More Mediocrity, by Tim Duy: Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen will be playing a game of mixed messages with Congress tomorrow as she explains why she believes a rate hike approaches in spite of lackluster data. Today's data didn't help. The June retail sales report was a disappointment, slipping from May levels with generally soft internals in addition to downward revisions to previous months. Consequently, core spending growth is decelerating on a year-over-year basis to 2013 rates:
Maintaining the 2014 growth bump has been something of a challenge, to be sure.The report triggered downgrades to the second quarter growth forecast as it offset upward revisions attributable to last week's new estimates of federal spending and inventories:
More mediocre growth - stuck in that 2.5 percent range which is a touch higher than the Fed's longer-run central tendency of 2.0-2.3 percent. And therein lies the key to understanding the Fed's repeated calls that 2015 is the year for the first rate hike. I think they are concluding 2014 was sufficient to largely close the output gap, as evidenced by falling unemployment and other measures of labor underutilization. San Francisco Federal Reserve President John Williams even believes that optimally, US growth needs to DECELERATE in 2016:
Looking towards next year, what we really want to see is an economy that’s growing at a steady pace of around 2 percent. If jobs and growth kept the same pace as last year, we would seriously overshoot our mark. I want to see continued improvement, but it’s not surprising, and it’s actually desirable, that the pace is slowing.
With the output gap closing, Fed policymakers believe they need to begin reducing financial accommodation. They are not sufficiently sure of that hypothesis to begin hiking at anything more than a modest pace, but are sufficiently sure to comfortably declare that the first rate hike is upon us. Hence, Boston Federal Reserve President Eric Rosengren can say things to Reuters like:"If we do continue to get improvement in labor markets, if we do become reasonably confident that we're moving back to 2-percent inflation, it may be appropriate as early as September," he said of raising rates from near zero. "I don't think we have seen that evidence yet but we still have a couple months of data to see whether it's more strongly confirmed."Rosengren has long advocated for more monetary accommodation than most of his colleagues at the central bank, which has kept interest rates at rock bottom to boost the recovery. With wages showing early signs of a pick-up and U.S. unemployment down to 5.3 percent, he set a high bar for delaying a hike.Only if labor markets unexpectedly weaken, if core inflation starts to drop off, or if the wage gains dissipated, "those would be the things that would make me want to pause and wait and see whether there is further evidence," he said.
And Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen says:
My own outlook for the economy and inflation is broadly consistent with the central tendency of the projections submitted by FOMC participants at the time of our June meeting. Based on my outlook, I expect that it will be appropriate at some point later this year to take the first step to raise the federal funds rate and thus begin normalizing monetary policy.
Whereas Cleveland Federal Reserve President is somewhat more aggressive in an interview with the Financial Times:
Loretta Mester, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, said the case for “emergency” levels of interest rates was now gone given that the economy was “fundamentally sound”, as she signalled that she would support two increases in short-term rates this year.
To be sure, it is all data dependent. More solid wage growth would do the trick, I think, to draw the Fed to September. Without that wage growth acceleration, I suspect the more dovish side of the FOMC will pull the Fed toward December. No reason to rush given the lackluster numbers we are seeing. But one senses greater impatience on the more hawkish side of the FOMC. They will argue like Mester that the general consistency of underlying growth, steady improvement in labor utilization, and proximity to mandates signals it is time to leave behind the policies of the financial crisis.
Bottom Line: The basic theme is that the economy is that, in the Fed's eyes, the economy is sufficiently stable to justify a rate hike, but lacks any reason to rush that hike or the pace of subsequent hikes. That message I expect to hear tomorrow. In her appearance before the House Financial Services Committee, Yellen will reiterate the basic points of Friday's speech, maintaining faith that 2015 will be the year for the first rate hike since 2006. Heavy caveats, however, about data dependence. She may get asked directly about September. If so, she will not rule out September. She will instead say maybe September, maybe later. But more interesting might be the questioning surrounding the Fed's perceived intransigence; Congress is looking for more of that transparency the Fed is always bragging about.