

The Committee continues to see the risks to the outlook for economic activity and the labor market as nearly balanced. Inflation is anticipated to decline further in the near term, but the Committee expects inflation to rise gradually toward 2 percent over the medium term as the labor market improves further and the transitory effects of lower energy prices and other factors dissipate. The Committee continues to monitor inflation developments closely.

They make a small nod to international concerns when considering future policy actions:

This assessment will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial and international developments.

The Fed remains patient and policy is data dependent:

Based on its current assessment, the Committee judges that it can be patient in beginning to normalize the stance of monetary policy. However, if incoming information indicates faster progress toward the Committee’s employment and inflation objectives than the Committee now expects, then increases in the target range for the federal funds rate are likely to occur sooner than currently anticipated. Conversely, if progress proves slower than expected, then increases in the target range are likely to occur later than currently anticipated.

June remains on the table. Within the context of the current forecast, I think that June will be difficult to justify in the absence of wage acceleration. A sharp decline in the forecast, or the balance of risks to the forecast, would also prompt a delay. Importantly, at this point they see the current forecast as still the most likely outcome.

Bottom Line: At this point, the Fed does not see market turbulence as an impediment to raising rates. They are willing to hike rates even if stocks are moving sideways (which they probably think is reasonable in the context of expectations for less monetary accommodation). They do not see any data that threatens their baseline forecast. Maybe market participants have written off June, but for the Fed, June remains very much on the table.

'Somebody Is Inside an Echo Chamber. But Who?'

Brad DeLong:

Somebody Is Inside an Echo Chamber. But Who?: Paul Krugman fears that somebody is trapped inside an echo chamber, hearing only things that confirm what they already believe...

But how can we tell which side has lost contact with the reality out there? ...

I do not think we have to decide. I think that even if we are uncertain whether the optimistic “insiders” or the pessimistic “outsiders” are correct, elementary prudent optimal-control theory tells us that we should act as if the “outsiders” are right.

But I have gotten ahead of myself:...

So how would we tell whether, right now, it is the outsiders are overstating the dangers to premature tightening, or it is the insiders who are understating the dangers to premature tightening here in the United States?

To answer this question, I think we need to consider five points–the first about our decision procedure, the second about the level of spending consistent with full employment, the third about the degree of uncertainty and variability, the fourth about the vulnerabilities of the economy to spending deviations above and below the projected current-policy path, and the fifth about the effectiveness of our optimal-control levers in different scenarios.

The first point is that if it turns out that we cannot tell–that we have to split the difference–then the considerations that rule are the asymmetries in the situation.

The second point is that no one right now has a good and convincing read on what, exactly, the level of spending consistent with full employment at the currently-projected price level is. Uncertainty is rife: if there was ever a time for considering not just the central tendency of the forecast but the risks on either side and taking optimal control appropriately valuing these risks seriously, it is right now.

The third point is that we are not just uncertain about what the proper full-employment path for demand is, we have much more than the usual amount of uncertainty about nearly all other dimensions of the structure of the economy. To suppose that any of the emergent properties that are policy multipliers can be estimated from data collected during “normal” times is to make an enormous leap of faith.

The fourth point is that downside risks to the forecast greatly exceed upside opportunities. ...

And the fifth point is that, while the Federal Reserve has powerful levers to restrict demand if spending shoots above the desired policy path, its levers to expand demand if spending falls below have been demonstrated over the past six years to be relatively weak.

Thus, if it turns out that we cannot tell–and we cannot tell–then it is not correct that we should split the difference. The considerations that rule are then the asymmetries in the situation. It is, right now, much worse to undershoot than to overshoot full-employment demand...

These asymmetries mean that, as far as policy is concerned, the “outsiders” win any tie and win any near-tie: the “insiders” should govern what policy should be only if there is not just a preponderance of the but clear and convincing evidence on their side.

Yet the Federal Reserve appears to have decided:

  • that those who think that the economy is near full employment and is in a durable recovery have by far the better of the argument as to what the central tendency projected current-policy demand path is.
  • that it is appropriate to make policy via certainty-equivalance.

Given the inability of the Federal Reserve to attain traction at the ZLB, its current frame of mind–which appears to be doing certainty-equivalence policy–makes no sense to me. Certainty-equivalence is appropriate only with a symmetric loss function and a symmetric ability to compensate for deviations on either side of the target. We do not have either of those.

Has there been an explanation of why the Federal Reserve’s policy is appropriate, given the uncertainties, given the asymmetry of the loss function, and given the asymmetry of the control levers, that I have missed? If so, where is it?

Fed watch: While We Wait For Yet Another FOMC Statement...

