I am often asked if 25bp really makes any difference? If not, why does it matter when the Fed makes its first move? The Fed would like you to believe that 25bp really isn't all that important. Indeed, they don't want us focused on the timing of the first move at all, reiterating that the path of rates is most important. Yet I have come to believe that the timing of the first rate hike is important for two reasons. First, it will help clarify the Fed's reaction function. Second, if the experience of Japan and others who have tried to hike rates in the current global macroeconomic environment is any example, the Fed will only get one shot at pulling the economy off the zero bound. They better get it right.
On the first point, consider that there is no widespread agreement on the timing of the Fed's first move. Odds for September have been bouncing around 50%, lower after a couple of weeks of market turmoil, but bolstered by the Fed's "stay the course" message from Jackson Hole. I think you can contribute the lack of consensus to the conflicting signals send by the Fed's dual mandate. On one hand, labor markets are improving unequivocally. The economy is adding jobs and measures of both unemployment and underemployment continue to improve. The Fed has said that only "some" further progress is necessary to meet the employment portion of the dual mandate. I would argue the Fed Vice-Chair Stanley Fischer even was kind enough to define "some" while in Jackson Hole:
In addition, the July announcement set a condition of requiring "some further improvement in the labor market." From May through July, non-farm payroll employment gains have averaged 235,000 per month. We now await the results of the August employment survey, which are due to be published on September 4.
Nonfarm payroll growth was the only labor market indicator he put a number to. He clearly intended to tie that number to the Fed statement. Basically, he said "some" further improvement is simply another month of the same pattern.
While the Fed is moving closer to the employment mandate, however, the price stability mandate is moving further from view:
On a year-over-year basis, core-CPI is at four year lows, and the collapse in the monthly change suggests that year-over-year trends will not soon turn in the Fed's favor. One can argue that the net effect on policy should be zero. After all, the Fed has long argued that inflation will revert to target, yet inflation has only drifted away from target. What kind of central bank tightens policy when they are moving farther from their inflation target?
Fischer, however is undeterred:
Can the Committee be "reasonably confident that inflation will move back to its 2 percent objective over the medium term"? As I have discussed, given the apparent stability of inflation expectations, there is good reason to believe that inflation will move higher as the forces holding down inflation dissipate further. While some effects of the rise in the dollar may be spread over time, some of the effects on inflation are likely already starting to fade. The same is true for last year's sharp fall in oil prices, though the further declines we have seen this summer have yet to fully show through to the consumer level. And slack in the labor market has continued to diminish, so the downward pressure on inflation from that channel should be diminishing as well.
So back to the question: What kind of central bank tightens policy when they are moving further from their inflation target? Answer: The Federal Reserve. Why? Faith in their estimate of the natural rate of unemployment. Inflation expectations hold the baseline steady, shocks cause deviations from that baseline. The shocks will all dissipate over time, including labor market shocks. The economy is approaching full employment, therefore the downward pressure from labor market slack will soon diminish and turn into upward pressure in the absence of tighter monetary policy.
Now note that, aside from the equilibrium real rate, of the four variables in a Taylor-type reaction function, only one of those variables is unobserved. The target inflation rate is defined, and unemployment and inflation are measured. The natural rate of unemployment is unobserved and needs to be estimated. How confident are policymaker's in their estimate (5.0-5.2 percent) of the natural rate of unemployment?
I would argue that the Fed will reveal a high degree of confidence in that estimate if they hike rates in the face of inflation drifting away from trend. That would be new information in defining their reaction function. I think it would be a signal that Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen has largely abandoned here concerns about underemployment, which remains unacceptably high.
The clarification of the Fed's reaction function by narrowing the confidence interval around the Fed's estimate of the natural rate of unemployment would, I think, be an important new piece of information. Moreover, I think it would be a fairly hawkish signal - remember that financial market participants, as well as the Federal Reserve staff, tend to have a more dovish outlook that FOMC participants. The sooner the Fed hikes rate, the more hawkish the signal relative to expectations.
That signal, I suspect, is more important than the actual 25bp. The latter might not mean much, but at the zero bound, the former probably means a lot.
The timing of the first hike is also important because the Fed will only get one bite at the apple. That at least is what we saw with the rush to tighten in Japan, Europe, and Sweden. The downside risks of tightening too early are thus enormous, amounting to essentially locking your economy into a subpar equilibrium. This was the Fed's staff's warning in the last set of minutes:
The risks to the forecast for real GDP and inflation were seen as tilted to the downside, reflecting the staff's assessment that neither monetary nor fiscal policy was well positioned to help the economy withstand substantial adverse shocks.
Again, Fischer seems to fear the opposite risk more. Via the New York Times:
And Mr. Fischer emphasized that Fed officials could not afford to wait until all of their questions were answered and all of their doubts resolved. “When the case is overwhelming,” he said, “if you wait that long, then you’ve waited too long.”
I am not looking for an overwhelming case, just inflation that is trending toward target instead of away. Yet even that is apparently too much for Fischer as unemployment bears down on their estimate of the full employment.
You can take the central banker out of the 1970's, but you can't take the 1970's out of the central banker.
Bottom Line: I am coming around to the belief that the timing of the first rate hike is more important than Fed officials would like us to believe. The lack of consensus regarding the timing of the first hike tells me that we don't fully understand the Fed's reaction function and, importantly, their confidence in their estimates of the natural rate of unemployment. The timing of the first hike will thus define that reaction function and thus send an important signal about the Fed's overall policy intentions.