MacroScope

Scrambling to flesh out skeleton Fed board

“It’s about time” was the general reaction when on Thursday the Senate Banking Committee scheduled a vote on Barack Obama’s nominees for the Federal Reserve board. Not that Stanley Fischer, Lael Brainard and Jerome Powell (a sitting governor who needs re-confirmation) have been waiting all that long; it was January that the U.S. president nominated them as central bank governors, and only a month ago that the trio testified to the committee. The urgency and even anxiety had more to do with the fact that only four members currently sit on the Fed’s seven-member board and one of those, Jeremy Stein, is retiring in a month. The 100-year old Fed has never had only three governors, and the thought of the policy and administrative headaches that would bring was starting to stress people out. After all, the Fed under freshly-minted chair Janet Yellen is in the midst of its most difficult policy reversal ever.

“Boy it would be more comfortable if there were at least five governors and hopefully more” to help Yellen “think through these very difficult communications challenges,” said Donald Kohn, a former Fed vice chair. Former governor Elizabeth Duke, who stepped down in August, said one of the Fed board’s strengths is its diversity of members’ backgrounds. “With fewer people you don’t have as many different points of view on policy,” she said in an interview.

The Senate committee votes on the three nominees April 29. But they can’t start the job until the full Democratic-controlled Senate also schedules a vote and gives them the green light.

To be sure, there is no requirement for the Fed to have a full slate of seven governors. But it was something of a wake-up call when five presidents of the Fed’s regional branches voted alongside only four board governors at last month’s policy-setting meeting, when the central bank decided to revamp a delicate promise to keep interest rates low for a while to come. The privately-elected presidents, who often represent the extremely hawkish or dovish views on what to do about rates and asset purchases, will have an effective majority until more governors are confirmed. While the chair will seek to build the broadest support possible among fellow policymakers, “when the board is under-staffed the leadership needs to be that little bit more solicitous of the views of the presidents, who can dissent more freely,” said Krishna Guha, a former New York Fed official who now a vice chairman at ISI, a broker-dealer.

As it happened, there was only one dissenting vote on March 19, paving the way for Yellen to continue winding down the Fed’s massive bond-buying program, which is meant to stimulate investment and hiring. Next year, the Fed is expected to start raising rates after years of aggressive post-recession stimulus.

Economic damage from the shutdown? Small to start, say forecasters

The U.S. government shutdown probably won’t hit the economy too hard, say economists. Some point to the fact the shutdown has come right at the start of the fourth quarter, meaning there’s time before the year’s out for the economy to recoup some of  lost output resulting from the downtime. But, the longer it goes on, the worse it will be.

And there is always that debt-ceiling tail risk – the worst-case scenario being that the U.S. Treasury will default on one or more of its obligations. A Reuters poll on Monday put that risk at less than 10 percent.

Here’s a selection of comments from economists on the impact of the shutdown:

Amnesty for undocumented immigrants would not burden U.S. economy – Levy Economics Institute

The recently passed Senate bill – S. 744, or the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act – that would take significant steps toward comprehensive reform, is being held up in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, with a “path to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants the apparent sticking point.

A recent report from the Congressional Budget Office estimated the following:

All told, relative to the committee-approved bill, the Senate-passed legislation would boost direct spending by about $36 billion, reduce revenues by about $3 billion, and increase discretionary costs related to S. 744 by less than $1 billion over the 2014-2023 period.

Nathan Sheets and Robert Sockin at Citigroup are even more sweeping in their endorsement of immigration’s economic upside:

What’s a Fed to do? Taper talk persists despite missed jobs, inflation targets

As the Federal Reserve meets this week, unemployment is still too high and inflation remains, well, too low. That makes some investors wonder why policymakers are talking about curtailing their asset-buying stimulus plan. True, job growth has averaged a solid 172,000 net new positions per month over the last year, going at least some way to meeting the Fed’s criteria of substantial improvement for halting bond purchases.

So, either policymakers see brighter skies ahead or they want to get out of QE3 for other reasons they may rather not air too publicly: worries about efficacy or possible financial market bubbles.

“I don’t think the data dependent emphasis is the only ball the Fed is focusing on when mulling over the pace and extent of asset purchases,” says Thomas Lam, chief economist at OSK-DSG.

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.

Is Ben Bernanke becoming a closet Democrat?

 

Watching Ben Bernanke testify before Congress in recent years, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is a Fed Chairman who has been largely abandoned by his own party. Hearing after hearing, Bernanke receives steady support and praise Democrats for his efforts to stimulate a fragile economic recovery – and takes constant heat from Republicans for what they perceive as the possible dangers of low interest rates.

