MacroScope

Uncertain about the effects of uncertainty on jobs

Job number one at the Federal Reserve these days is to bring down high U.S. unemployment without sparking inflation. Job number two, it sometimes seems, is explaining just how unemployment got so high in the first place.

Two recent papers published by the San Francisco Fed offer what look like opposite takes on the topic.

“(S)tates in which businesses cited poor sales also registered disproportionately sharp drops in jobs and household spending,” wrote Princeton University professor Atif Mian and University of Chicago Booth School of Business professor Amir Sufi in a February Economic Letter.

This supports the view that a drop in aggregate demand led to job losses during the recession…While business concerns about government regulation and taxes also rose steadily from 2008 to 2011, there is no evidence that job losses were larger in states where businesses were more worried about these factors.

In other words, it’s not uncertainty over government policy that hurts jobs, it’s lack of demand.

Curse of the front-runner a bad omen for Fed contender Yellen?

The buzz on who will replace Ben Bernanke as Federal Reserve chairman has grown this year and amplified recently with talk of Lawrence Summers as a real possibility. There is also lingering speculation over Timothy Geithner, another previous U.S. Treasury Secretary, and former Fed Vice Chair Roger Ferguson among others as possible successors. Bernanke has provided no hint he wants to stay for a third term.

But above the din the central bank’s current vice chair, Janet Yellen, has remained the front-runner. Her deep experience and implicit policy continuity has crowned her the heir apparent until proven otherwise. A Reuters poll of economists showed Yellen was seen as far and away the most likely candidate.

Yet this is a familiar plot that has played out in other Western countries over the past year – with a shock climactic twist. New Zealand, Britain and Canada have all pulled the rug out from under the presumed front-runner and named a surprise new head of their respective central banks. And perhaps most worryingly for Yellen, in each case the overlooked candidate was the bank’s No. 2 official.

Loose lips sink ships? Fed’s latest transparency sows confusion, says Mizuho’s Ricchiuto

The complexity of non-traditional monetary policy is hard enough to explain to other economists and policymakers. Market participants prefer sound bites, opines Steven Ricchiuto, chief economist at Mizuho Securities USA in a note. As such, the more the Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke tries to explain the Federal Open Market Committee’s position on tapering and policy accommodation the more he confuses the message, Ricchiuto says.

The problem is fundamental to the nature of monetary policy. According to the Chairman, monetary policy accommodation is adjusted through the Fed Funds rate. Quantitative Easing (QE) is a separate policy. Yet he has also said that tapering is simply reducing accommodation, not tightening. These pronouncements work at cross purposes and ignore how the markets read policy. For the markets, QE is an extension of policy into non-traditional tools. Therefore, tapering is tightening. There is no such thing as reducing accommodation for market participants.

For the FOMC, it is the stock of bonds that have been purchased that defines policy, Ricchiuto says. Essentially, if the Fed stops buying Treasury and mortgage-backed securities but the Fed’s System Open Market Account (SOMA) doesn’t sell any, then policy is unchanged. This implies that long-term rates should remain unchanged.

Two Fed financial stress measures show conditions still easy

Composure restored. Despite gut-clenching stock market swoops and a violent 100 basis point upward spike in 10-year bond yields since the Fed’s June 19 meeting and press conference with Chairman Ben Bernanke, financial conditions are still very easy.

That ought reassure officials at the U.S. Federal Reserve that some normalcy has been restored in financial markets after the abrupt reaction to their decision to signal they would scale back bond purchases later this year.

A persistent upward scramble in yields and mortgage rates could chill spending and investment, potentially undermining economic recovery.

Fear the Septaper

Credit to Barclays economists for coining the term ‘Septaper’

A solid U.S. employment report for June appears to have cemented market expectations that the Fed will begin to reduce the pace of its bond-buying stimulus in September.  Average employment growth for the last six months is now officially above 200,000 per month.

Never mind that, even at this rate, it would take another 11 months for the job market to reach its pre-recession levels – and that’s not counting the population growth since then.

John Brady, managing director at R.J. O’Brian & Associates in Chicago, nails the market’s sentiment:

Full blown damage control?

Call it the great wagon circling.

Central bankers are talking tough in the face of the wild gyrations in financial markets. But it’s becoming increasingly clear they are sweating – and drawing up contingency plans to assuage the panic that’s taken hold since Chairman Ben Bernanke last week sketched out the Fed’s plan for winding down its QE3 bond-buying program. U.S. policymakers in particular must have predicted investors would react strongly. But now that longer-term borrowing costs have spiked to near a two-year high, they look to be entering full-blown damage control.

