More Questions for Yellen, by Tim Duy: FOMC meeting this week. We all pretty much know the lay of the land. "Considerable time" is on the table, and whether it stays or goes is a close call. The existence of the press conference this week argues for the change over just waiting until January. Stupid reason, I know, but we are just playing the Fed's game here. No real reason not to wait until January other than to keep a March rate hike in play, but only a few policymakers are seriously looking at March anyway. Uncertainty regarding the financial market impact of the oil price drop and its subsequent impact on credit markets seems sufficient to stay the Fed's hand - but they may be hesitant to appear reactive to every dip in financial markets. If the statement is changed, they will probably replace "considerable time" with the intention to be "patient" when considering the timing of the first rate hike.
They will be navigating some tricky currents when constructing the rest of the statement. The opening paragraph will need to acknowledge the improved data - the US economy clearly has some momentum. They will also acknowledge again the expected impact of energy prices on headline inflation, but emphasize the temporary nature of the impact and fairly stable survey-based expectations. This suggest another dismissal of market-based measures.
The Fed could argue that improving domestic indicators at a time of softening in the global economy leaves the risks to the outlook as nearly balanced. They can't both suggest that risks are weighted to the downside and pull the "considerable time" language. That would, I think, be just silly. If they want to suggest there is a preponderance of downside risks, then they will leave in "considerable time." It will be interesting to see if they mention the external environment at all - we know from the minutes of the previous meeting that they were concerned about appearing overly pessimistic.
I have previously suggested two questions for Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen at the post-FOMC press conference:
If you want to know what the Fed is thinking at this point, a journalist needs to push Yellen on the secular stagnation issue at next week's press conference. Does she or the committee agree with Fischer? And does she see any inconsistency with the SEP implied equilibrium Federal Funds rates and the current level of long bonds?
I would like a journalist to press Yellen on her interpretation of the 5-year, 5-year forward breakeven measure of inflation expectations. Does she see this measure as important or too noisy to be used as a policy metric? What is her preferred metric?
Now I have four additional questions. The first refers to Yellen's previous endorsement of optimal control theory, which as stated in 2012 suggests the extension of zero rate policy well into 2015. Recent research from the Federal Reserve indicates that the same framework is now signaling that liftoff should occur in late 2014, suggesting that the Federal Reserve is now behind the curve. Did Yellen embrace this methodology only until it began to give results she did not like? The obvious question is thus:
Considering that recent updates of your optimal control framework now suggest that the normalization process should already be underway, how useful do you believe such a framework is for the conduct of monetary policy? What specific framework are you now using to dismiss the results of your previously preferred framework?
The second, arguably related, question refers to St. Louis Federal Reserve President James Bullard's argument that the Fed is very close to reaching its monetary policy goals:
Thus another question is:
St. Louis Federal Reserve President James Bullard has defined a specific metric to assess the Fed's current distance from its goals. What is your specific metric and by that metric how far is the Fed from it's goals? What does this metric tell you about the likely timing of the first rate hike of this cycle?
A third question is obvious. Given current readings on inflation:
Why is the Fed setting the stage for raising interest rates next year while inflation measures remain below target? What is the risk, exactly, of explicitly committing to a zero interest rate policy until inflation reaches at least your target?
The fourth question addresses the potential financial instability related to oil price shock. Note that critics of Fed policy have posited that the low interest rate policy would encourage excessive risk taking in the reach for yield. High yield debt markets have come under particular scrutiny. The Fed has responded that they need to address any financial market instabilities first with macroprudential policy rather than tighter monetary policy. That approach is going to come under sharp criticism if the oil-related debt defaults cascade destructively throughout US financial markets. A natural question is thus:
High yield debt markets are currently under pressure from the decline in oil prices. Are you confident that macroprudential tools are sufficient to contain the damage to energy-related debt? If the damage cannot be contained and contagion to other markets spreads, what does this tell you about the ability to use low interest rate policy without engendering dangerous financial instabilities?
If anyone uses these questions or variations thereof, feel free to give me some credit. Or at least when you speak of me, speak well.
Bottom Line: Odds are high that the Fed alters the statement to increase their policy flexibility next year. But even if they drop "considerable time," Yellen will emphasize via the press conference that this change does not mean a rate hike is imminent. She will emphasize that the timing and pace of rate hikes remains firmly data dependent. The current oil-related disruptions in financial markets loom like a dark cloud over a both the FOMC meeting and the generally improving US outlook.