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:
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.