What 2016 Might Bring, by Time Duy: I recently predicted the following:
One of two things is going to happen. Either the US economy is or will soon be slowing on the back of already tighter financial conditions. Or the US economy will soon be slowing on the back of future tighter financial conditions as directed by the Federal Reserve.
My baseline expectations for next year need more explanation, particularly in light of the weak third quarter GDP report and the early signals on fourth quarter growth via the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow tracker (currently at the low-end of consensus). Three caveats, however, to keep in mind. First, I avoid over-analyzing the quarterly fluctuations in GDP preferring instead to track trends over a longer period. Second, similarly, the initial release will be subject to substantial revision. Third, the Atlanta Fed number may or may not evolve over the course of the quarter; where it is now is not necessarily where it will be when fourth quarter data is released.
That said, GDP growth slowed noticeably in the third quarter, dragging down recent trends:
Negative inventory adjustment, however, was a significant factor. When we look at recent trends in final sales to domestic purchases, domestic momentum remains solid:
Generally, housing, autos, services, and the government sectors remain solid. The soft spots are the external sector and manufacturing. These two are obviously related; weakness in manufacturing is closely tied to a stronger dollar and reduced activity in the oil and gas exploration. ISM surveys reveal a striking divergence between the manufacturing and services sides of the economy:
It is thus quite arguable that, after accounting for inventories, little momentum has been lost. The softening of the job growth, however, suggests that the underlying pace of growth has pulled back from full throttle (at least our current definition of full throttle):
Perhaps then growth has in fact softened, possibly a consequence of already tighter monetary policy. Minneapolis Federal Reserve President Narayana Kocherlakota:
In mid-2013, the FOMC announced its intention to taper its ongoing asset purchase program. We can see that this announcement represented a dramatic change in policy from the sharp upward movements in long-term bond yields that it engendered. Personally, I interpret this policy change back in 2013 as the onset of what the Committee currently intends to be a long, gradual tightening cycle. As I noted earlier, we would typically expect that such a change in monetary policy should affect the economy with a lag of about 18 to 24 months. Viewed through this lens, the slow rate of labor market improvement in 2015 is not all that surprising.
We will get a reading on the labor market Friday to help confirm or deny recent trends. Suppose the numbers both this month and next are better than expected, thus belying the recent softness. What will be the Fed’s reaction? I think it is fairly safe to say the “raise rates” contingent will have the upper hand in December, thus formally beginning the “normalization” process with a first rate hike of the cycle.
In other words, if growth is not in fact slowing, then the Federal Reserve will likely soon take action to slow growth. How many rate hikes follow? And how rapidly do they follow? The Fed appears to believe that they have roughly 375bp ahead of them and can raise rates every other meeting to get there. What actually happens will depend on how hard they think they will be running up against any constraints in the economy. As a summary indicator, note that the unemployment rate already sits at something near policymaker’s estimate of the natural rate of unemployment:
My interpretation of the Fed’s intentions is that they would like to see the unemployment rate temporarily stabilize at something below the natural rate to allow for further reduction in underemployment. To accomplish this job growth will need to slow over the next year to that necessary to absorb growth in the labor force. What does that mean for the numbers? San Francisco Federal Reserve President John Williams offers what is probably a reasonable middle ground among officials:
As we make our way back to an economy that’s at full health, it’s important to consider what constitutes a realistic view of the way things will look. The pace of employment growth, as well as the decline in the unemployment rate, has slowed a bit recently…but that’s to be expected. When unemployment was at its 10 percent peak during the height of the Great Recession, and as it struggled to come down during the recovery, we needed rapid declines to get the economy back on track. Now that we’re getting closer, the pace must start slowing to more normal levels. Looking to the future, we’re going to need at most 100,000 new jobs each month. In the mindset of the recovery, that sounds like nothing; but in the context of a healthy economy, it’s what’s needed for stable growth.As the next year unfolds, what we 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.
All else equal, if they are not seeing evidence of that slowing by the middle of next year I would expect them to accelerate the pace of rate increases. That is probably when we need to worry about overshooting. Not so much from the faster rate increases, but from the failure to account for policy lags. It may be a challenge to see the impacts of policy tightening early on if rate hikes are at a glacial pace. Hence the Fed may erroneously believe they need to play “catch-up” more than is truly necessary.
