I find the Fed's current obsession with raising interest rates curious to say the least. The basic argument for rate hikes is that the economy, and in particular the labor market, sustained its momentum in the last two quarters better than market participants believe. Given that the economy is near or beyond full employment, the lack of excess slack will soon manifest itself in the form of inflationary pressures. Hence, to remain ahead of the inflation curve and maximize the chance that rate hikes will be gradual, they need to soon raise rates.
For instance, St. Louis Federal Reserve President today, from his press release:
“By nearly any metric, U.S. labor markets are at or beyond full employment,” Bullard said. For example, he noted that job openings per available worker are at a cyclical low, unemployment insurance claims relative to the size of the labor force are at a multi-decade low, and nonfarm payroll employment growth has been above longer-run trends. In addition, the level of a labor market conditions index created by staff at the Board of Governors continues to be well above average.
In a recent speech, Boston Federal Reserve President Eric Rosengren argued that employment was close to entering the danger zone:
However, the unemployment rate is now at 5 percent – relatively close to my estimate of full employment, 4.7 percent – and net payroll employment growth is averaging over 200,000 jobs per month over the past quarter. My concern is that given these conditions, an interest rate path at the pace embedded in the futures markets could risk an unemployment rate that falls well below the natural rate of unemployment. We are currently at an unemployment rate where such a large, rapid decline in unemployment could be risky, as an overheating economy would eventually produce inflation rising above our 2 percent goal, eventually necessitating a rapid removal of monetary policy accommodation. I would prefer that the Federal Reserve not risk making the mistake of significantly overshooting the full employment level, resulting in the need to rapidly raise interest rates – with potentially disruptive effects and an increased risk of a recession.
Both these claims appear to me to be hasty. I think this narrative rang true through last summer. But, by my read of the data, since then progress toward full employment has stalled. For instance:
Part-time employment and long-term unemployment look to be moving sideways since the middle of last year, while progress in the U6 unemployment rate has decelerated markedly. And these shifts in momentum are occurring while at levels above those prior to the recession. Moreover, U3 unemployment is now moving sideways at a level above the Fed's estimate of full employment:
I understand that this flattening is attributable to rising labor force participation. That fact, however, should not induce the Fed to tighten. Quite the opposite in fact, as it suggests that available slack is deeper than imagined and hence requires an even longer period of low rates.
To me then, it appears that by raising rates now the Fed is risking falling short on its employment mandate at a time when the price mandate is also challenged. And falling short on the employment mandate now suggests an economy with sufficient slack to prevent reaching that price mandate. And that is without considering neither the balance of risks to the outlook nor the possibility that escaping the zero bound requires approaching the inflation target from above rather than below. Consequently, it seems that the case for a rate hike in June should be quite weak.
I would think that Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen should also find it quite weak. But the minutes of the April FOMC meeting and recent Fedspeak indicate that a large number of monetary policymakers find the case for a rate hike quite compelling. Given her past concerns regarding underemployment, I would have expected Yellen to lean stronger in the opposite direction. But I don't know that she is in fact leaning against the logic driving a rate hike. I am hoping we learn as much via her upcoming speaking engagements.
But, Yellen aside, what is driving so many FOMC participants to the rate hike camp? I think they are driven in part by two ideas that I believe to be erroneous. First, they believe that tapering and ending QE was not tightening, and hence essentially they have removed no accommodation. I think tapering was tightening as it reduced expectations about the ultimate size of the Fed's balance sheet and signaled a tighter future path of monetary policy. One place to see the tighter stance of policy is the Wu-Xia shadow rate:
Second, the Fed may be too enamored with the end game, the idea of normalization itself, as reflected in the dot-plot. They have already decided that the equilibrium fed funds rate is north of 3 percent, and hence assume that the current rate is highly accommodative. They thus see a large distance that needs to be covered, and feel an urge to start sooner than later.
Bottom Line: I don't find it surprising that some Fed policymakers are eager to hike rates. I am surprised that such sentiments are widespread throughout FOMC participants. It does not seem consistent with my understanding of the Fed's reaction function. They seem to be dismissing the recent lack of progress in reducing underemployment. This I think also might help explain the previously wide distance between financial market participants and the policymakers. And that might perhaps be why financial market participants largely ignored the warnings that rate hikes were likely until the release of the April minutes.