Tim Duy:

While We Wait For Yet Another FOMC Statement...: The FOMC will reveal the outcome of this week's meeting later today. I think Calculated Risk hits the high points - "patient" is in, "considerable time" is completely out. Beyond this, we will be looking for clues on how the Fed is interpreting the current economic environment. I suspect little change in the overall tenor of the statement as they will want to leave June open as an option. I reiterate my position: The Fed needs to see an acceleration in wage growth to be confident that inflation will return to trend if they intend to raise rates in June. 

Why is the Fed focused on normalizing policy? This is one explanation I see tossed around, from Jeffrey Gunlock via Reuters:

"The Fed seems to want to raise interest rates simply because they don't want to be at zero when the next recession occurs," he said.

A similar statement from the Economic Cycle Research Institute:

In this context, ECRI explains the reasons for the declines in both measures, but also why they may ultimately not be that important to the timing of rates hikes. Above all, the Fed wants to remain relevant in case the economy is hit by recessionary shocks that require interest rates to return to the zero-lower-bound (ZLB). By definition, once on the ZLB, they need to rise before they can fall again.

I don't think these are accurate representations of Fed thinking. The Fed recognizes that hiking rates prematurely to "give them room" in the next recession is of course self-defeating. They are not going to invite a recession simply to prove they have the tools to deal with another recession.  

The reasons the Fed wants to normalize policy are, I fear, a bit more mundane:

  1. They believe the economy is approaching a more normal environment with solid GDP growth and near-NAIRU unemployment. They do not believe such an environment is consistent with zero rates.
  2. They believe that monetary policy operates with long and variable lags. Consequently, they need to act before inflation hits 2% if they do not want to overshoot their target. And they in fact have no intention of overshooting their target.
  3. They do not believe in the secular stagnation story. They do not believe that the estimate of the neutral Fed Funds rate should be revised sharply downward. Hence 25bp, or 50bp, or even 100bp still represents loose monetary policy by their definition.

I am currently of the opinion that there is a reasonable chance the Fed is wrong on the third point, and that they have less room to maneuver than they believe. If so, they will find themselves back at the zero bound in the next recession, very quickly I might add. This is not their expectation. They expect to remain relevant in the next recession and do not believe they need to quickly raise rates to achieve relevance. Again, they know this is self-defeating.

Whether or not they can maintain their mid-year target is of course the topic du jour. But the logic of those who believe the Fed will not have what it needs in June and thus expect the first hike much later is more convincing than those who argue that they will raise rates due to some pressing need to prepare for the next recession.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

'Did the Keynesians Get It Wrong in Predicting a Recession in 2013?'

Dean Baker:

Did the Keynesians Get It Wrong in Predicting a Recession in 2013?:  I have had several readers send me a blogpost from Scott Sumner saying that the Keynesians have been dishonest in not owning up to the fact that they were wrong in predicting a recession in 2013. The argument is that supposedly us Keynesian types all said that the budget cuts and the ending of the payroll tax cut at the start of 2013 would throw the economy back into recession. (Jeffrey Sachs has made similar claims.)
That isn't my memory of what I said at the time, but hey we can check these things. I looked at a few of my columns from the fall of 2012 and they mostly ran in the opposite direction. The Washington insider types were hyping the threat of the "fiscal cliff" in the hope of pressuring President Obama and the Democrats to make big concessions on Social Security and Medicare. They were saying that even the risk of falling off the cliff could have a big impact on growth in the third and fourth quarter of 2012.
My columns and blogposts (e.g. here, here, here, here, and here) were largely devoted to saying this was crap. I certainly agreed that budget cutbacks and the end of the payroll tax cuts would dampen growth, but the number was between 0.5-0.8 percentage points. This left us far from recession. (All my columns and blogposts from this time are at the CEPR website, so folks can verify that I didn't do any cherry picking here.)
I know Paul Krugman is the real target here, not me, but we've been seeing the economy pretty much the same way since the beginning of the recession. If he had a different story at the time I think I would remember it. But his columns and blogposts are archived too. I really don't think anyone will find him predicting a recession in 2013, although I'm sure he also said that budget cuts and tax increases would dampen growth. 
Anyhow, I'm generally happy to stand behind the things I've said, and when they are proven wrong I hope I own up to it. But I don't see any apologies in order. No recession happened in 2013 and none was predicted here.

I don't recall predicting a recession either (the "they" intended to tar all Keynesians refers to just a few people), just that it would be a drag on growth (the CBO predicted 0.6%). In any case, not much can be said unless one takes the time to estimate a model, use it as a baseline, and then ask the model how the economy would have done in an alternative world where policy was different. Just because we still had growth after the budget cuts does not prove or disprove anything. Even if growth rises under austerity, you can't say it would not have risen a bit more more without austerity (all else is far from equal) unless you have done the hard work of estimating a defensible model and then asking it these questions. Similarly, you can't say much about the degree of monetary offset unless you have taken the time to do the econometrics to support it. But with changes this small -- the impact was predicted to be much less than one percent of growth by most models -- it is very hard to get statistically significant differences in any case.