Overshooting, however, is a consideration for a later day. At this point it is sufficient to recognize that, at least under the current monetary policy framework, either the economy will slow by itself or the Fed will eventually work to force it to slow. That would seem to suggest that growth is at or past its peak for this cycle. That is the situation I am most wary of at the moment, leading me to the conclusion that growth is headed down in 2016.
I am not wedded to that scenario. I can envision sustained higher growth on the back of either faster than anticipated labor force growth or faster productivity growth. Recent trends tend not to be terribly supportive, but nonetheless I remain watchful that those trends shift. Indeed, perhaps we will see productivity rise as firms react to tighter labor markets. Such a scenario could deliver a sustained growth with accelerating wages. That would obviously be something of a win-win situation.
To be sure, the inflation outlook has an impact on the Fed's timing, but it remains something of a wildcard. The Fed expects to normalize only after they are reasonably confident that inflation will return to target. Two more solid job reports are enough to get there. The pace of subsequent rate hikes depends on the evolution of inflation relative to that target. As Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said today, via the Wall Street Journal:
Referring to recent remarks by Fed governor Lael Brainard on the subdued state of U.S. inflation, Ms. Yellen told lawmakers that “if we were to move, say in December, it would be based on an expectation -- which I believe is justified -- that with an improving labor market and transitory factors fading, that inflation will move up to 2%. But of course if we were to move, we would need to verify over time that expectation was being realized, and if not, adjust policy appropriately.”
Near term inflation perked up a bit in September, but still remains below target:
One might think that persistently low inflation eventually wears on inflation expectations. Yellen raised this concern in September:
Although the evidence, on balance, suggests that inflation expectations are well anchored at present, policymakers would be unwise to take this situation for granted. Anchored inflation expectations were not won easily or quickly: Experience suggests that it takes many years of carefully conducted monetary policy to alter what households and firms perceive to be inflation's "normal" behavior, and, furthermore, that a persistent failure to keep inflation under control--by letting it drift either too high or too low for too long--could cause expectations to once again become unmoored. Given that inflation has been running below the FOMC's objective for several years now, such concerns reinforce the appropriateness of the Federal Reserve's current monetary policy, which remains highly accommodative by historical standards and is directed toward helping return inflation to 2 percent over the medium term.
Interestingly, the University of Michigan’s survey of inflation longer-term inflation expectations continues to drift lower just as the Fed is considering rate hikes:
Contrast with the cycle of tightening in the middle of the last decade:
The accuracy of survey-based measures is in doubt, however. For example, via the St. Louis Federal Reserve, economist Kevin Kliesen concludes:
Going forward, most Federal Reserve officials expect inflation to eventually return to 2 percent. But when using measures of inflation expectations to forecast future inflation, policymakers and forecasters should focus on market-based measures of inflation expectations. They are much more accurate than survey-based measures.
Yellen, however, hesitates to embrace market-based measures of inflation expectations (although I suspect she would quickly embrace them if they headed higher). Discarding both measures thus leaves us with little guidance, unfortunately. My take is that there is probably some information from the direction of both measures, and that information is generally not supportive of the Fed’s confidence that inflation will return to target in a timely fashion. The Fed would have a hard time justifying ongoing hikes, even if the economy outperforms their expectations, if inflation remains tame. My suspicion is that under such a scenario the Fed would pivot away from their current inflation framework to financial stability concerns to justify tighter policy.
Bottom Line: I tend to believe that growth has peaked for this cycle, or, more accurately, that sustaining these growth rates will likely require faster productivity or labor force growth. Indeed, it appears the Fed will force such an outcome if they remain committed to their basic policy framework. This seems like a reasonable baseline from which to think about the next 4 or 5 quarters. Productivity growth could pick up such that a stabilizing unemployment rate remains consistent with steady growth. Assuming growth is not yet softening, a 25bp rate hike every other meeting beginning in December is also a reasonable baseline for monetary policy; if the Fed doesn't see that having an impact, they will likely step up the pace. It should go without saying that a slowing economy is not to be equated with a recession.