MacroScope

U.S. job market still in need of a jolt

The monthly payrolls report from the U.S. Labor Department will always be the big kahuna of economic releases.  Other, less prominent indicators of the American job market nonetheless can offer additional insight into the employment backdrop.

Take the clumsily-acronymed JOLTS report, which stands for Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey. It shows the ratio between job openings and job seekers, as well as the rate of new hires. The latter, unfortunately, is not particularly comforting.

The number of job openings at the end of April was 3.8 million, down slightly from the prior month’s 3.9 million.

Goldman Sachs economist David Mericle explains the importance of this seemingly minor indicator to Fed deliberations on monetary policy:

The hiring rate is one of the key indicators for the labor market outlook. The hiring rate dropped sharply during the recession and the layoffs rate spiked. In the last couple of years, the layoffs rate has stabilized at a level slightly below the pre-recession average, but hiring has disappointed. An improvement in the hiring rate is essential both for reducing the unemployment rate and for bringing back discouraged workers who have dropped out of the labor force as a result of poor employment prospects.

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.

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.

“This was really eye-opening for me”: Fed’s Raskin shocked at low quality of work at local job fair

The first portion of Federal Reserve Governor Sarah Bloom Raskin’s remarks to the Roosevelt Institute earlier this month were pretty standard central bank fodder. Raskin, on the dovish side of Fed monetary leanings, said U.S. unemployment was still too high, and far more progress was needed in bringing a somnolent job market back to life.

But the second half of her comments offered an unusually personal look at one Fed official’s dismay with the country’s economic situation. Stumbling into a job fair near her house, Raskin was stunned by the generally low quality of positions available. In her own words:

I became interested in this question of quality somewhat by accident. I did something atypical one day. I decided on my way into work I would stop at a jobs fair. There was a jobs fair at a local community college close to my home and I thought, I’m going to, you know, instead of pounding through all this heavy data that we typically look at at the board of governors, let me just go into this job fair. It turned out to be a really interesting morning, I have to say.

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.

No relief in sight for millions of unemployed Americans: Cleveland Fed report

The new normal is getting old. And when it comes to America’s stuttering employment market, it’s not going to get much better any time soon, according to a new report from the Cleveland Fed.

The U.S. economy created 175,000 new jobs in May, while the jobless rate rose slightly. It was a neither-here-nor-there sort of report. In the Labor Department’s own words: Both “the number of unemployed persons, at 11.8 million, and the unemployment rate, at 7.6 percent, were essentially unchanged in May.” 

Unfortunately, this anemic pattern is likely to be long-lasting, write Cleveland Fed economists Mark Schweitzer and Murat Tasci.

Brazil’s capital controls and the law of unintended consequences

Brazilian economic policy is fast becoming a shining example of the law of unintended consequences. As activity fades and inflation picks up, the government has tried several different measures to fix the economy – and almost every time, it ended up creating surprise side-effects that made matters worse. Controls on gasoline prices tamed inflation, but opened a hole in the trade balance. Efforts to reduce electricity fares ended up curbing, not boosting, investment plans.

Perhaps that’s the case with yesterday’s surprise decision to scrap a key tax on foreign inflows into fixed-income investments. The so-called IOF tax was one of Brazil’s main defenses in its currency war, making local bonds less appealing to speculators and helping prevent an excessive appreciation of the real.

As the Federal Reserve started to discuss tapering off its massive bond-buying stimulus, investors began to flock back to the United States. So with less need to impose capital controls, Brazil thought it would be a good idea to open its doors again to hot money. Analysts overall also welcomed the move, announced by Finance Minister Guido Mantega in a quick press conference on Tuesday, in which he said that excessive volatility is “not good” for markets and that Brazil was headed to a period of “lesser” intervention in currency markets.

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.

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.