MacroScope

Yellen’s quiet revolution at the Fed

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Janet Yellen, the Federal Reserve’s influential Vice Chair and possible future replacement for Chairman Ben Bernanke, delivered an important speech this week. Entitled “Revolution and Evolution in Central Bank Communications,” Yellen traces the deep shift in sentiment towards the importance of policy transparency.

In 1977, when I started my first job at the Federal Reserve Board as a staff economist in the Division of International Finance, it was an article of faith in central banking that secrecy about monetary policy decisions was the best policy: Central banks, as a rule, did not discuss these decisions, let alone their future policy intentions. While the Federal Reserve is required by the Congress to promote stable prices and maximum employment, Federal Reserve officials at that time avoided discussing how policy would be used to pursue both sides of this mandate. Indeed, mere mention of the employment side of the mandate, even by the mid-1990s, was described in a New York Times article as the equivalent of “sticking needles in the eyes of central bankers.”

In her remarks, Yellen endorsed the concept of policy thresholds first championed by Chicago Fed President Charles Evans. Her backing suggests such numerical guideposts for policy – we’ll keep stimulating until jobs improve and as long as inflation doesn’t creep too far from the Fed’s 2 percent target – are effectively a done deal, though it remains unclear how quickly policymakers can agree on the details.

The Committee might eliminate the calendar date entirely and replace it with guidance on the economic conditions that would need to prevail before liftoff of the federal funds rate might be judged appropriate. Several of my FOMC colleagues have advocated such an approach, and I am also strongly supportive. The idea is to define a zone of combinations of the unemployment rate and inflation within which the FOMC would continue to hold the federal funds rate in its current, near-zero range.

For example, Charles Evans, president of the Chicago Fed, suggests that the FOMC should commit to hold the federal funds rate in its current low range at least until unemployment has declined below 7 percent, provided that inflation over the medium term remains below 3 percent. Narayana Kocherlakota, president of the Minneapolis Fed, suggests thresholds of 5.5 percent for unemployment and 2.25 percent for the medium-term inflation outlook. Under such an approach, liftoff would not be automatic once a threshold is reached; that decision would require further Committee deliberation and judgment.

Fed’s Lockhart explains what he means by “substantial improvement” on jobs

Federal Reserve officials have linked their open-ended stimulus program to substantial improvement in the labor market. So now, it’s up to Fed watchers to hone in on a definition of substantial, no small task in a world of multiple and often conflicting indicators on the job market.

In a speech to the Chattanooga Rotary Club on Thursday, Dennis Lockhart offered some insights into how he’s thinking about the process:

For policy purposes, I think it’s appropriate to be cautious about relying on a single indicator of labor market trends—for example, the unemployment rate—to determine whether the condition of “substantial improvement” has been met. The official national unemployment rate published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics is the most prominent statistic in the mind of the general public. As a policymaker, I want to have confidence that a decline of this headline number is reinforced by other indicators and evidence of broad labor market improvement in its many dimensions. The challenge my FOMC colleagues and I will face is communicating in simple and trackable terms what this phrase “substantial improvement” means while respecting the complex reality of many moving parts. […]

Latin America: the risks of being too attractive

Ironically, an increase of capital inflows to Latin America in the last few years due to unappealing ultralow yields in industrialized countries and the region’s relative economic success is posing a threat for development, according to a recent paper that provides wider background to BRIC criticism of the latest U.S. Federal Reserve´s quantitative easing.

The article, written by Argentine economists Roberto Frenkel and Martin Rapetti for the World Economic Review – an international journal of heterodox economics –  warns about the possibility of a Latin American variant of the so-called “Dutch Disease”. This is a situation where a country suddenly finds a new source of wealth that makes its currency more expensive, hurting local exports and causing traumatic de-industrialization.

“Our concern is that massive capital inflows to Latin America may have pernicious effects via an excessive appreciation of the real exchange rates, which could lead to a contraction in output and employment in tradable activities with negative effects on long-run growth”, says the paper.

Housing neutral for Fed doves; Operation Twist running on empty

A slightly bigger than forecast 5.7 percent rise in sales of new homes in September reported by the National Association of Realtors on Wednesday lends credibility to September’s jump in housing starts, but appears neutral for Federal Reserve monetary policy discussions.