Many people forget Bernanke was first nominated to his current role by a conservative Republican president, George W. Bush. Bush, though he was reappointed to a second term by President Barack Obama. Bush first named Bernanke to the Fed’s board in 2002, then brought him to the White House to lead his Council of Economic Advisors.

In his recent biannual testimony on monetary policy, Bernanke had quite the exchange with Bob Corker, a Republican Senator from Tennessee. The tone of his question was immediately confrontational:

Sen. Warren flags double-standard for criminal prosecutions of banks

Massachusetts’ rookie Senator Elizabeth Warren was out making waves again at a Senate Banking Committee hearing on Capitol Hill today. The former Harvard law professor contrasted the legal code affecting drug prosecutions with what she depicted as cushy settlements for large Wall Street firms that committed egregious crimes.

Take Standard Chartered. They were fined $667 million by U.S. regulators for breaching sanctions related to Iran and three other countries. Yet the bank posted a tenth straight year of record profits.

If you’re caught with an ounce of cocaine, the chances are good you’re going to jail. But evidently, if you launder nearly a billion dollars for drug cartels and violate international sanctions, your company pays a fine and you go home and sleep in your own bed at night. I think that’s fundamentally wrong.

Another U.S. debt ceiling showdown could roil markets: NY Fed paper

After two days of testimony from Federal Reserve Chairman last week in which he decisively criticized Congress’ decision to slash spending arbitrarily in the middle of a fragile economic recovery, a report on money market funds from the New York Fed nails home the point.

The paper’s key finding is that, as most observers already knew, investors were a lot more worried about a break-up of the euro zone in the summer of 2011 than they were about U.S. congressional bickering over the debt ceiling.

But as Americans face a series of regularly schedule mini-eruptions in the fiscal policy arena, the authors conclude with a thinly-veiled warning to lawmakers:

‘Cliff’ deal is one part relief, one part frustration for Fed

When Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke was last in New York, he joked about his past research into the effect of uncertainty on investment spending. “I concluded it is not a good thing, and they gave me a PhD for that,” he said, drawing laughter from a gathering of hundreds of economists in a packed Times Square conference room.

Laughter probably wasn’t echoing through the halls of the U.S. central bank on Wednesday. Late on Tuesday, Congress struck a last-minute deal that only partially and temporarily avoids the so-called fiscal cliff. Bernanke and other Fed policymakers – frustrated that it took politicians so long to address tax and spending levels in the first place – were hoping Washington would agree to a bi-partisan, longer-term plan to narrow the country’s massive deficit with only modest near-term fiscal restraint. While no deal on taxes would have been far worse for the economy, the fact that Congress put off decisions on government spending and the debt ceiling for another two months simply prolongs the uncertainty that many feel is holding back investments by businesses and households.

“You basically continue this fiscal policy uncertainty that we have had for the past year or more,” said Roberto Perli, managing director of policy research at International Strategy and Investment Group. In a note to clients, Perli predicted that at best the fiscal cliff deal does not change the outlook for Fed policy, which for now consists of rock-bottom interest rates and $85 billion per month in asset purchases. But more likely, he wrote, it would lead to even more accommodation from the Fed since Republicans – smarting from a political defeat in the last few days – may prefer to let the “sequester” of large-scale spending cuts kick in as scheduled on March 1 rather than agreeing to a smaller reduction in U.S. debt. In that case, the Fed would respond by keeping rates lower for longer, perhaps through early 2016, or simply by ramping up the value of asset purchases under its quantitative easing program (QE3), Perli wrote.

Why the Fed shouldn’t raise rates to discipline Congress

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Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has been trying for some time to fend off critics of his bond-buying policies who argue the central bank is making it easier for the federal government to run deficits. In remarks to the Economic Club of Indiana on Monday, he seems to have found a useful way to help illustrate his point.

It follows logically that those who say the Fed is abetting profligate governments might want to see higher interest rates that would discourage excess federal borrowing. Bernanke pursues this line of thinking to its natural conclusions – and is very uncomfortable with the results:

I sometimes hear the complaint that the Federal Reserve is enabling bad fiscal policy by keeping interest rates very low and thereby making it cheaper for the federal government to borrow. I find this argument unpersuasive. The responsibility for fiscal policy lies squarely with the Administration and the Congress. At the Federal Reserve, we implement policy to promote maximum employment and price stability, as the law under which we operate requires. Using monetary policy to try to influence the political debate on the budget would be highly inappropriate.