The Personal Income and Outlays report for January delivered a surprise for the Fed doves. It does not, however, derail their push for a March pause. I believe policymakers will still take a pass on the March meeting as they assess the impact of recent market unpleasantness. But if markets calm further ahead of the March meeting and data remains solid, beware that they may choose to re-instate the balance of risks into the FOMC statement. Furthermore, sufficiently supportive data may induce them to shift the risks to the upside to signal the hope of a June hike.
Real personal consumption expenditures rose 0.4% in January and stands a respectable 2.9% higher than last year. The death of the consumer has been greatly exaggerated (although the death of the department store has not). Fairly firm consumer spending should be expected given the broad-based support from the labor market. Equally if not more important is that the report rewarded the defenders of the Phillips curve as core-PCE inflation spiked higher during the month:
Core inflation was up 1.7 percent from a year ago, actually bringing the FOMC's target into view. Note that as of the December meeting, the Fed did not expect to see 1.6 percent until the end of the year. It is easy to see unemployment close to their year-end target of 4.7 percent by the next meeting. It is already at 4.9 percent. In other words, it is easy to see economic projections updated to reveal a faster than expected return to both mandates.
It seems then like the Fed should consider picking up the pace of rate hikes rather than pausing. Indeed, there is some commentary that the current level of interest rates is inconsistent with the expected path of growth and inflation. This is sometimes described as Treasury market participants "underestimating" the Fed. Fed Governor Lael Brainard, however, continues to reconcile this apparent disconnect between the bond market and the economy with her focus on the international side of the equation. In yet another compelling speech, Brainard argues that the decline in the neutral rate of interest is a common shock that prevents policy diversion:
To the extent that we are observing limited divergence in inflation outcomes and less divergence in realized policy paths than many anticipated, this could be attributable to common shocks or trends that cause economic conditions to be synchronized across economies. The sharp repeated declines in the price of oil have been a major common factor depressing headline inflation...Even so, most observers expect this source of convergence in inflationary outcomes to eventually fade and thereafter not affect monetary policy paths over the medium term...In contrast, a more persistent source of convergence may be found in an apparent decline in the neutral rate of interest.
The persistent of this shock has significant implications for policy:
The very low levels of the shorter run neutral rate reflect in part headwinds from the crisis that are likely to dissipate over time. However, if many of the common forces holding down neutral rates prove persistent, then neutral rates may remain low through the medium term, implying a shallower path for policy trajectories.
It seems reasonable to equate the "persistent" common shock weighing on the natural rate of interest with the concept of secular stagnation. She reiterates estimates of the degree of tightening already impacting the US economy:
...although the U.S. real economy has traditionally been seen as more insulated from foreign trade shocks than many smaller economies, the combination of the highly global role of the dollar and U.S. financial markets and the proximity to the zero lower bound may be amplifying spillovers from foreign financial conditions. By one rough estimate, accounting for the net effect of exchange rate appreciation and changes in equity valuations and long term yields, over the past year and a half, the United States has experienced a tightening of financial conditions that is the equivalent of an additional increase of over 75 basis points in the federal funds rate...
...Financial channels can powerfully propagate negative shocks in one market by catalyzing a broader reassessment of risks and increases in risk spreads across many financial markets...Recent events suggest the transmission of foreign shocks can take place extremely quickly such that financial markets anticipate and indeed may thereby front-run the expected monetary policy reactions to these developments.
In other word, market participants are correctly assessing the Fed's response to recent turmoil by anticipating a slower path of rate hikes. Or, as I have said, the Fed has to be easier because everything else is tighter. Brainard draws special attention to the exchange rate (emphasis added):
It also appears that the exchange rate channel may have played a particularly important role recently in transmitting economic and financial developments across national borders. Indeed, recent research suggests that financial transmission is likely to be amplified in economies with near-zero interest rates, such that anticipated monetary policy adjustments in one economy may contribute more to a shifting of demand across borders than a boost to overall demand. This finding could explain why the sensitivity of exchange rate movements to economic news and to changes in foreign monetary policy appear to have been relatively elevated recently.
Read that carefully. She is saying that at the zero bound, the domestic impact of monetary policy is limited, leaving external demand as the primary policy channel. Hence exchange rates shift rapidly to induce that shifting of demand.
Or, in other words, Brainard is saying that at the zero bound monetary policy degrades to currency wars. Chew on that admission for awhile.
The implication for US policy:
Financial tightening associated with cross-border spillovers may be limiting the extent to which U.S. policy diverges from major economies. As policy adjusts to the evolution of the data, the combination of heightened spillovers from weaker foreign economies, along with a lower neutral rate, could result in a lower policy path in the United States relative to what many had predicted.
Pulling away from the zero bound is easier said than done. The Fed cannot lift the rest of the world from the zero bound; the rest of the world drags the Fed to the zero bound.
How does this relate to the idea that market participants are underestimating the Fed? I see two paths. One is that Brainard's "common shock" lowering the neutral rate of output is very persistent. Hence small changes to short-term rates have substantial economic impacts and the Fed needs to be very cautious in their response to inflation. In this scenario, the yield curve continues to flatten just as in any other tightening cycle. There is little movement in the long-end because market participants anticipate that the Fed has little room to maneuver.
Alternatively, the common shock dissipates, the long-end of the yield curve rises, and the Fed chases it with a faster than expected pace of rate hikes. I do not view this as a best on the markets underestimating the Fed. I view this as a bet against secular stagnation (the common shock).
It is worth pointing out at this juncture that shorting the long end (once thought a no brainer) has been something of a widowmaker trade. Just like it has been for Japanese government bonds.
If you accept the secular stagnation hypothesis and that the Fed will need to tighten in response to higher inflation, then expect long rates to hold flat or more likely decline as short rates rise. In other words, the yield curve would flatten further. Note that the yield curve has flattened per usual after the Fed began tightening.
So how I do interpret the incoming information of recent weeks as it regards at least near term policy? As follows:
- The rise in wage growth and now inflation is consistent with an economy near full-employment. In this dimension, the world is not much different than it has always been. Push unemployment low enough and resource constraints start to bite.
- Fed hawks will argue vociferously that they will soon fall behind the curve, if they have not already. Even some moderates will push for higher rates sooner than later. Here I am thinking of Fed Vice Chair Stanley Fischer.
- Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen will be swayed by Brainard to a dovish position in the near term. Brainard correctly called the importance of the external transmission channels last year. Those channels are forcing the Fed to lower the path of rate hikes in response by skipping at least the March meeting. And incoming data is largely backward looking; the Fed needs time to assess the impact of recent tightening in financial markets.
- I don't expect Fed hawks to go quietly into the night on this. I think they will want something in return for pausing, and that solid incoming data with a whiff of inflation will prompt them to revive the balance of risks.
- Unless growth does slow down dramatically, delaying rate hikes now means, as the Fed sees it, falling behind the curve later this year (remember that the push for raising rates in 2015 was premised on the need to be able to raise slowly ahead of inflation). The Fed will then have a choice between accepting a greater risk of above target inflation or accelerating the pace of rate hikes. I don't know which way that debate will fall yet.
Bottom Line: Inflation concerns are not likely to prompt a the Fed to hike rates in March. Financial market issues will dominate; like it or not, the Fed cannot separate the financial system from the real economy. The former is signaling it requires a looser policy stance to compensate for the stronger dollar. It would be tempting fate to ignore that signal. Be wary, however, of a hawkish message sent through the statement.