MacroScope

How big is the Fed’s communications gap? Six months, give or take

You have to give Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke credit for standing his ground on data-dependence. Despite widespread suspicions, including on this blog, that the central bank would begin reducing the pace of its bond-buying stimulus in September simply because the markets were expecting it, the Fed chose to hold off in the face of a still-fragile economy.

Here’s how Bernanke addressed the issue of the market’s surprise at the Fed’s decision at his press conference:

I don’t recall stating that we would do any particular  thing in this meeting. What we are going to do is the right thing for the economy. And our assessment of the data since June is that, taken collectively, that it didn’t quite meet the standard of satisfying our – or of ratifying or confirming our basic outlook for, again, increasing growth, improving labor markets, and inflation moving back towards target. We try our best to communicate to markets – we’ll continue to do that – but we can’t let market expectations dictate our policy actions. Our policy actions have to be determined by our best assessment of what’s needed for the economy.

Still, even some Fed officials themselves have by now admitted the central bank did a poor job in communicating its message to markets in advance of the last meeting.

So, how wide is the Fed’s messaging gap? To get a rough measure, we can look at how much market expectations differed from central bank guidance at various points in time.

A market-dependent Fed?

It’s hard to shake the feeling that the Federal Reserve is about to begin pulling back on stimulus not just on the back of better economic data, but also because financial markets have already priced it in. The band-aid ripping debate over an eventual tapering of bond purchases that started in May was so painful, Fed officials simply don’t want to go through it again.

If anything, recent data have been at best mixed, at worst worrisome. In particular, August job growth was disappointing and labor force participation declined further.At the same time, inflation remains well below the central bank’s objective.

Argues Dean Croushore, a former regional Fed bank economist and professor at the University of Richmond:

Fed doves becoming an endangered species

 

It’s official: Instead of policy doves on the U.S. central bank’s Federal Open Market Committee, there are now only “non-hawks.” A research note from Thomas Lam at OSK-DMG used the term in referring to recent remarks from once more dovish officials like Charles Evans of the Chicago Fed and San Francisco Fed President John Williams.

The implied message from the latest Fed comments (or reticence), namely from the non-hawks, is that policymakers are clearly assessing a broader spectrum of considerations – beyond data-dependence – when mulling over the prospect of tapering in September.

Lam neglected to mention the silence from arguably the most dovish Fed member of all, Boston’s Eric Rosengren. He and Evans were at the forefront of calling for continuous and aggressive stimulus in the form of asset purchases. But recently, the Fed as a committee has shifted away from its emphasis on balance sheet expansion toward forward guidance –  thus far with mixed success.

If at first you don’t succeed… Fed’s Evans sticks to strong forecast despite misses

It’s nice to know Federal Reserve officials have a sense of humor about their own forecasting errors. Chicago Fed President Charles Evans was certainly humble enough to admit to some recent misses in a speech on Friday .

Still, he’s sticking to his guns, arguing that U.S. economic growth will finally break above 3 percent next year, allowing the Fed to gradually pull back on its bond-buying stimulus.

In 2009, I predicted that growth would pick up. I did the same in 2010, 2011 and 2012. And I was not alone – most FOMC participants and many outside analysts shared this overly optimistic view. Undaunted, I make my intrepid forecast: I anticipate growth to average about 2-1/2 percent in the second half of the year and to be in the neighborhood of 3 percent next year. I expect the unemployment rate to be somewhat below 7 percent by the end of 2014.

Curious timing for Fed self-doubt on monetary policy

If there was ever a time to be worried about whether the Federal Reserve’s bond-buying stimulus is having a positive effect on the economy, the last few months were probably not it. Everyone expected government spending cuts and tax increases to push the economic recovery off the proverbial cliff, while the outlook for overseas economies has very quickly gone from rosy to flashing red. But the American expansion has remained the fastest-moving among industrialized laggards, with second quarter gross domestic product revised up sharply to 2.5 percent.

Yet for some reason, at the highest levels of the U.S. central bank and in its most dovish nooks, the notion that asset purchases might not be having as great an impact as previously thought has become pervasive.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s 2012 Jackson Hole speech, made just a month before the Fed launched a third round of monetary easing, made a strong, detailed case for how well the policy was working.

