Fed Reserve Chair Janet Yellen testified before the Senate today, presenting remarks generally perceived as consistent with current expectations for a long period of fairly low interest rates. Binyamin Applebaum of the New York Times notes:
Ms. Yellen’s testimony is likely to reinforce a sense of complacency among investors who regard the Fed as convinced of its forecast and committed to its policy course. She reiterated the Fed’s view that the economy will continue to grow at a moderate pace, and that the Fed is in no hurry to start increasing short-term interest rates.
A key reason that Yellen is in no hurry to tighten is her clear belief that an accommodative monetary policy is warranted given the persistent damage done by the recession:
Although the economy continues to improve, the recovery is not yet complete. Even with the recent declines, the unemployment rate remains above Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) participants' estimates of its longer-run normal level. Labor force participation appears weaker than one would expect based on the aging of the population and the level of unemployment. These and other indications that significant slack remains in labor markets are corroborated by the continued slow pace of growth in most measures of hourly compensation.
Another reminder to watch compensation numbers. Without an acceleration in wage growth, sustained higher inflation is unlikely and hence the Fed sees little need to remove accommodation prior to reaching its policy objectives.
The only vaguely more hawkish tone was that identified by Applebaum:
But Ms. Yellen added that the Fed was ready to respond if it concluded that it had overestimated the slack in the labor market, a more substantial acknowledgment of the views of her critics than she has made in other recent remarks.
The exact quote:
Of course, the outlook for the economy and financial markets is never certain, and now is no exception. Therefore, the Committee's decisions about the path of the federal funds rate remain dependent on our assessment of incoming information and the implications for the economic outlook. If the labor market continues to improve more quickly than anticipated by the Committee, resulting in faster convergence toward our dual objectives, then increases in the federal funds rate target likely would occur sooner and be more rapid than currently envisioned. Conversely, if economic performance is disappointing, then the future path of interest rates likely would be more accommodative than currently anticipated.
Her choice of words is important here. Note that she does not say "If the labor market improves more quickly". Yellen says "continues to improve more quickly" which means that the economy is already converging towards the Fed's objective more quickly than anticipated by current forecasts. This is a point repeatedly made by St. Louis Federal Reserve President James Bullard in recent weeks. For example, via Bloomberg:
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis President James Bullard said a rapid drop in joblessness will fuel inflation, bolstering his case for an interest-rate increase early next year.
“I think we are going to overshoot here on inflation,” Bullard said yesterday in a telephone interview from St. Louis. He predicted inflation of 2.4 percent at the end of 2015, “well above” the Fed’s 2 percent target.
“That is a break from where most of the committee seems to be, which is a very slow convergence of inflation to target,” he said in a reference to the policy-making Federal Open Market Committee.
With Yellen at least acknowledging this point, it brings into question whether or not the Fed should maintain its "considerable period" language:
The Committee continues to anticipate, based on its assessment of these factors, that it likely will be appropriate to maintain the current target range for the federal funds rate for a considerable time after the asset purchase program ends...
Fed hawks, such as Philadelphia Federal Reserve President Charles Plosser, increasingly see the need to remove this language from the statement, and for some good reason. The Fed foresees ending asset purchases in October and can reasonably foresee raising interest rates in the first quarter given the trajectory of unemployment. Hence it is no longer clear that a "considerable period" between the end of asset purchases and the first rate hike remains a certainty.
To be sure, there will be resistance to changing the language now - the Fed will want to ensure that any change is interpreted as the result of a change in the outlook rather than a change in the reaction function. But the hawks will argue that the communications challenge is best handled by dropping the language sooner than later - later might appear like an abrupt change and be more difficult to distinguish from a shift in the reaction function. This I suspect is the next battlefield for policymakers.
Bottom Line: A generally dovish performance by Yellen today consistent with current expectations. But notice her acknowledgement of her critics, and watch for the "considerable period" debate to heat up as October approaches.