The problem is that there is no model that all economists agree is "best" for these purposes, and the answer one gets depends upon the particular choice of models. Choose a model that delivers small fiscal multipliers and you get one answer, use a model with bigger multipliers and the answer changes. But even the models with the largest multipliers did not predict a recession, only a drag on growth (generally less than one percent) so the fact that we still had growth says nothing about the impact of the policy, or the degree of monetary offset.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Paul Krugman: Much Too Responsible

Europe’s self-indulgent "archons of austerity" and "doyens of deflation":

Much Too Responsible, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: The United States and Europe have a lot in common. Both are multicultural and democratic; both are immensely wealthy; both possess currencies with global reach. Both, unfortunately, experienced giant housing and credit bubbles between 2000 and 2007, and suffered painful slumps when the bubbles burst.
Since then, however, policy on the two sides of the Atlantic has diverged. In one great economy, officials have shown a stern commitment to fiscal and monetary virtue, making strenuous efforts to balance budgets while remaining vigilant against inflation. In the other, not so much.
And the difference in attitudes is the main reason the two economies are now on such different paths. ... No, it’s not morning in America... Recovery could and should have come much faster, and family incomes remain well below their pre-crisis level. Although you’d never know it from the public discussion, there’s overwhelming agreement among economists that the Obama stimulus of 2009-10 helped limit the damage..., but it was too small and faded away far too fast. ...
Europe, on the other hand ... did almost everything wrong. On the fiscal side, Europe never did much stimulus, and quickly turned to austerity ... despite high unemployment. On the monetary side, officials fought the imaginary menace of inflation, and took years to acknowledge that the real threat is deflation. ...
Monetary policy got much better after Mario Draghi became president of the European Central Bank in late 2011. ... But it’s not at all clear that he has the tools to fight off the broader deflationary forces set in motion by years of wrongheaded policy. ...
The terrible thing is that Europe’s economy was wrecked in the name of responsibility. ... In a depressed economy..., a balanced-budget fetish and a hard-money obsession are deeply irresponsible. Not only do they hurt the economy in the short run, they can — and in Europe, have — inflict long-run harm, damaging the economy’s potential and driving it into a deflationary trap that’s very hard to escape.
Nor was this an innocent mistake. The thing that strikes me about Europe’s archons of austerity, its doyens of deflation, is their self-indulgence. They felt comfortable, emotionally and politically, demanding sacrifice (from other people) at a time when the world needed more spending. They were all too eager to ignore the evidence that they were wrong.
And Europe will be paying the price for their self-indulgence for years, perhaps decades, to come.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Fed Watch: Policy Divergence

Tim Duy:

Policy Divergence, by Tim Duy: Increasingly, the Federal Reserve stands in stark contrast with its global counterparts. While the ECB readys its own foray into quantitative easing, the Bank of England shifted to a more dovish internal position, the central bank of Denmark joined the Swiss in cutting rates, and the Bank of Canada unexpectedly cut rates 25bp this morning. The latter move I found somewhat unsurprising given the likely impact of oil prices on the Canadian economy. The rest of the world is diverging from US monetary policy. How long can the Fed continue to stand against this tide?

Late last week, Reuters reported that the Fed's resolve was stiffening. This week, the Wall Street Journal reported the Fed was staying the course. This morning, Bloomberg says the Fed is getting weak in the knees:

Federal Reserve officials are starting to reassess their outlook for the economy as global weakness and disappointing data on American consumer spending test their resolve to raise interest rates this year.

San Francisco Fed President John Williams last week said he will trim his U.S. estimate because of slower growth abroad. Atlanta’s Dennis Lockhart said Jan. 12 that he advocates a “cautious” approach to rate increases and inflation readings “may be pivotal.” Both are voters on the Federal Open Market Committee in 2015 and repeated that rates could be raised in the middle of the year.

I doubt the Fed will place too much weight on the December retail sales report. It is fairly noisy data and there is no indication that the fundamental upward trend has been broken:

RETAIL012115

Moreover, I think they would be wary of reading too much into one data point given the upswing in consumer confidence in recent months. That, of course, only builds upon the upswing in employment data. And housing starts finished the year on a strong note - see Calculated Risk for more on that topic.

All that said, the Fed should of course be cautious about the impact of global weakness. But how does the Fed communicate such caution? The challenge I see for the Fed is that they will want to hold the statement fairly steady, with falling oil prices and global weakness as offsetting risks while holding the line on the "low inflation is transitory" story. They want to keep June alive. After all, it's still five months out - a lifetime at the speed of today's financial world. They don't want expectations to fall too far to the back of the year while they are still looking at a June hike.

