What Is The Fed's Expectation For Financial Markets?, by Tim Duy: David Keohnae at FT Alphaville points us toward a JPM research note raising the prospect of a reappearance of Former Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan’s “conundrum.” From the note:
If long-term interest rates matter more than short-term interest rates, will Fed’s current and prospective rate hikes matter much? The answer is yes if long-term interest rates respond to these short-term rate hikes. But this transmission is far from given, especially given the Fed’s decision that reinvestments would not be halted until the normalization of the funds rate is “well under way”The previous hiking cycle of 2004-2006 is a reminder of how problematic the transmission from short rates to long-term interest rates can be. At the time, the 10y real UST yield rose by only 25bp between June 2004 and June 2006 despite the Fed lifting its target rate by 425bp (Figure 1). We depict the real rather than nominal UST yield in the chart to capture the potential impact of monetary policy actions on inflation expectations. This lack of transmission or “bond conundrum” at the time was attributed to global saving forces emanating from DM corporates and EM economies. Could these saving forces prevent once again rate hikes from transmitting to longer-term interest rates?
Keohane links to fellow Alphaville write Matthew Klein, who describes the “conundrum” as bogus. Klein draws attention to the shape of the yield curve:
In addition to forgetting his own experience at the Fed, Greenspan’s confusion can also be blamed on an unusual belief in the “normal” behaviour of forward short rates.Short rates tend to go up and down with the business cycle, which typically lasts a lot less than ten years…When the economy is weak and the Fed is stepping on the gas, short rates should be lower than your reasonable expectation of the average for the next ten years. (Like now.) Other times, of course, short rates are higher than your reasonable expectation of the average for the next ten years because the economy is running hot and the Fed is stepping on the brakes. Longer-term yields therefore shouldn’t always move with short-term rates.This is why people think the slope of the yield curve is a decent signal of where the economy is going.When the economy is peaking and poised to go into recession, short rates end up higher than long rates because traders are betting that short rates will fall significantly. To use the jargon, the curve is inverted. After the economy has hit bottom and is ready to grow, the yield curve gets nice and steep, reflecting the expectation of future increases in the short rate to match the expected acceleration in nominal spending.
What happens to the yield curve, and how the Federal Reserve responds, is one of my big questions for 2016. Almost always, the yield curve flattens after the Fed begins a tightening cycle. Within a year, the spread between the 10- and 2-year treasuries is a mere 50bp or so:
An analogous situation today would be if the Fed raises the fed funds target range over the next year but longer-term yields don’t budge. How might the Fed respond? New York Federal Reserve President William Dudley often comments on this prospect. From November 2015:
Several examples will help me make these points. During 2004 to 2007, the FOMC raised the federal funds rate target 17 meetings in a row, lifting the federal funds to 5.25 percent from 1.0 percent. Yet, during this period, financial conditions eased, as evidenced by the fact that the stock market rose, bond yields fell and credit availability—especially to housing—eased substantially. In hindsight, perhaps monetary policy should have been tightened more aggressively……In contrast, if financial conditions did not respond at all, or eased, then I suspect we would go more quickly, all else equal.
This raises some red flags for me. While much attention is placed on the Fed’s failure to respond more aggressively to slowing activity and deteriorating financial conditions in 2008, I lean toward thinking the more grievous policy error was in the first half of 2006 when the Federal Reserve kept raising short rates after the yield curve first inverted in February of that year:
and despite clear evidence of slowing economic activity and increasing financial stress.
So how will the Fed respond if long rates do not respond in concert with short rates? How will the Fed interpret a flattening yield curve? Do they accelerate the pace of rate increases? Do they initiate asset sales? The truth is I don’t know (or the answer is “it depends”), but I find this exchange between Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and New York Times reporter Binyamin Appelbaum a bit disconcerting:
BINYAMIN APPELBAUM. Binyamin Appelbaum, the New York Times. Bill Dudley has talked about the need for the Fed to adjust policy based on the responsiveness of financial markets as you begin to increase rates. You didn't talk about that today. Is it a point that you agree with? And if so, what is it that you're looking for? How will you judge whether financial markets are accepting and transmitting these changes?CHAIR YELLEN. Well, there are number of different channels through which monetary policy is transmitted to spending decisions, the behavior of longer term, longer term interest rates, short term interest rates matter. The value of asset prices and the exchange rate, also, these are transmission channels. We wouldn't be focused on short-term financial volatility, but were there unanticipated changes in financial conditions that were persistent and we judged to affect the outlook. We would of course have to take those into account. So, we will watch financial developments, but what we're looking at here is the longer term economic outlook, are we seeing persistent changes in financial market conditions that would have a bearing, a significant bearing, on the outlook that we would need to take account in formulating appropriate policy. Yes we would, but it's not short-term volatility in markets.BINYAMIN APPELBAUM. The part [inaudible], you didn't see changes, you would be concerned and have to move more quickly. Are you concerned that if markets don't tighten sufficiently you may need to do more?CHAIR YELLEN. Well, look. You know, we-- this is not an unanticipated policy move. And we have been trying to explain what our policy strategy is. So it's not as though I'm expecting to see marked immediate reaction in financial markets, expectations about Fed policy have been built into the structure of financial market prices. But we obviously will track carefully the behavior of both short and longer term interest rates, the dollar, and asset prices, and if they move in persistent and significant ways that are out of line with the expectations that we have, then of course we will take those in to account.
I don’t know that Yellen understood the question. But she should have. Dudley has been telling this story for a long, long time. Does she and/or the Committee share his expectations? Why or why not? In my opinion, this is an important question, and it looks to me like Yellen fumbled it.
Bottom Line: We have a fairly good idea of the Fed’s reaction function with respect inflation and unemployment. Not so much with respect to financial market conditions. Who shares Dudley’s views? That is a space I am watching this year.