MacroScope

Forget the ‘wealth effect’: real wages drive U.S. consumer spending

 

Federal Reserve officials have touted the ‘wealth effect’ from higher stock prices and rising home values as a key way in which monetary policy boosts consumer spending and economic activity. But according to the results of a recent survey from the Royal Bank of Canada, that ethereal feeling of being richer on paper is no substitute for cold, hard cash.

Here’s how Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke explained the benefits of rising asset prices to the real economy during a press conference in September.

The tools we have involve affecting financial asset prices and those are the tools of monetary policy. There are a number of different channels – mortgage rates, I mentioned corporate bond rates, but also prices of various assets, like for example the prices of homes. To the extent that home prices begin to rise, consumers will feel wealthier, they’ll feel more disposed to spend. If house prices are rising people may be more willing to buy homes because they think that they will make a better return on that purchase. So house prices is one vehicle.

Stock prices, many people own stocks directly or indirectly. The issue here is whether or not improving asset prices generally will make people more willing to spend. One of the main concerns that firms have is there is not enough demand, there’s not enough people coming and demanding their products. If people feel that their financial situation is better because their 401(k) looks better for whatever reason, or their house is worth more, they are more willing to go out and provide the demand.

From that perspective, economists should welcome a report last week showing U.S. household wealth surged by $3 trillion, primarily on the back of gains in stock and home prices.

To ‘taper’ or not to ‘taper’? Fading the Fed semantics debate

Is Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke avoiding the word “taper” in order to temper expectations that the U.S. central bank will ratchet down its massive bond buying program? This is one view that’s been widely bandied about in recent days.

But then why is it that the Fed officials who are most eager to “taper” have pretty much stopped using the word, too?

The last time Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher used the “T” word in a public speech was in February. But there’s no evidence at all that he’s backing off from his support of the idea. He’s been adamant the Fed should not yank the punch bowl away (or, in his words, go from Wild Turkey to cold turkey) but should gradually reduce stimulus.

Inflation, not jobs, may hold key to Fed exit

It’s that time of the month again: Wall Street is anxiously awaiting the monthly employment figures – less because of its interest in job creation and more because of what the numbers will mean for the Federal Reserve’s unconventional stimulus policies.

As one money manager put it all too candidly: “Bad news is good news in this market lately because it keeps the Fed buying bonds and interest rates low.”

Given that the Fed is the closest thing the world has to a global central bank, what happens at the Federal Open Market Committee doesn’t often stay in the Federal Open Market Committee. Indeed, emerging markets have become increasingly volatile since Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said policymakers might curtail the pace of asset buys in coming months.

MacroScope presents: ask the economist

MacroScope is pleased to announce the launch of ‘Ask the Economist,’ which will give our readers an opportunity to directly ask questions of top experts in the field. We are honored that Michael Bryan, senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, has agreed to be our first guest. In his role, Bryan is responsible for organizing the Atlanta Fed’s monetary policy process. He was previously a vice president of research at the Cleveland Fed.

The process is simple. We give you a heads up on our upcoming featured economist. You tweet us your question using the hashtag #asktheeconomist, or via direct message if you prefer. We select a handful of the most interesting queries this week, ship them over to our economist du jour. She or he will then answer each one in writing and we will post their response as a blogpost. And of course, you’ll be cited for asking the pithy question.

We look forward to your questions and thank you in advance for participating.

Let the games begin.

CME Group, home to bets on Fed policy, scrambles to keep watch

These days, it seems, everyone is trying to keep up with shifting market expectations for the Federal Reserve’s monetary policies. CME Group’s Fed Watch, which delivers a snapshot of those expectations based on futures tied to the Fed’s target for short-term rates, is no exception.

Rate futures traded at CME have dived since Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said last week that the U.S. central bank may decide to cut back on its purchases of Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities in the next few Fed policy meetings if data shows the economy is gaining traction. CME’s website dutifully translated the drop in rate futures into rising market expectations that the Fed’s first rate hike since 2008 could come in early 2015.