Such a steady hand, however, may be viewed as hawkish, which is also a message the Fed does not want to send. My expectation is that they highlight the improving US economy, particularly the acceleration in job growth, while offering concerns about the global economy. Remember that the condition of the US job market is very different than during previous bouts of financial instability; the momentum looks more self-sustaining than it has in a long time. They may even point to policy action on the part of foreign central banks to help assuage some global weakness concerns.

Separately, St. Louis Federal Reserve President James Bullard gives no quarter in his argument for rate hike in the first quarter of this year in this Wall Street Journal interview:

I still think we should get off zero (interest rates). The kinds of things we’re observing now, it is not the constellation of data that would be consistent with a zero policy rate. I think it is important to get started and to start normalizing policy. Even once we start to normalize, interest rates would still be extremely low. We’re talking about levels of 50 basis points or 75 basis points. That is still extremely low and that would still be putting upward pressure on inflation even if we did that. So I’d like to get going. I don’t think we can any longer rationalize a zero interest rate policy.

Bullard thinks the data is not consistent with a zero rate policy, while I fear that the data is where it is at because of the zero rate policy. Moreover, I would tend to proceed more cautiously then Bullard given the current flattening of the yield curve. But Bullard is an outlier; the FOMC consensus is in favor of caution, which is why there is no rate hike on the table next week or in March. And it is why June is in no way guaranteed; they need something from wage growth that they just aren't getting. If they want to set up for a June rate hike without wage growth, they need to start telling a compelling alternative story soon.

Somewhat disappointing is that Bullard is flip-flopping. To date he has been a fairly reliable inflation-hawk - his opinions shift consistently with the inflation outlook. Not this week:

I do worry about TIPS-based inflation compensation and it has been down a lot recently and it does concern me. What I want to do with that is wait and see what happens in global oil markets, wait and see what equilibrium turns out to be and then see what happens with breakeven inflation at that point. I want to let the dust settle on the oil market and then go back and check breakeven inflation rates and see what’s happened.

Basically, Bullard wants to ignore the market-based inflation metrics that would have in the past told him to hold off on any tightening. He really, really wants to liftoff from the zero bound, the sooner the better. I don't think this level of immediacy is felt by other FOMC members, but I do think they are hoping and praying the data gives them enough to move by mid-year.

Bottom Line: The Fed finds itself in a familiar place - wanting to change policy but not quite getting the data they need while at the same time global stress in on the rise. Luckily for them, they weren't going to move off the zero-bound next week anyways; they still have months of data to sift through between now and then. And unlike past times of turbulence, the US is coming from a position of strength, eliminating the need for any panicky moves. Next week is mostly then just about communicating how and how not they are responding to overseas developments.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Fed Watch: Seconded

Tim Duy:

Seconded, by Tim Duy: I see Jon Hilsenrath at the Wall Street Journal seconds my take from this morning:

Federal Reserve officials are on track to start raising short-term interest rates later this year, even though long-term rates are going in the other direction amid new investor worries about weak global growth, falling oil prices and slowing consumer price inflation.

This is generally consistent with my view. The Fed is likely reacting more slowly than market participants. Hilsenrath adds something I forgot to mention:

Central to their internal deliberations ahead of the March meeting is a debate about how low the jobless rate can fall before it stirs wage and inflation pressure. Fed officials estimate the “natural rate” of unemployment—meaning the rate below which wage pressures increase—is between 5.2% and 5.5%.

Mr. Rosengren said he was considering revising this estimate down because the jobless rate has fallen to near the 5.2%-5.5% range without triggering any sign of wage pressure. He said he suspected some of his Fed colleagues also were considering moving this estimate down. The lower the estimate goes, the more patient they might be before raising rates.

Just as I think it will be hard for the Fed to raise rates if the unemployment rate continues to fall while wage growth remains subdued, it will also be difficult to justify current estimates of the natural rate of unemployment under those circumstances. Still, I would caution that lowering the estimate of the natural rate would be, I think, an implicit rejection of the "underemployment hypothesis." It would be easier to adjust estimates of the natural rate downward if measures of underemployment were more consistent with their traditional relationships with unemployment. In other words, the natural rate may be consistent with subdued wage growth due to the existence of high levels of underemployment.

My opinion is that the global disinflationary environment would support low inflation at levels of unemployment below the Fed's current estimate of the natural rate, similar to the situation of the late 1990s.

Fed Watch: Will The Fed Take a Dovish Turn Next Week?

