Today Federal Reserve Vice Chair Janet Yellen discussed the evolution of policy communications. As might be expected from Yellen, there was a dovish tone to the speech. She provides a very nice overview of the Fed's changing communication strategy before shifting to her preferred path for the future. Along the way, she reiterates her estimated optimal path for monetary policy:
The notable feature of the optimal path is that inflation glides to its long-run target from above while unemployment does the opposite. These path are achieved by holding down interest rates longer than the level implied by a Taylor-type rule. Yellen explains that it is challenging to communicate such a rule, particularly in the current circumstances:
The fact that simple rules aren't as useful in current circumstances as they would be for the FOMC at other times poses a significant challenge for FOMC communications, especially since private-sector Fed watchers have frequently relied on such rules to understand and predict the Committee's decisions on the federal funds rate...
...Now, however, the federal funds rate may well diverge for a number of years from the prescriptions of simple rules. Moreover, the FOMC announced an open-ended asset purchase program in September, and there is no historical record for the public to use in forming expectations on how the FOMC is likely to use this tool. Thus, the current situation makes it very important that the FOMC provide private-sector forecasters with the information they need to predict how the likely path of policy will change in response to changes in the outlook...
How can the Fed augment the current communication strategy of an expected time frame for exceptionally low rates coupled with broad economic objectives to be met prior to changing policy? First, more explicit forecasts:
One logical possibility would be for the Committee to publish forecasts akin to those I've presented in figure 1. That is, the Committee could provide the public with its projections for inflation and the unemployment rate together with what it views as appropriate paths both for the federal funds rate and its asset holdings, conditional on its current outlook for the economy.
Yellen notes, however, that the Fed's institutional structure relies on 19 forecasts, which is challenging to synthesize into a single forecast. Research in this area is ongoing. She then supports the basic approach advocated by Chicago Federal Reserve President Charles Evans and Minneapolis Federal Reserve President Narayana Kocherlakota:
Another alternative that deserves serious consideration would be for the Committee to provide an explanation of how the calendar date guidance included in the statement--currently mid-2015--relates to the outlook for the economy, which can and surely will change over time. Going further, the Committee might eliminate the calendar date entirely and replace it with guidance on the economic conditions that would need to prevail before liftoff of the federal funds rate might be judged appropriate. Several of my FOMC colleagues have advocated such an approach, and I am also strongly supportive. The idea is to define a zone of combinations of the unemployment rate and inflation within which the FOMC would continue to hold the federal funds rate in its current, near-zero range.
While I like explicit targets in theory, I have been concerned that monetary policy is too complex to summarize in two numbers, thus making it a communications nightmare rather than a dream. Perhaps I am too pessimistic. Yellen offers a response:
Under such an approach, liftoff would not be automatic once a threshold is reached; that decision would require further Committee deliberation and judgment.
Not a fixed target that requires action, just consideration of action. Whether the rest of the FOMC follows suit with this approach is another question, but the winds are definitely blowing in that direction. On average then, this is relatively dovish. The Fed is heading toward a policy direction that would explicitly allow for inflation somewhat above target and unemployment below target as long as inflation expectations remained anchored. One would think this should put upward pressure on near term inflation. But Ryan Avent notes the opposite is occuring:
But since mid-October, there has been an unmistakable reversal in the inflation-expectations trend. Based on 5-year breakevens, all of the September spurt has been erased. And 2-year breakevens are back at July levels. Given my optimism over the Fed's September moves and the apparent strength of underlying fundamentals in the economy, I would like to disregard this trend, but one should be very reluctant to abandon guideposts that have served one well just because they've moved in an inconvenient way.
Avent has a point here (with the caveat that TIPS-based inflation expectations might be less than perfect). He also expressed concern about a broader array of assets:
Other proxies for demand—equity prices, bond yields, and the level of the dollar—have also moved, albeit modestly, in worrying ways. The S&P 500 is down a bit over 5% from its September high, the 10-year Treasury yield has fallen more than 20 basis points since October, and the trade-weighted dollar, which plunged after the Fed's September meeting, has been strengthening since the middle of last month.
I would add that Yellen's speech did not even generate a knee-jerk response in the stock market today. I remember a time not long ago when any hint of dovishness was good for a 1% rally. Which, combined with Avent's thoughts, leaves me wondering if open-ended QE is the last of the Fed's monetary tools. We now know the Fed will continuously exchange cash for Treasury or mortgage bonds until the Fed's economic objectives are met. Uncertainty about the course of monetary policy as been largely eliminated. There is not likely to be a premature policy reversal. What if the pace of the economy does not accelerate, sustaining a large, persistent output gap and a low inflation environment? The Fed could increase the pace of purchases, but would this really change expectations? Can we get more "open-ended?"
Bottom Line: Yellen delivers a dovish speech, siding with Evans and Kocherlakota who had previously advocated explicit inflation and unemployment guidelines for policy change. The Fed is moving in this direction, promising to further lock-in a program of aggressive large scale asset purchases. But is this the end of the road for policy? "Open-ended" sounds much like "unlimited." And unlimited sounds like the end of the road. If the economy stumbles, will the Fed pull a new trick out of its policy bag, or is that bag finally empty? And if that bag is empty, then we will need to turn to fiscal policy if the economy stumbles. This is worrisome given the expected path of fiscal policy - tighter, just degrees of tighter. Which means for the moment we just cross our fingers and hope the economy gains traction on the back of housing and accelerates as 2013 progresses.