I break the issue of credibility of monetary policy into two parts. The first I think of as “soft” credibility, or the perception that policy needs to follow a proscribed course due to some perceived promise. The second I think of as “hard” credibility, or the expectation that policymakers will pursue policies that maximize its odds of achieving its goals over the long run, price stability with maximum sustainable employment, regardless of perceived promises. We should encourage policymakers to pursue “hard” credibility and avoid communications or actions that lead to policy directed at achieving “soft” credibility.
Let’s step back to last summer. It was widely anticipated that the Fed would hike interest rates at the September 2015 FOMC meeting. Market turmoil in August, however, made the Fed think twice. It also encouraged no shortage of commentary urging the Fed to pursue what I consider “soft” credibility. Via Jon Hilsenrath at the Wall Street Journal:
After months of forewarning by Federal Reserve officials that they are preparing to raise short-term interest rates, some international officials attending the Fed’s annual retreat here this week have a message: Get on with it already.
Fed policy makers are wavering on whether to move rates up in September. Volatile stock prices, falling commodities, a strong dollar and signs of a deepening economic slowdown in China have created doubts at the U.S. central bank about the outlook for global growth.
International officials have been saying for months they will be prepared when the Fed moves rates higher, a message that is being echoed as central bankers, academics, journalists and others converge now in Jackson Hole for the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City’s annual symposium.
“If you delay something that you were planning to do, then you leave the impression that your compass is different than what you led markets to believe,” Jacob Frenkel, chairman of J.P. Morgan Chase International and former head of the Bank of Israel, said in an interview Thursday. Market drama is increased by delay, he added.
What I wrote:
Hey, it's been a hard couple of weeks. Things changed. That certain rate hike became a lot less certain. Maybe that changes back by September 17. Maybe not. All of us Fed watchers probably won't come to agreement until September 16. Getting emotional and moralizing about change isn't going to stop it…Stocks dropped sharply. It is a clear sign, on top of other signs, that financial conditions are tightening ahead of the Fed, and arguably too much ahead of the Fed. If the Fed heeds that warning you have to remember that's their job. Smoothly functioning financial markets. Lender of last resort. All that stuff. Maybe things work out just fine if they don't heed that warning. I am not interested in taking that risk. Not enough upside for me.
Ultimately, the Fed took a pass on the September meeting. That I consider favoring “hard” credibility over “soft” credibility. Rather than meet a perceived promise to hike, Yellen & Co. stood down in response to changing economic and financial conditions.
Unfortunately, I fear the Fed took a wrong turn in the October meeting, setting up an expectation that a December hike was a certainty. Fed officials took much grief over their decision to skip September. Market participants subsequently priced out rate hikes for 2015. But the Fed had promised a hike, and they were damn well going to deliver. And they drove the message home in October with this line:
In determining whether it will be appropriate to raise the target range at its next meeting, the Committee will assess progress--both realized and expected--toward its objectives of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation.
According to some excellent reporting by Jonathan Spicer, Ann Saphir and Howard Schneider at Reuters:
When the U.S. Federal Reserve tweaked its policy statement last week and put a December rate rise squarely back in play, it took a calculated gamble that reaching for an old and controversial policy tool would get financial markets' attention.
That gamble was to specifically reference the next policy meeting as a date of a possible lift-off, and it had the desired effect: investors quickly rolled back bets that rates would stay near zero until next year.
But interviews with current and former Fed officials, and with those close to policymakers, show the decision to use what is called calendar guidance in central bank parlance and what some described as a "hammer" did not come easy. Some officials felt that even mentioning a date in the context of a potential policy change would be taken not as a contingent expectation but as a promise that would be painful to break...
...Yet Fed Chair Janet Yellen and her deputies got so frustrated that investors virtually ignored their message that a rate rise before the year end was probable that they decided last month it was a risk worth taking, the interviews show.
As a result, futures markets are now giving slightly better-than-even odds that rates will rise from near zero next month, compared with mid-October when the odds were less than 30 percent. In contrast, economists polled by Reuters have been leaning towards a December rate hike even before the Fed's last meeting.
So the Fed wanted to raise rates just to teach markets a lesson? Maybe the message was ignored because it was the wrong thing to do and market participants expected the Fed to pursue "hard" over "soft" credibility? More telling was this line:
On Oct. 16, Dudley got an earful from Wall Street bankers and economists on a New York Fed advisory panel criticizing the Fed for its muddled message, according to three people who attended the meeting.
The interviews with Fed officials and those close to the central bank suggest that it was around this time that the plan to hint at December in the next policy statement started taking shape.
That sounds as if Dudley was falling prey to the fetish of “soft” credibility. We need to pick a message and stick with it. That's what the guys on Wall Street say. They say we are going to loose our credibility. We need to get ahead of that.
And perhaps this is why the Fed’s decision in December always felt forced. Me, in December:
Given that the Fed likely only gets one chance to lift-off from the zero bound on a sustained basis, it is reasonable to think they would wait until they were absolutely sure inflation was coming. Even more so given the poor performance of their inflation forecasts. But the Fed thinks there is now more danger in waiting than moving. And so into the darkness we go.
I don’t think the Fed would ever admit December was a mistake, but at a minimum the decision to hold pat in March and dramatically mark down their rate expectations for further rate hikes in 2016 tells me the Fed thought they were certainly on the verge of making a major policy error and pulled back quickly. In my framework, the Fed shifted back to seeking to preserve “hard” credibility.
That said, note the tendency to try to goad the Fed right back into seeking “soft” credibility. From the March press conference:
Steve Liesman, CNBC. Madam Chair, as you know, inflation has gone up the last two months. We had another strong jobs report, the tracking forecasts for GDP have returned to 2 percent, and yet the Fed stands pat while it’s in a process of what it said it launched in December was a “process of normalization.” So I have two questions about this: Does the Fed have a credibility problem, in the sense that it says it will do some—one thing under certain conditions but doesn’t end up doing it? And then, frankly, if the current conditions are not sufficient for the Fed to raise rates, well, what would those conditions ever look like?
I hope Fed policymakers remain resistant to such taunts.
The Fed is especially vulnerable to the problem of “soft” credibility when they lay down specific markers. The infamous dot-plot is one such marker. Policymakers have difficulty explaining the dot-plot is not a promise of future action; it is nothing more than a guideline. But the instant they establish that guideline, the mere fact that it induces some market participants to believe a promise has been made creates the belief that not meeting that promise will cost the Fed credibility. “Soft” credibility. The Fed needs to distinguish between this and “hard” credibility.
Another such marker is the 2 percent inflation target. Although Fed officials have repeatedly warned that they assume there will be symmetric errors around the target, we don’t know that until we actually have above-target inflation. The rule was created in an era of below-target inflation, so it is easy to say the Fed lacks credibility on the inflation target. I have said so. But I have come to perceive this as another instance of “soft” credibility. I worry that if the Fed becomes concerned about their supposed credibility from inflation at 50bp below target, they will overreact to inflation that is 50bp above target. What we really want is the Fed to maintain inflation within 50bp of target without triggering a recession. That would be the “hard” credibility of meeting the Fed’s mandate over the long run.
Bottom Line: The Fed should be playing the long game. In my opinion, that means pursuing the “hard” credibility of choosing the path most likely to meet their mandate over the long run. This may require sacrificing some “soft” credibility along the way. That means not hiking rates – or hiking rates – despite a perceived promise to do the opposite. The Fed should not fret over those costs. They are minor and quickly forgotten. And worse yet, being a slave to the fetish of “soft” credibility only raises the odds of a policy error. They will do less harm by breaking their “promise” than by keeping that promise via a poor decision.