Tim Duy:

Will The Fed Take a Dovish Turn Next Week?, by Tim Duy: As it stands now, we are heading into the next FOMC meeting with the growing expectation that the Fed will take a dovish turn. Is it not obvious that global economic turmoil, collapsing oil prices, weak inflation, and a stronger dollar are clearly pointing to rapidly rising downside risks to the US economy? For financial market participants, they answer is a clear "yes." Expectations of the first rate hike have been pushed out to the end of this year, seemingly in complete defiance of Fed plans for policy normalization. The Fed may get there as well and abandon their carefully crafted mid-year plan, but I suspect they will not move quite as rapidly as financial market participants desire.
As a general rule, the Fed tends to act in a more deliberate fashion. To be sure, this was not evident during the crisis. Indeed, "panicky" might be a better adjective during that period. But note that in comparison to past bouts of tumolt on global markets, the US economy is in a much better place, with accelerating job growth when unemployment is already near traditional mandate-levels. From their point of view, this is a whole different world compared to that of the last round of Euro-induced crisis.
This take from Jonathan Spicer and Ann Saphir at Reuters probably saw less play than it deserved:
Tumbling oil prices have strengthened rather than weakened the Federal Reserve's resolve to start raising interest rates around midyear even as volatile markets and a softening U.S. inflation outlook made investors push back the timing of the "liftoff."
Kind of a "Fed is from Mars, markets are from Venus" situation. It is important to recognize that the Fed sees falling oil prices as a significant, unexpected development that represents the realization of an upside risk to their forecast. They are thinking of an outcome not unlike that revealed in the most recent Bloomberg/UMich read on consumer sentiment:

CONSEN011815

Through the roof, one might say. So at this point the Fed will view the external threats to the economy as just risks, but the very real move in oil is at a minimum adding upside risk to their forecasts or already pushing their forecasts to the upside. With regards to external threats, they probably think that more aggressive ECB action is in the wings to put their immediate fears to rest. And the downward push on inflation is, from their perspective, a transitory issue and therefore a non-issue.
Consider this also from the Reuters article:
Interviews with senior Fed officials and advisors suggest they remain confident the U.S. economy will be ready for a modest policy tightening in the June-September period, while any subsequent rate hikes will probably be slow and depend on how markets will behave.
in light of this from St. Louis Federal Reserve President James Bullard:
“The level of inflation is not so low that it can alone justify a policy rate of zero,” Mr. Bullard said in material prepared for a speech in Chicago.
and this from San Fransisco Federal Reserve President John Williams:
Placing heavy emphasis on the date of liftoff “suggests that you don’t have any other decisions to make,” Williams said. “We want to be very confident that we’re on the right path, that the data support that first move, but that first move on tightening is only one of many, many policy actions we’ll need to do during the normalization. It’s not the critical component.”
and this from Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen:
So, I think you raise a very important point because, although there is a great deal of market focus on the timing of liftoff, what to matter in thinking about the stance of policy is what the entire path of interest rates will look like. And I really don’t have much for you other than to say that they will be data dependent—that, over time, the stance of policy will be adjusted to try to keep the economy on a track where we see continuing progress toward achieving our goals of maximum employment and price stability.
My takeway is that the Fed sees the timing of the first rate hike as less important than everything that comes after that hike. This will leave them less eager to delay the hike. Given where the economy currently stands, I suspect they see little chance of damage from that first hike alone.
This is also interesting:
Some of those interviewed stressed that in the light of last year's strong jobs gains waiting until mid-year represented a cautious approach rather than an aggressive one, allowing the Fed to delay the rate liftoff if needed, particularly if inflation expectations turned sharply down.
The suggestion here is that at least some Fed officials view signaling a mid-year rate hike as the cautious approach because the data increasingly suggests to them that they should be moving sooner than later.
Bottom Line: I reiterate my view that despite the generally positive data flow, and the upward boost from oil, I don't see how they can justify raising rates without some reasonable acceleration in wage growth. That said, perhaps by my own argument above they can justify it on the basis of 25bp won't hurt anyone anyways. But my broader point is this: During normal times the Fed moves methodically if not ponderously. The current state of the economy gives them room to move as such. So I would not be surpised to see a fairly steady hand revealed in the next FOMC statement.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Fed Watch: Wage Growth - or Lack of - Continues to Surprise

Tim Duy:

Wage Growth - or Lack of - Continues to Surprise, by Tim Duy: The December employment report, with its surprising combination of solid job gains and decelerating wage growth, leaves Fed policy up the air.
Headline nonfarm payrolls gained by 252k, while previous months were revised up a net 50k. Job growth continues to accelerate:

NFPa010915

Note the acceleration in aggregate hours worked:

NFPd010915

Such gains suggest the recent acceleration in GDP growth is real and likely to be sustained. From the household survey, we see that the unemployment rate continues to decline. Fed forecasts will once again soon be in jeopardy:

NFPc010915

In the context of indicators previously identified by Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen:

