MacroScope

Fed doves strike back


Now that Washington’s circus-like government shutdown has put a damper on hopes for stronger U.S. economic growth going into next year, dovish Federal Reserve officials again appear to have the upper hand in the way of policy commentary.

Take Eric Rosengren, the Boston Fed President who had been unusually quiet as the tapering debate gathered steam. In a speech in Vermont on Thursday, he returned to a familiar theme – the central bank still has plenty of firepower and should not be afraid to use it.

Unfortunately, most of the risks to the outlook remain on the downside. Concerns over untimely fiscal austerity here and abroad, and the possibility of problems once again emerging in parts of Europe, could cause the Federal Reserve to miss on both elements of its dual mandate – employment and inflation – through 2016.

In my view, the asset-purchase program should remain dependent on incoming economic data, and we should seek to get the economy on a path to achieve both elements of the Fed’s dual mandate – employment and inflation – as soon as possible, hopefully by 2016. Should the economy speed up more rapidly than is sustainable, we can remove accommodation more quickly.

Should the economy unexpectedly slowdown, we can and should provide more accommodation than is currently anticipated. If the economy evolves as expected, policy should in my view include only a very slow removal of accommodation over the next several years – and that should only occur when the data ratify our forecast for an improvement in real GDP and employment.

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:

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:

Too early to call revival in Latin America manufacturing

It may be too early to herald a revival of Latin America’s manufacturing following a recent currency decline, according to a report by London-based research firm Capital Economics.

Increased competitiveness of local factories has been seen as a good side effect of the currency shock triggered by prospects of reduced economic stimulus in the United States. However, the data compiled by Capital Economics suggests there is still a long way to go before investors see any fireworks.

David Rees, emerging markets economist at Capital Economics, wrote in his report:

Trust me, I’m with Google

Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist, is unsurprisingly an advocate of data extraction and analysis on a mass scale – you’d almost have to be, as data-cruncher-in-chief of a company whose search engine was tapped a billion times just since this morning.

At the annual meeting of the National Association for Business Economics in San Francisco, Varian talked at length about how people can use software to make life better, describing one Google application that he said can retrieve information from your private calendar, check the traffic on the route to your next appointment, and notify you that you’d better leave shortly or risk being late. “I have to say, for some people, this completely freaks them out,” he quipped, but later added that for most kinds of information, the benefits of sharing information with your computer outweigh the costs.

Still, some people are uncomfortable with the extent to which their privacy is at risk in an online world, particularly after new revelations about the U.S. National Security Agency’s ability to keep electronic tabs on Internet users. Asked about legislative responses to the leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, Varian had this to say:

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.

Say it with confidence: Consumer surveys as a leading indicator of jobs

It turns out people are better employment forecasters than economists. A report from New York Fed economists finds that confidence measures gleaned from consumer surveys are very tightly correlated with the path of U.S. employment.

The paper offers some illustrative charts that make a rather convincing case.

The chart below plots the Present Situation Index against the unemployment rate, whose scale is inverted so that high levels represent strong labor market conditions (low unemployment) and vice versa. One readily apparent feature is that the two series move together very closely throughout the period and, most notably, during all five of the recessions since 1977. It’s hard to tell from inspecting the chart, but the highest correlation (0.89) occurs at a two-month lead; that is, the Present Situation Index is even more strongly correlated with the unemployment rate two months into the future than it is with the concurrent rate.

The next chart looks at the relationship between changes in this index and payroll job growth – both over twelve-month intervals. This measure of employment is based on a different survey than the survey for the unemployment rate, but payroll employment is typically growing when unemployment is declining and vice versa. Once again, it’s very apparent that the two measures move closely together, and again formal analysis reveals that the Present Situation Index tends to foreshadow movements in employment by a couple of months. In particular, twelve-month changes in the index are most highly correlated with twelve-month job growth four months into the future – the correlation is 0.83.

Fed taxonomy: Lacker is a hawk, not a bull

Not to mix too many animal metaphors but, generally speaking, monetary policy hawks also tend to bulls on the economy. That is, they are leery of keeping interest rates too low for too long because they believe growth prospects are stronger than economists foresee, and therefore could lead to higher inflation.

That is not the case, however, for Richmond Fed President Jeffrey Lacker, a vocal opponent of the central bank’s unconventional bond-buying stimulus program, particular the part of it that focuses on mortgages. He reiterated his concerns last week, saying the Fed should begin tapering in September by cutting out its mortgage bond buying altogether.

But when I asked him whether upward revisions to second quarter gross domestic product reinforced his case, Lacker was surprisingly skeptical of forecasts for a stronger performance in the second half of the year.

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.)