MacroScope

Fed’s numerical thresholds are a bad idea: Goldman’s Hatzius

Updates with Fed decision

The Federal Reserve on Wednesday took the unprecedented step of tying its low rate policy directly to unemployment, saying it will keep rates near rock bottom until the jobless rate falls to 6.5 percent. That’s as long as inflation, the other key parameter of policy, does not exceed 2.5 percent.

Jan Hatzius, chief economist at Goldman Sachs, however, said in a research note published ahead of the decision that the shift may not be very effective.

Would such a move be a good idea? We’re not so sure. Calendar guidance may be theoretically flawed, but it is working reasonably well in practice. Fed officials have managed to keep expectations for the funds rate in the next few years pinned near zero, and the market now understands that this is more of a commitment to the promotion of future economic recovery than an expectation of future economic weakness.

Threshold guidance is theoretically appealing because it makes this commitment even more explicit, but it could be problematic in practice because the unemployment rate – almost certainly the activity variable of choice – is an imperfect measure of progress toward the committee’s jobs mandate.

Fiscal tightening + monetary stimulus = ‘borderline insanity’?

It’s a curious pattern being repeated around the industrialized world. Governments are trying frantically to tighten their belts even as the monetary authorities loosen their purse strings. This week in the United States is a perfect example: the Fed looks set to extend its bond purchase program even as Washington fails to reach an agreement to avoid the dreaded “fiscal cliff.”

It’s the sort of dissonant policy that is unlikely to yield very constructive results at a time when the U.S. economy is struggling to achieve a meager 2 percent growth rate.

Thomas Lam, group chief economist at OSK-DMG inSingapore:

The current one-sided policy mix of fiscal tightening and monetary easing is problematic (for example, the UK experimented with this approach –  fiscal consolidation and monetary accommodation – and it clearly failed to generate a sustained recovery).  In some cases, it’s borderline insanity –  it’s like you’re trying the same or broadly similar approach but hoping for a different outcome every single time.

Italian political curveball

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Italy’s borrowing costs over ten years drew closer to five percent after a decision by Prime Minister Mario Monti to step down early left the country’s political future unclear, hurting riskier euro zone debt.

Monti said on Saturday he would resign once the 2013 budget was approved, raising questions over who will take the reins of the euro zone’s third largest economy at a time when it remains a focus of the region’s three-year debt crisis.

His announcement, potentially bringing forward an election due early next year, came after former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s party withdrew its support for the government — and Berlusconi himself said he would run to become premier for a fifth time.

America is not Greece: Low funding costs give U.S. government room to borrow

Is the U.S.on the road to Greece, as some politicians have proclaimed?

Most economists say the comparison is nonsense. At a towering $15 trillion, the U.S. economy is not only the world’s largest, it is also more than 50 times the size of Greece’s. This gap makes any type of comparison difficult – it would be like analyzing trends in Maryland in relation to the entire euro zone.

Another key difference: Unlike Greece, the U.S. actually controls its own currency. That means a debt default is effectively impossible. This reality, coupled with strong monetary stimulus from the Federal Reserve, helps explain why U.S. bond yields remain near historic lows despite larger deficits.

Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the progressive Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, says a country’s interest burden is far more important than its total debt levels in determining the government’s ability to service it. He argued in a recent editorial:

Hey, at least it beats the Mayan outlook

A panel of economic luminaries took the stage in Chicago this afternoon to join in a tradition repeated this time of the year in cities across the country, opining on the outlook for the coming year.

Raghuram Rajan, a finance professor at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, began with a joke involving 973 sheep and a dog, the butt of which was the intellectual capacity of economic forecasters. He went on to predict slow world growth ahead, highlighting the geopolitical risks from conflict in the Middle East and Asia, and the limits of fiscal and monetary policy to turn things around.