But the site was silent on the likelihood of the Fed raising rates any earlier – it simply didn’t include that data, because as recently as a week ago, the probabilities of a rate hike in 2014 were close to zero. Bernanke’s comments, and some strong data, changed all that. By Wednesday, CME had caught up, adding data on meetings in the second half of 2014. Just in the nick of time: by the day’s end, traders were pricing in a rate hike at the Fed’s December 2014 meeting.

The rationale for a December Fed taper

Vincent Reinhart, a former top Federal Reserve researcher who is now chief U.S. economist at Morgan Stanley, believes the U.S. central bank will begin pulling back on the pace of asset purchases in December. Here’s how he arrives at that timeline:

We believe the Fed is going to need to see four employment reports averaging net gains in nonfarm payrolls of at least 200,000 to justify reducing the pace of its asset purchases. The arithmetic of the calendar would then put the earliest date of tapering/tightening in September, which conveniently for the Fed is a meeting followed by a press conference.

Our economic forecast, however, suggests that there will be more slip-sliding through the soft patch, implying that December is the more likely start.

Is Congress the ‘enabler’ of a loose Fed?

We heard it more than once at today’s hearing of the Joint Economic Committee featuring Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke: the central bank’s low interest rate policies are allowing Congress to delay tough decisions on long-term spending.

As U.S. senator Dan Coats asked pointedly: “Is the Fed being an enabler for an addiction Congress can’t overcome?”

Yet, if you read the subtext of Bernanke’s testimony closely, it may actually be Congress that is enabling a loose Federal Reserve.

What to expect from Bernanke testimony and Fed minutes this week

Financial markets this will be keenly focused on congressional testimony from Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and minutes from the central bank’s April 30-May 1 meeting, particularly given a thin data calendar. The latter may be the more interesting one, since it will offer hints into how far Fed officials are leaning in a direction of curbing the pace of its bond-buying stimulus, potentially late this summer.

The economic backdrop has been just mixed enough to leave policymakers cautious about taking their foot off the gas. Still, if we get a few more months of strength in the labor market, Fed officials may just be able to say “substantial progress” has been made in the outlook for the labor market – their stated precondition for an end to asset buys.

Still, Harm Bandholz at Unicredit says markets should not confuse a debate about tapering bond buys with some immediate reversal of the Fed’s policy of ultra low rates.

Kocherlakota on Fed stimulus: Don’t stop ‘til you get enough

Ann Saphir contributed to this post

Minneapolis Federal Reserve President Narayana Kocherlakota has gone from being one of the U.S. central bank’s more hawkish characters to arguably its most dovish. In line with this transformation, Kocherlakota told a conference sponsored by the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business that the Fed, despite its extensive bond-buying over the last few years, has not done enough to spur growth.

The FOMC has responded to this challenge by providing a historically unprecedented amount of monetary accommodation. But the outlook for prices and employment is that they will remain too low over the next two to three years relative to the FOMC’s objectives. Despite its actions, the FOMC has still not lowered the real interest rate sufficiently in light of the changes in asset demand and asset supply that I’ve described.

To get a sense of what he means, see the graphs below: U.S. inflation continues to undershoot the Fed’s 2 percent target, and is actually drifting lower, while unemployment, though down from crisis peaks, remains stubbornly high.

SF Fed’s Williams in the driver’s seat

In the barrage of Federal Reserve speakers making the rounds on Thursday, it is notable that San Francisco Fed President John Williams was the one that managed to move markets, allowing the dollar to recover losses. Why did his voice rise above the din? For one thing, he’s seen as a dovish-leaning centrist whose views closely resemble the Bernanke-Yellen core of the central bank.

Plus, he took the oft-abused economy-car analogy in a, er, new direction:

If we were in a car, you might say we’re motoring along, but well under the speed limit. The fact that we’re cruising at a moderate speed instead of still stuck in the ditch is due in part to the Federal Reserve’s unprecedented efforts to keep interest rates low. We may not be getting there as fast as we’d like, but we’re definitely moving in the right direction.