YELLENa010915

YELLENb010915

Overall, the story is one of ongoing improvement in labor markets, including metrics of underemployment. Wage growth, however, nosedived during the month:

NFPb010915

I would be wary of this read on wages - strikes me as an aberration that is likely to be violently reversed, but I also stick to what I wrote yesterday:
I believe that an acceleration of wage growth would do the trick, which is why this remains the data to watch in the employment report. If June rolls around with no inflation and no greater wage growth, the Fed will find it challenging to begin normalization. In that case, they would need to focus on the employment mandate or pivot to some financial stability story to justify a rate hike.
Bottom Line: Generally a very solid report. But the wage numbers present a dilemma for the Fed. Simply put, no wage growth means the Fed can't be particularly confident that inflation will trend toward target. Not that a rate hike was imminent in any event; Fed is still looking at June, but they need some more help from the data. Of course, June is still a long way off - we have five more employment reports before that meeting. Time enough for these numbers to turn around. Note that if the wage trend does reverse quickly, policy expectations would shift just as quickly.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Fed Watch: Volatile Week Ahead of Employment Report

Tim Duy:

Volatile Week Ahead of Employment Report, by Tim Duy: At the moment, there are many different competing threads in the tapestry of monetary policy, with another thread entering the pattern with tomorrow's employment report. In short, the Fed is balancing clear evidence of accelerating US activity in the back half of 2014 against the implications of declining oil prices and a host of international weaknesses that are roiling financial markets. The reality of volatility in asset prices was on full display this week. The Fed desire to begin normalizing policy with a rate hike in the middle of this year certainly appears in jeopardy. They very much need continued solid data on the US side of the equation to push forward with their plans.
Early 2015 US data in the form of ISM reports provides little new guidance. While the measures slipped from recent high, I would be hard-pressed to say that the underlying trend has changed after considering the volatility of this data:

NAPMa010814

NAPMb010814

Likewise, initial unemployment claims continue to hover below pre-recession lows, signaling solid labor demand:

CLAIMS010815

Plunging gasoline prices will almost certainly bolster consumer confidence:

GAS010814

The Fed anticipates that declining energy prices will have a net positive impact on the economy. Via the minutes of the most recent FOMC meeting:
In their discussion of the foreign economic outlook, participants noted that the implications of the drop in crude oil prices would differ across regions, especially if the price declines affected inflation expectations and financial markets; a few participants said that the effect on overseas employment and output as a whole was likely to be positive. While some participants had lowered their assessments of the prospects for global economic growth, several noted that the likelihood of further responses by policymakers abroad had increased. Several participants indicated that they expected slower economic growth abroad to negatively affect the U.S. economy, principally through lower net exports, but the net effect of lower oil prices on U.S. economic activity was anticipated to be positive.
I tend agree that the net impact will be positive, but note that the negative impacts will be fairly concentrated and easy for the media to sensationalize, while the positive impacts will be fairly dispersed. We all know what is going to happen to rig counts, high-yield energy debt, and the economies of North Dakota and at least parts of Texas. "Kablooey," I think, is the technical term. Easy media fodder. Much more difficult to see the positive impact spread across the real incomes of millions of households, with particularly solid gains at the lower ends of the income distribution. This will be most likely revealed in the aggregate data and be much less newsworthy.
The decline in energy prices, combined with the stronger dollar, confounds the Fed's inflation outlook, but for now they seem content to assume the impacts are transitory:
Participants generally anticipated that inflation was likely to decline further in the near term, reflecting the reduction in oil prices and the effects of the rise in the foreign exchange value of the dollar on import prices.Most participants saw these influences as temporary and thus continued to expect inflation to move back gradually to the Committee's 2 percent longer-run objective as the labor market improved further in an environment of well-anchored inflation expectations.
The Fed also, at least for now, is choosing to heavily discount market-based measures of inflation expectations:
Survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations remained stable, although market-based measures of inflation compensation over the next five years, as well as over the five-year period beginning five years ahead, moved down further over the intermeeting period.Participants discussed various explanations for the decline in market-based measures, including a fall in expected future inflation, reductions in inflation risk premiums, and higher liquidity and other premiums that might be influencing the prices of Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities and inflation derivatives.Model-based decompositions of inflation compensation seemed to support the message from surveys that longer-term inflation expectations had remained stable, although it was observed that these results were sensitive to the assumptions underlying the particular models used. It was noted that even if the declines in inflation compensation reflected lower inflation risk premiums rather than a reduction in expected inflation, policymakers might still want to take them into account because such changes could reflect increased concerns on the part of investors about adverse outcomes in which low inflation was accompanied by weak economic activity. In the end, participants generally agreed that it would take more time and analysis to draw definitive conclusions regarding the recent behavior of inflation compensation.
For example, the Cleveland Federal Reserve measure of inflation expectations over the next ten years was 1.83% in December, within spitting distance of the Fed's target. This kind of analysis, combined with survey-based measures, provides the Fed with a great deal of comfort regarding the inflation situation.
That said, inflation remains below target and, importantly, was decelerating before the impact of lower energy prices worked its way through the economy:

