The Fed will almost certainly pause in March. But not all Fed presidents are leaning that way. And at least one seems to be shifting closer to March than further away. At the end of January, San Francisco Federal Reserve President John Williams had this to say, via Reuters:
San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank President John Williams told reporters he now sees slightly slower growth, slightly higher unemployment, and about a tenth of a percent lower inflation this year than he had expected in December, when the Fed raised rates for the first time in nearly a decade...
..."Standard monetary policy strategy says a little less inflation, maybe a little less growth ... argue for just a smidgen slower process of normalizing rates," Williams said.
"We got a little stronger dollar, some mixed data on the economy, some weakness in (fourth-quarter U.S. GDP growth), all of those coming together kind of tell me that we probably need a little bit more monetary accommodation this year than I was thinking in the middle of December."
But yesterday, the LA Times reported:
And unlike some of his colleagues at the Fed, who have suggested that the central bank hold off on raising interest rates next month, Williams says no such thing. The Fed lifted its benchmark rate in December after keeping it at near zero for seven years, but officials made no change at their last meeting in late January, amid tumbling stock and oil prices, and rising fears about China’s slowdown.
Williams, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, said the recent global developments certainly need to be closely monitored. But he said the “big picture for me hasn’t changed,” and his view on U.S. employment and inflation — the two key areas determining the Fed’s monetary policy — remains sanguine.
Sounds like Williams is backing down from his "smidgen" slower pace of rate hikes. Of course, really the only way to have just a "smidgen" slower pace is to skip the March meeting and acquiesce to at most three rate hike this year. So if Williams is backing down, he is saying that March remains an open question.
What would have changed his position? Data would be my guess. Since Williams spoke with reporters in January, the data has been fairly supportive. As he notes in his most recent speech, unemployment has fallen below 5%, his estimate of the natural rate of unemployment, and wage growth is starting to accelerate. Moreover, he still expects inflation will accelerate. I would add that initial unemployment claims turned back down:
Quits rates rose in December, indicating more, not less, confidence among workers:
Industrial production ticked up and weakness remains fairly concentrated:
Retail sales were stronger than expected, knocking a hole in the "consumer is dying" story:
In addition, housing remains solid - and housing generally does not strengthen into a recession. Indeed, Toll Brothers is not exactly worried about the economy in 2016. And, to top it off, last week we saw more evidence of rising inflation in the CPI report:
Hence I am not surprised to hear more optimism among Fed presidents than at the end of January. To be sure, some never wavered in their confidence. Kansas City Federal Reserve President Esther George today, via Bloomberg:
Federal Reserve policy makers should be prepared to consider raising interest rates in March despite recent financial market volatility, said Kansas City Fed President Esther George, whose outlook for solid growth this year remains intact.
“It absolutely should be on the table” at the next meeting, George told Pimm Fox and Kathleen Hays in a Bloomberg Radio interview Tuesday from the bank. “At this point I would not say that the data have suggested there has been a fundamental shift in the outlook.”
She even suggests that the Fed could surprise markets:
“It is clear the markets have taken that off the table,” said George, a voting member of the FOMC in 2016. “Policy makers have to look at what are the fundamentals of the economy.” Investors currently view the probability of a single rate rise in 2016 at around 45 percent, according to trading in federal funds futures contracts. The FOMC next meets on March 15-16.
That's not going to happen; the Fed will pause in March because ultimately they have to. The events since December have only bolstered the position of Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard, the strongest voice on the Board arguing for a cautious approach. That said, not all will see it this way. Back to Williams:
Of course, I am aware of, and closely monitoring, potential risks. But I want to be clear what that means. It’s often said that the economy isn’t the stock market and the stock market isn’t the economy. That’s very true. Short-term fluctuations or even daily dives aren’t accurate reflections of the state of the vast, intricate, multilayered U.S. economy. And they shouldn’t be viewed as the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Remember, the expansion of the 1980s wasn’t derailed by the crash of ’87, and we sailed through the Asian financial crisis a decade later. I say “remember”—some of you here will actually remember and others will remember it from your high school history class.
This paragraph was almost painful to read. Revisionist history. It is as if Williams completely forgets the role of monetary policy in both instances. What did the Fed do in November of 1987? Did they continue hiking rates? What did the Fed do in 1998? Did they continue hiking rates? No, in both instances they actually cut rates. And it was that monetary response that helped the economy "sail through" these episodes.
The Fed will reach the same conclusion this time as well: Even if the economic data is solid and the recovery remains intact, there is reason to believe that tightening financial conditions alone give sufficient reason for the Fed to pause. The Fed knows this. From the January minutes:
Almost all participants cited a number of recent events as indicative of tighter financial conditions in the United States; these events included declines in equity prices, a widening in credit spreads, a further rise in the exchange value of the dollar, and an increase in financial market volatility. Some participants also pointed to significantly tighter financing conditions for speculative-grade firms and small businesses, and to reports of tighter standards at banks for C&I and CRE loans. The effects of these financial developments, if they were to persist, may be roughly equivalent to those from further firming in monetary policy.
These issues are not going away by March. Hence, risk management mode remains the order of the day.
Moreover, consider the situation from the perspective of Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen. You have no doubt that your actions at this point define your legacy. On one side is the risk that your policy traps the US economy at the zero bound. You are just another in a long line of failed central bankers who tried to normalize too soon. This risk has been brought into sharp relief in the past two months (Brainard warned you, you think). On the other side is the risk that inflation drifts above your 2% target but you raise the odds of pulling off the zero bound. And you know that if push comes to shove, you can always argue that a period of above-2% inflation only makes up for a extended period of sub-2% inflation. And that you need somewhat higher inflation to firm up faltering inflation expectations. Which risk do you want to embrace? I am guessing the second. That's what Yellen will choose.
Bottom Line: The Fed is on hold. No clear end to the pause. But be wary that some Presidents might want something in return for that pause. What I am watching for are signs that Fed officials will lean toward re-instating the balance of risks assessment to the post-FOMC statement. And which way would that assessment lean? That, I think, is the question I would like to see financial journalists asking of Fed officials.