The unemployment is closing in on the Fed's estimate of the natural rate of unemployment:
Consequently, Fed hawks are pushing for a rate hike sooner than later in an effort to prevent the economy from "overhearing." This overheating is argued to set the stage for the next recession. For instance, see San Francisco Federal Reserve President John Williams:
History teaches us that an economy that runs too hot for too long can generate imbalances, potentially leading to excessive inflation, asset market bubbles, and ultimately economic correction and recession. A gradual process of raising rates reduces the risks of such an outcome. It also allows a smoother, more calibrated process of normalization that gives us space to adjust our responses to any surprise changes in economic conditions. If we wait too long to remove monetary accommodation, we hazard allowing imbalances to grow, requiring us to play catch-up, and not leaving much room to maneuver. Not to mention, a sudden reversal of policy could be disruptive and slow the economy in unintended ways.
In his Bloomberg View column, former Minneapolis Federal Reserve President Narayana Kocherlakota questions whether there is much theory behind this contention:
Some Fed officials worry that “overheating” could trigger a recession. (I don’t understand the precise economic mechanism, but let’s leave that aside.)
Kocherlakota was specifically referring to the risks of undershooting the natural rate of unemployment. New York Federal Reserve President William Dudley summarized his perception of that risk in January of this year:
A particular risk of late and fast is that the unemployment rate could significantly undershoot the level consistent with price stability. If this occurred, then inflation would likely rise above our objective. At that point, history shows it is very difficult to push the unemployment rate back up just a little bit in order to contain inflation pressures. Looking at the post-war period, whenever the unemployment rate has increased by more than 0.3 to 0.4 percentage points, the economy has always ended up in a full-blown recession with the unemployment rate rising by at least 1.9 percentage points. This is an outcome to avoid, especially given that in an economic downturn the last to be hired are often the first to be fired. The goal is the maximum sustainable level of employment—in other words, the most job opportunities for the most people over the long run.
I don't know that there is an economic mechanism at work here. I don't know that there is a law of economics where the unemployment can never be nudged up a few fractions of a percentage point. But I do think there is a policy mechanism at play. During the mature and late phase of the business cycle, the Fed tends to overemphasize the importance of lagging data such as inflation and wages and discount the lags in their own policy process. Essentially, the Fed ignores the warning signs of recession, ultimately over tightening time and time again.
For instance, an inverted yield curve traditionally indicates substantially tight monetary conditions. Yet even after the yield curve inverted at the end of January 2000, the Fed continued tightening through May of that year, adding an additional 100bp to the fed funds rate. The yield curve began to invert in January of 2006; the Fed added another 100bp of tightening in the first half of that year.
This isn't an economic mechanism at work. This is a policy error at work.
Kocherlakota offers another important point:
It's easy to imagine, though, that many people would be willing to trade the risk of recessionary pain in 2019 and 2020 for the near-term gain of 2017 and 2018. They might even believe there's some chance that policy 2 will generate an outstanding outcome -- if, for example, the long-run unemployment rate is actually lower than the Fed thinks it is.
The Fed seems to place almost zero weight on the probability that the natural rate of unemployment is significantly below their estimates. In their view, only bad things happen when the unemployment rate drifts much below 5%.
Bottom Line: The Fed thinks the costs of undershooting their estimate of the natural rate of unemployment outweigh the benefits. I am skeptical they are doing the calculus right on this one. I would be more convinced they had it right if I sensed that placed greater weight on the possibility that they are too pessimistic about the natural rate. I would be more convinced if they were already at their inflation target. And I would be more convinced if their analysis of why tightening cycles end in recessions was a bit more introspective. Was it destiny or repeated policy error? But none of these things seem to be true.