PCE33122314

Shouldn't this alone keep any talk of rate hikes at bay? You might think so, but the Fed already believed there was a good chance that they would raise interest rates while core-inflation was below target:
With lower energy prices and the stronger dollar likely to keep inflation below target for some time, it was noted that the Committee might begin normalization at a time when core inflation was near current levels, although in that circumstance participants would want to be reasonably confident that inflation will move back toward 2 percent over time.
So what is the bar for "reasonably confident"? I believe that an acceleration of wage growth would do the trick, which is why this remains the data to watch in the employment report. If June rolls around with no inflation and no greater wage growth, the Fed will find it challenging to begin normalization. In that case, they would need to focus on the employment mandate or pivot to some financial stability story to justify a rate hike.
Jon Hilsenrath offers a potential interpretation of the implications of the rally at the long end of the Treasury yield curve:
If falling yields are a reflection of diminishing inflation prospects, as is typically the case, it ought to prompt the Fed to hold off on raising short-term interest rates in the months ahead. If, on the other hand, lower long-term rates are a reflection of investors pouring money into U.S. dollar assets, flows that could spark a U.S. asset price boom, it might prompt the Fed to push rates higher sooner or more aggressively than planned.
The latter interpretation is less conventional, but it is one that New York Fed President William Dudley made at length in a speech in December. He argued the Fed had the wrong reaction to lower long rates in the 2000s, a mistake that might have contributed to the housing boom that ended disastrously.
I wrote about this last month, coming to the conclusion:
A second point is that Dudley is not taking seriously the possibility that the flattening yields curve suggests the Fed has less room to move than policymakers think they do. This is something I worry about - if the Fed leans on the short end too much, they risk taking an expansion that should last another fours years to one that has just two more years left. But that might be a story for next December.
I think the late-90's is a better comparator to the current envrionment, but that will take another post to deal with. For the moment, I will add that San Francisco Federal Reserve President John Williams hinted that current action in the bond market is in fact telling a less hawkish story. Via Greg Robb at MarketWatch:
Williams said he thinks a rate hike this year will be appropriate, but added he is in "no rush" to tighten. He said that mid-2015 is a reasonable guess of when the Fed will first ask "should we do it now or wait a little longer."
I have interpreted Williams remarks in the past as pointing at a June rate hike. Arguably, here he hedges and says June is when they should start considering the rate hike. Perhaps falling Treasury yields are having the traditional impact on Fed thinking after all.
Bottom Line: Fed wants to begin normalizing policy, but sees a murkier path compared to even just last month. They need hard US data to overwhelm the oil/international driven fears. An acceleration of wage growth would help put some light on the path they want to follow.

'Trying to Understand Current FedThink'

Brad DeLong:

Today’s Essay at Trying to Understand Current FedThink: Daily Focus, by Brad DeLong: The “more thoughts about this” I promised earlier below…

Jon Hilsenrath: Could Lower 10-Year Yields Spark A More Aggressive Fed?:
“Falling long-term interest rates pose a quandary for Federal Reserve officials….

…If falling yields are a reflection of diminishing inflation prospects… it ought to prompt the Fed to hold off on raising short-term interest rates…. If… lower long-term rates are a reflection of investors pouring money into U.S. dollar assets, flows that could spark a U.S. asset price boom, it might prompt the Fed to push rates higher sooner…. The latter interpretation is less conventional, but it is one that New York Fed President William Dudley made….

The Fed’s next policy meeting is three weeks away. It is clear officials will spend a considerable time debating the correct response to a perplexing lurch down in long-term rates. ...

Our current remarkably-low long-term interest rates has three possible interpretations:

  1. Ms. Market expects currently-planned near-term Fed policy to produce a very weak economy for a long time to come, and hence very low interest rates in the out years. Ms. Market is correct. In this case, low long-term interest rates are a signal that the Federal Reserve’s current liftoff plans are a mistake and should be revisited.

  2. Ms. Market expects currently-planned near-term Fed policy to produce a very weak economy for a long time to come, and hence very low interest rates in the out years. Ms. Market is wrong. In this case, low long-term interest rates are not a signal that the Federal Reserve’s current liftoff plans are a mistake and should be revisited. Rather, the Federal Reserve should act as in (3).