Here’s Richard Fisher, head of the Dallas Fed, speaking to reporters in London on Monday:

I’m not surprised by market volatility – markets are manic depressive mechanisms… Collectively we will be tested. We need to expect a market reaction… Even if we reach a situation this year where we dial back (stimulus), we will still be running an accommodative policy.

In his own words: Fed’s Bullard explains dovish dissent

The following is a statement from the St. Louis Fed following the decision by its president, James Bullard, to dissent from the U.S. central bank’s decision to signal a looming reduction in its bond-buying stimulus program:

Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis President James Bullard dissented with the Federal Open Market Committee decision announced on June 19, 2013.  In his view, the Committee should have more strongly signaled its willingness to defend its inflation target of 2 percent in light of recent low inflation readings.  Inflation in the U.S. has surprised on the downside during 2013.  Measured as the percent change from one year earlier, the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) headline inflation rate is running below 1 percent, and the PCE core inflation rate is close to 1 percent.  President Bullard believes that to maintain credibility, the Committee must defend its inflation target when inflation is below target as well as when it is above target.

President Bullard also felt that the Committee’s decision to authorize the Chairman to lay out a more elaborate plan for reducing the pace of asset purchases was inappropriately timed.  The Committee was, through the Summary of Economic Projections process, marking down its assessment of both real GDP growth and inflation for 2013, and yet simultaneously announcing that less accommodative policy may be in store.  President Bullard felt that a more prudent approach would be to wait for more tangible signs that the economy was strengthening and that inflation was on a path to return toward target before making such an announcement.

Bernanke’s seven-percent solution

 

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has a problem: how to wean markets from dependence on central bank stimulus. On Wednesday Bernanke did what some of his most dovish colleagues have urged for months. He laid out a clear path for how and when the Fed will bring its third round of bond-buying to a close.

It doesn’t take a master detective to figure out his solution – 7 percent.

“If the incoming data are broadly consistent with this forecast, the committee currently anticipates that it will be appropriate to moderate the monthly pace of purchases later this year, and if the subsequent data remain broadly aligned with our current expectations for the economy, we will continue to reduce the pace of purchases in measured steps through the first half of next year, ending purchases around mid-year,” Bernanke said in a press conference following the Fed’s two-day policy-setting meeting.

“In this scenario, when asset purchases ultimately come to an end, the unemployment rate would likely be in the vicinity of 7 percent, with solid economic growth supporting further job gains.”

Why low inflation may not prevent the Fed from reducing QE

Everybody knows U.S. unemployment, currently at 7.6%, is still too high – especially the millions of Americans struggling to find work. Less widely acknowledged is a recent dip in inflation that puts it well below the Federal Reserve’s 2 percent target. Indeed, at 0.7 percent in April, the Fed’s preferred inflation measure was less than half of the central bank’s explicitly stated goal. So why are Fed officials, gathered in Washington for their latest policy decision today, discussing a pullback in stimulus rather than an increase in it?

According to some economists, it’s because policymakers believe the recent decline in inflation will be transitory and that the rate will gradually move back up toward target as growth picks up during the rest of this year and in 2014. Yesterday’s report on consumer prices corroborated that prospect for some analysts.

Paul Ashworth, chief US economist at Capital Economics, wrote:

The low level of headline inflation largely reflects the drop back in commodity prices over the past 12 months, with even the low core rate partly explained by the indirect impact of those lower commodity prices. Under those circumstances, we wouldn’t expect the Fed to put too much weight on inflation being below its target. Once commodity prices level out, the downward pressure on consumer goods prices will begin to ease. In other words, this won’t prevent the Fed from beginning to reduce its monthly asset purchases, probably beginning in September.

The chairman’s challenge: Bernanke says ‘taper,’ markets hear ‘tighten’

For a central bank that likes to tout the importance of clear communication, the Federal Reserve sure knows how to be obtuse when it wants to. Take Bernanke’s testimony before the Joint Economic Committee of Congress last month. His prepared remarks were reliably dovish, emphasizing weakness in the labor market and offering no hint of an imminent end to the current stimulus program, which involves the monthly purchase of $85 billion in assets.

It was during the question and answer session that the real fireworks came. Asked about the prospect for curtailing such bond buys, Bernanke said:

If we see continued improvement and we have confidence that that’s going to be sustained then we could in the next few meetings … take a step down in our pace of purchases. If we do that it would not mean that we are automatically aiming towards a complete wind down. Rather we would be looking beyond that to see how the economy evolves and we could either raise or lower our pace of purchases going forward.