The Fed is not likely to raise rates in June. But not everyone at the Fed is on board with the plan. Serial dissenter Kansas City Federal Reserve President Esther George repeated her warnings that interest rates are too low:
I support a gradual adjustment of short-term interest rates toward a more normal level, but I view the current level as too low for today’s economic conditions. The economy is at or near full employment and inflation is close to the FOMC’s target of 2 percent, yet short-term interest rates remain near historic lows.
Her motivation stems primarily from concerns about financial imbalances:
Just as raising rates too quickly can slow the economy and push inflation to undesirably low levels, keeping rates too low can also create risks. Interest-sensitive sectors can take on too much debt in response to low rates and grow quickly, then unwind in ways that are disruptive. We witnessed this during both the housing crisis and the current adjustments in the energy sector. Because monetary policy has a powerful effect on financial conditions, it can give rise to imbalances or capital misallocation that negatively affects longer-run growth. Accordingly, I favor taking additional steps in the normalization process.
Separately, Boston Federal Reserve President Eric Rosengren, currently in a post-dove phase, reiterated his warning that financial markets just don't get it:
In my view, the market remains too pessimistic about the fundamental strength of the U.S. economy, and the likelihood of removing monetary accommodation is higher than is currently priced into financial markets based on current data.
He does see benefits from the current stance of policy:
I believe that one of the benefits of our current accommodative monetary policy, even as we approach full employment, is that it fosters continued gradual improvement in labor markets. As I have noted in the past, it is quite appropriate to probe on the natural rate of unemployment to see how low it might be, given the benefit to workers. We have seen workers rejoin the labor force, many of them previously having given up looking for work.
But, like George, the risks of imbalances are growing too large for his liking:
However, there can be potential costs to accommodation if rates stay too low for too long. One cost involves the potential of very low interest rates encouraging speculative behavior. One area where I have some concern in this regard is the commercial real estate market.
In addition, he worries that unemployment threatens to descend too far below the natural rate:
A second possible cost of keeping rates too low for too long relates to the limits we see in monetary policy’s ability to “fine tune” the economy...Once unemployment has reached its low point in the economic cycle, it is unusual for it to proceed smoothly back to the natural rate...There are no episodes in which unemployment rose a bit and remained stable at its natural employment rate. Instead, relatively soon after the periods shown here with red highlighting, unemployment rises significantly – that is, we experience a recession, as indicated by the gray shading.
The chart strongly suggests that it has proven difficult to calibrate policy so as to gradually increase the unemployment rate, gently nudging it back toward full employment. The lesson is that policymakers should avoid significantly overshooting their best estimates of the natural rate of unemployment.
Here I would suggest that the failure of policymakers to better manage the economy at turning points is not because it is impossible, but because they have overtightened in the latter stage of the cycle, forgetting to pay attention to the lags in policy they think are so important during the early stages of the cycle. He continues:
Today, the unemployment rate is still somewhat above my estimate of the natural rate, 4.7 percent. But waiting too long to have more normalized rates risks possibly overshooting on the unemployment rate, and needing to tighten more quickly than would be desirable.
Note that Rosengren is not deterred by the flattening of the unemployment rate:
because he pegs his estimate of sustainable job growth at 80-100k per month, well below current rates of growth. Thus he expects the unemployment rate will soon resume its decline. I would say that he should be cautious of that estimate when labor force participation is rising.
I think it likely George will dissent again in June while Rosengren, a nonvoter, at a minimum would like to keep the June meeting alive. In an important difference from George and Rosengren, New York Federal Reserve President William Dudley is less concerned with potential financial imbalances at this point (be sure to read Gavyn Davies for more on Dudley):
I would say at this point I don’t see a lot of things that disturb me. The things that would disturb me would be things that are very excessive in terms of valuation and very large in terms of the weight that they carry for the economy. If you think back to the financial crisis, you had a big bubble for the U.S. housing sector which was very large and affects lots of people, so that was a huge bubble in terms of the consequences for the economy. Obviously it was magnified by the fact that there were structural weaknesses in the financial system that, rather than dampen the impact of the decline in housing, actually tended to amplify it. I don’t see anything like that today. There are some areas you might point to and say that those look excessive, but some of the areas you might have pointed to six months ago, they’ve actually sort of self-corrected.
Hence, Dudley remains more cautious on raising rates. His view is actually fairly optimistic:
My view is still that we’re looking for 2 percent real G.D.P. growth over the next year. If that’s right, the labor market should continue to improve. We should continue to see tightening of the U.S. labor market, probably a gradual acceleration in wages as the labor market gets tighter. And if that’s how the economy plays out, then I think we’re going to see further moves by the Fed to gradually normalize interest rates.
Note that 2 percent is above his estimate of potential growth (and Rosengren's, who puts it at 1.75 percent), and hence if he gets that as expected, it is reasonable to expect two rates hikes:
The expectations that were shown in the March summary of economic projections, the median of two rate hikes, seems like a reasonable expectation. But it depends on how the economy evolves. Two seems like a reasonable number sitting here today, but it could be more if the economy is stronger and inflation comes back more quickly, or it could be less if the economy disappoints.
Two is of course greater than market expectations, hence he is not inconsistent with Rosengren. But he doesn't feel the need to warn on this as strongly as Rosengren, nor does he share the concern regarding the financial imbalances. And Dudley still sees value in letting the economy somewhat "hot," suggesting more willingness to embrace a modest decline in unemployment below the natural rate. Hence he is less eager to raise rates.
Finally, an bit on initial claims. Claims rose to their highest level in a year, but this was driven by a bump in New York that appears related to the Verizon strike and spring break schedules. Dispersion of claim weakness remains very low overall:
In other words, move along, nothing to see here.
Bottom Line: Ultimately, I suspect the FOMC will not find sufficient reason in the data before June to convince the Fed that growth is sufficiently strong to justify a hike. Hence I anticipate that they will pass on that opportunity to raise rates. Look for an opportunity in September, assuming that growth firms to 2% and the unemployment rate resumes its decline over the summer. I doubt, however, that most on the Fed are pleased that market participants have already priced out a June hike on the basis of the April employment report. Even Dudley claims it did little to change his expectations. While they won't raise rates in June, they do not see the outcome as already preordained.