  3. Ms. Market expects currently-planned near-term Fed policy to produce a normal economy in the out-years, but the U.S. Treasury market has an unusually small or negative term premium because of the large number of foreign investors seeking U.S.-based political and economic risk insurance via holdings of U.S. Treasuries. In this case, low long-term interest rates are inappropriately stimulative and run the risk of generating an overheating economy, and the proper response by the Federal Reserve is to announce that it will raise interest rates sooner and faster in order to push long-term rates to where they need to be for a sustainable Goldilocks continued recovery.

The Federal Reserve strongly believes that Ms. Market has no information about the future course of the macroeconomy that the Federal Reserve does not have–that (1) is simply unthinkable. That leaves (2)–Ms. Market thinks the Federal Reserve’s currently-planned near-term policy path is risking another lost decade, but Ms. Market is wrong–or (3)–long-term rates have an anomalously-low term premium because of foreign-investor demand.

A glance at the graph above would seem to rule out (3): 10-Yr breakeven inflation has fallen from 2.5%/year just before the taper tantrum to 1.6%/year today, while the TIPS has risen from -0.7%/year to +0.4%/year today. If it were (3), the surge of foreign demand ought to have put downward pressure on both nominal Treasuries and TIPS, leaving the breakeven largely unchanged. That is not what has happened. If the Federal Reserve wants to hold to (3), therefore, it needs to add to it:

3′. Something else weird and unrelated has happened in the market for TIPS.

While that is possible, it is disfavored by Occam’s Razor.

Thus Dudley seems to be chasing down a red herring. The interpretation he wants to put forward ought to be this:

Today Ms. Market expects inflation over the next ten years to be 0.9%/year less than it expected it to be back in June 2013. But we know better: the economy is actually much stronger than Ms. Market thinks.

Coming from a Federal Reserve that has overestimated the future strength of the economy in every single quarter since the start of 2007, that is not a terribly reassuring posture for it to take.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

'In Defense of NGDP Targets'

Simon Wren-Lewis:

In defence of NGDP targets: Tony Yates had recently written a couple of posts (here, and here, but see also the discussion with Andy Harless on the second) slamming the idea of NGDP targets. (From now on I assume this refers to targeting the level of NGDP.) Now you might think that NGDP targets do not need any support from lukewarm advocates like me, given all the supporters in the econ blogging world. That would be wrong, because - as Tony rightly says - most advocates of NGDP targets tend to argue in a model free way. Both he and I want to stay close to the academic literature, at least as a starting point.
I think Tony is wrong when he says that “the case for levels based targets – including NGDP levels targets – is, both practically and analytically, extremely weak”. In making such a claim, Tony should be very worried that one of the supporters of NGDP targets is Michael Woodford, who literally wrote the book on modern monetary theory. ...

After explaining, he concludes with:

Having said all this, it is great that Tony is opening up the discussion on the correct level, so we can get away from what often seems like faith based arguments for NGDP targets. I think the framework that he seems to have in mind is also the correct one: the ultimate policy target would be inflation (and the output gap: I would want a dual mandate), and NGDP would be an intermediate target to achieving welfare maximising paths. So I hope this discussion continues. My one last plea is that arguments make clear whether a NGDP targeting regime is being compared to some form of optimal policy, or policy as currently practiced: as I suggest here these are (unfortunately) different things. 

Yates replies here.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

'On the Stupidity of Demand Deficient Stagnation'

Simon Wren-Lewis:

On the Stupidity of Demand Deficient Stagnation: In my last post I wrote about “why recessions caused by demand deficiency when inflation is below target are such a scandalous waste. It is a problem that can be easily solved, with lots of winners and no losers. The only reason that this is not obvious to more people is that we have created an institutional divorce between monetary and fiscal policy that obscures that truth.” I suspect I often write stuff that is meaningful to me as a write it but appears obtuse to readers. So this post spells out what I meant. ...

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

'Asymmetric Credibility at the Fed and Price-Level Targeting'

Jared Bernstein:

Asymmetric Credibility at the Fed and Price-Level Targeting: While we in the US don’t have the disinflation (positive but declining rates of inflation) problem facing the Eurozone, our benchmark inflation rate has consistently undershot its mark. The Federal Reserve target for the core PCE deflator is 2%, year-over-year, and yet it hasn’t hit that growth rate even once since April of 2012. Since then, the average rate of PCE core inflation is 1.5% (Euro area core inflation was last seen growing at 0.6%).
Note also that the 2% is a target, not a ceiling (though there’s often ambiguity around this), meaning if you’ve been below for a while, it’s consistent with hitting your target rate on average to be above it for a while as well.
And yet, the question of whether the Fed is adequately meeting the “stable prices” part of its dual mandate (the other part is, of course, full employment) seems almost uniformly to be whether it’s keeping inflation from going above 2%. In other words, the Fed’s inflation credibility is asymmetric: they only lose credibility points for going above 2%.
As a policy matter for a healthy economy, this is wrong...