Carl Tannenbaum, Northern Trust’s chief economist, focused on the still-troubled housing market and risks posed by the failure of European political leaders to resolve their financial crisis (he observed that Americans frustrated by the deadlock in Washington over resolving the U.S. fiscal cliff have only to look across the Atlantic for comfort that things, certainly, could be worse).

Geithner’s gauntlet: Social Security is a “separate process” from fiscal cliff talks

Social Security should not be part of the current negotiations over the U.S. budget – that was the message from outgoing Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner over the weekend. During a veritable tour of Sunday shows aimed at addressing negotiations surrounding the “fiscal cliff” of expiring tax cuts and spending reductions, Geithner told ABC News’ “This Week”:

What the president is willing to do is to work with Democrats and Republicans to strengthen Social Security for future generations so Americans can approach retirement with dignity and with the confidence they can retire with a modest guaranteed benefit.

But we think you have to do that in a separate process so that our seniors aren’t – don’t face the concern that we’re somehow going to find savings in Social Security benefits to help reduce the other deficit.

Could the private sector stage a stimulus plan?

Since the financial crisis, the federal government has implemented a fiscal stimulus plan and the Federal Reserve took to the road of monetary stimulus, actively seeking new routes to revive the U.S. economy.

The private sector, however, has been laggard in adding its muscle to the revival efforts. Private firms have added employees, but very cautiously, and wages are stagnant. Meanwhile, a huge amount of cash sits idle on corporate balance sheets.

“Capital expenditure plans are being retrenched,” notes Dan Heckman, senior fixed income strategist and senior portfolio manager at Minneapolis, Minnesota-based US Bank, with $80 billion in assets under management. “Most major corporations are sitting on tons of cash. They have no appetite for borrowing and credit line utilization is at all-time lows.”

The trouble with the Fed’s calendar guidance on rates

Sometimes, communication can be the art of what not to say. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke took pains this week to make clear that the central bank’s indication that it will likely keep rates low until mid-2015 does not mean it expects growth to remain weak for that long.

By pushing the expected period of low rates further into the future, we are not saying that we expect the economy to remain weak until mid-2015; rather, we expect – as we indicated in our September statement – that a highly accommodative stance of monetary policy will remain appropriate for a considerable time after the economic recovery strengthens.

The comments speak to a key problem with the notion of calendar-based forward guidance, first adopted by the Fed in August of 2011: each time officials push the date further into the future, they risk dampening financial market sentiment, thereby having the opposite effect to the stimulus it intended.

How big will the Fed’s QE3 end up being?

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Polling data courtesy of Chris Reese

We’ll know it when we see it. That’s essentially been the Federal Reserve’s message since it launched an open-ended bond-buying stimulus plan that it says will remain in place for as long “the outlook for the labor market does not improve substantially.” Which begs the question: how much larger is the central bank’s $2.9 trillion balance sheet likely to get?

Minutes from the Federal Reserve’s October meeting point to solid support within the central bank for ongoing monetary easing via asset purchases well into 2013.

A number of participants indicated that additional asset purchases would likely be appropriate next year after the conclusion of the maturity extension program in order to achieve a substantial improvement in the labor market.

Fiscal cliff could help U.S. avoid road to Japan – but probably won’t

The “fiscal cliff” is widely seen as a massive threat looming over a fragile U.S. recovery. But with a little imagination, it is not difficult to see how the combination of expiring tax cuts and spending reductions actually presents an opportunity for tilting the budget backdrop in a pro-growth direction, even if political paralysis makes this scenario rather unlikely.

For Steve Blitz, chief economist at ITG in New York, the cliff presents a unique chance for the United States to avoid sinking deeper in the direction of Japan’s growth-challenged economy by shifting incentives away from consumption and towards investment:

If current negotiations end up simply turning the “cliff” into a 10-year slide an opportunity to help the economy regain a dynamic growth path and close the gap with pre-recession trend GDP would, in our view, be lost and raise the odds that, in the coming years, U.S. economic performance looks more like Japan’s. […]