FOMC doves squeezed out another victory at last week’s meeting. But can they do it again in December?
As was widely expected, the Fed held rates steady at the September FOMC meeting. That said, the meeting was clearly divisive, with three dissents, all from regional bank presidents. And the accompanying statement leaned in a hawkish direction – the committee noted that near-term risks were “balanced” and that the case for a rate hike had “strengthened.” Moreover, only three of the participants did not expect a rate hike before year end.
And if that was not enough, during her press conference, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen suggested the bar to a December rate hike was low:
…most participants do expect that one increase in the federal funds rate will be appropriate this year and I would expect to see that if we continue on the current course of labor market improvement and there are no major new risks that develop and we simply stay on the current course.
Sounds like December is a go. But markets are not entirely convinced, with participants pricing in a roughly 60% chance of a rate hike. Perhaps this pricing reflects post-election economic risk. Or perhaps it reflects the possibility that the doves can stare down the hawks one more time before the composition of the Board changes next year.
Can they? That question requires understanding what happened to squash the parade of Fed presidents looking for a rate hike in September. What happened were Federal Reserve Governors Lael Brainard and Daniel Tarrullo. Brainard in particular laid down the intellectual framework ahead of the FOMC meeting, arguing that the potential for further labor market improvement and asymmetric policy risks justified a steady hand at this meeting. Yellen and the rest of the Board bought into this story. The hawks could squawk all they wanted, but the votes just weren’t going to go in their favor.
This episode provided two important lessons. The first is that if you haven’t been taking Brainard seriously this past year – ever since her bombshell speech last October – you have been doing it wrong. The second is that a small group of governors can have a much larger influence on policy than a large group of presidents. There are lots of presidents, and they talk a lot, so their message is louder. But the power rests in the Board.
Indeed, this asymmetry of power is why the relative lack of speeches from Board members is one of the Fed’s biggest communication failures. The people driving policy shouldn’t be waiting until the Friday before the blackout period to begin delivering their message.
Now consider the dots. There remain three “no hike” dots for 2016. I think it is reasonable to believe those three dots belong to Tarullo, Brainard, and Chicago Federal Reserve President Charles Evans. If true, that suggests that Tarullo and Brainard are at the present time considering making another dovish stand at the December meeting. To do so, they need to keep Yellen on their side.
During the press conference, Yellen revealed that she remains attached to a preemptive view of policy. Since monetary policy operates with long lags, it is important that policy responds to inflationary threats before they emerge. She also rejected a “whites of their eyes” approach to policy, or the suggestion by Evans that they Fed waits until core inflation hits two percent before they hike rates. These concerns are balanced against Brainard’s argument that they can’t be sure they have yet achieved full employment.
Hence, and as I said ahead of the meeting, I think that if unemployment dips between now and December, or progress on underemployment resumes, or inflation moves closer to target, the hawks will win as Yellen’s support will shift toward a rate hike. And these things can all be reasonably expected given the current course of job growth, which is in excess of the Fed’s estimate of what is necessary to absorb labor force growth. For the doves to have a decent chance of holding back the hawks one more time, progress on these points needs to remain stalled.
Regardless of a December hike or not, the Fed continues to mark down the expected path of policy. The median projected Fed funds rate dropped 50bp for both 2017 and 2018, continuing the pattern of the Fed moving toward the market rather than vice-versa. And note that the changing composition of the FOMC next year will allow for this dovish message to come through. This meeting’s dissenters will all be replaced with presidents that are on average more dovish. Consider this ordering of monetary policy makers via Julia Coronado of Graham Capital, modified to show the shift of voters for next year:
Bottom Line: Doves on the Board continue to delay the preemptive strike on inflation. Stalling gains on unemployment and underemployment gave them the ammunition to stand their ground. If those gains resume, doves will fall prey to the hawks at the next meeting. But they will have an easier time maintaining a shallow path of policy next year, and hopefully are better set to communicate that path.