Post-Jackson Hole, Fed Septaper still appears on track

With all the QE-bashing that went on at the Federal Reserve’s Jackson Hole conference this year, it was difficult not to get the sense that, barring a major economic disappointment before its September meeting, the central bank is on track to begin reducing the monthly size of its bond purchase program, or quantitative easing.

If anything, the fact that this expectation has become more or less embedded in financial markets means that the Fed might as well go ahead and test the waters with a small downward adjustment of say, $10 billion, from the current $85 billion monthly pace, while waiting to see how employment conditions develop in the remainder of the year.

Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart, who is not a voter this year but tends to be a bellwether centrist on the Federal Open Market Committee, told Reuters on the sidelines of the meeting that he would be ‘comfortable’ with a September tapering “providing we don’t get any really worrisome signals out of the economy between now and the 18th of September.” (Does this count? Probably not.)

The other big question at Jackson Hole

It will be a tough one to avoid. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s absence from Jackson Hole is just one in a series of strong hints he will step down at the end of his second term in January. So, it is only natural that a lot of the talk on the sidelines of this year’s conference will inevitably revolve around the issue of his replacement.  

But there is another, potentially more important question that needs to be answered in the shadow of Wyoming’s majestic Grand Teton peaks: Why have top U.S. Fed officials, even dovish ones, become increasingly queasy about asset purchases despite falling inflation?

Thus far, policymakers have discussed the prospect of a reduction in the pace of their bond-buying stimulus in terms of an improvement in the economy and the prospect of an even brighter outlook toward year-end and in 2014. Yet the U.S. economy, while outpacing its even more anemic rich-nation counterparts, is hardly besieged by runaway growth of the sort that would normally lead central banks to tighten monetary policy. And by even talking about reducing bond buys, the Fed has helped push interest rates up more than a full percentage point, to a two year high, in just a few months.

Recalculating: Central bank roadmaps leave markets lost

Central banks in Europe have followed in the Federal Reserve’s footsteps by adopting “forward guidance” in a break with traditionBut, as in the Fed’s case, the increased transparency seems to have only made investors more confused.

The latest instance came as something of an embarrassment for Mark Carney, the Bank of England’s new superstar chief from Canada and a former Goldman Sachs banker. The BoE shifted away from past practice saying it planned to keep interest rates at a record low until unemployment falls to 7 percent or below, which it said could take three years.

Yet the forward guidance announcement went down with a whimper. Indeed, investors brought forward expectations for when rates would rise – the opposite of what the central bank was hoping for – although the move faded later in the day.

Obama’s second chance to reshape the Fed

Lost in the bizarre Yellen vs. Summers tug-of-war into which the debate over the next Federal Reserve Chairman has devolved, is the notion that President Barack Obama is getting a second shot at revamping the U.S. central bank.

The perk of a two-term president, Obama will get to appoint another three, potentially four officials to the Fed’s influential seven-member board of governors in Washington. This may buy the president some political wiggle room when it comes to his pick for Fed chair, since he might be able to placate Republicans with one or two “concession” appointments. Every Fed governor gets a permanent voting seat on the policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee.

Elizabeth Duke, the last George W. Bush appointee, is already on her way out. So is Sarah Bloom Raskin, who after a relatively short stint at the board is moving to the Treasury, to be Jack Lew’s Deputy Secretary. Then there’s the awkward suspicion that, if Obama passes up Fed Vice Chair Janet Yellen, by far the favorite for the top spot, she will also step down after a long career in the Federal Reserve system, including many years as head of the San Francisco Fed.

U.S. GDP revisions, inflation slippage tighten Fed’s policy bind

Richard Leong contributed to this post

John Kenneth Galbraith apparently joked that economic forecasting was invented to make astrology look respectable. You were warned here first that it would be especially so in the case of the first snapshot (advanced reading) of U.S. second quarter gross domestic product from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Benchmark revisions to U.S. gross domestic product made for a bit of a mayhem for forecasters, who were way off the mark in predicting just 1 percent annualized growth when in fact the rate came it at 1.7 percent. Morgan Stanley had predicted a gain of just 0.2 percent.

Hours after the GDP release, Federal Reserve officials sent a more dovish signal than markets had expected, offering no hint that a reduction in the size of its bond-buying stimulus might be imminent. In particular, they flagged the risk to the recovery from higher mortgage rates as well as the potential for low inflation to pose deflationary risks.