The jump in new home sales seems to have largely justified the 11 percent jump in September housing starts, says Decision Economics senior economist Pierre Ellis. The inventory of houses for sale at the end of September rose just 1.4 percent, from the end of August and the months’ supply fell to 4.5 months from 4.7 months, he added.

Thus, the increased production of houses seems not to have involved any “over-exuberant optimism” – and the impact if demand were suddenly to evaporate would be contained, he said. “Healthy skepticism seems to prevail in builderland,” Ellis observes.

Deciphering the Fed: Guideposts for progress on jobs

The Federal Reserve’s open-ended bond-buying stimulus announced last month was coupled with a promise to continue purchasing assets “if the outlook for the labor market does not improve substantially.” Central bank officials are expected to continue discussing what parameters they will take into account to define such progress, but are not expected to come to any hard and fast decisions just yet.

In a research note entitled “What the Fed didn’t say: Payrolls at 160K,” Torsten Slok, economist at Deutsche Bank, offers a few guideposts:

In terms of what the Fed will be looking at, we reckon that employment growth will be first among equals – in particular nonfarm payrolls. We estimate that the FOMC’s economic and policy projections are consistent with payrolls averaging gains of around 160,000 per month through mid-2015, when they have told us they expect the exit process to begin to get under way. There is a range of uncertainty around this estimate. But if the numbers are coming in well below that rate for a number of months (100k or less), look for the Committee to extend the mid-2015 date and possibly step up its QE purchases, and expect just the opposite if they are coming in well above that rate (200k or more).

Banks keeping most of QE3 benefits for themselves

Federal Reserve officials have been worried that their policy of ultra-low interest rates may be having less of an effect than usual because of a “broken transmission channel.” In plain English, this means the money hasn’t really been flowing smoothly from liquidity-flooded banks to would-be borrowers.

Economists at TD Securities argue banks have passed on less than half of their lower funding rates as reflected in yields on mortgage-backed securities onto consumers.

During the current iteration of monetary policy easing, pass-though peaked at 66% during the third week following the QE3 announcement, when MBS yields rebounded from their post-QE3 lows and 30-year mortgage rates fell to a record-low 3.36%. However, since the QE3 announcement, our calculations suggest that banks have passed through an average of just 40% of their lower funding rates (i.e. lower MBS yields) in the form of lower mortgage rates.

Why QE3 isn’t just for the 1 percent

During a Q&A at the Brookings Institution last week, former Fed Vice Chairman Donald Kohn asked new board member Jeremy Stein, formerly a Harvard professor, about the impression that the Fed’s quantitative easing was only helping wealthy people who benefit most from rising stocks.

“How do you deal with this sense that the effects of policy aren’t being equitably felt in all parts of society,” asked Kohn, who worked at the Fed for four decades before stepping down in 2010, and is now a Brookings Fellow.

Stein, who joined the Fed’s influential Washington-based board in May as a governor, suggested this was not an entirely fair accusation given the wide-ranging effects of the policy. Here’s how he explained it:

Too big to exist? Fed’s regulation czar backs limits on bank size

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Regional Federal Reserve Bank presidents who oppose quantitative easing have made little way in convincing the central bank’s dovish core. Apparently, not so on the cause célèbre of policymakers like Richard Fisher at the Dallas Fed, who have called for too big to fail banks to be broken up.

In a speech this week, Fed board governor and regulation czar Daniel Tarullo stopped short of calling for outright break-ups. But he did take the unprecedented step of backing size limitations on banks that would be linked to overall U.S. economic output.

In his own words:

In these circumstances, however, with the potentially important consequences of such an upper bound and of the need to balance different interests and social goals, it would be most appropriate for Congress to legislate on the subject. If it chooses to do so, there would be merit in its adopting a simpler policy instrument, rather than relying on indirect, incomplete policy measures such as administrative calculation of potentially complex financial stability footprints.

Fed speak galore

The pace of Federal Reserve speeches intensifies next week, with Vice Chair Janet Yellen kicking off the calendar on Tuesday with a speech on financial stability. Yellen will be speaking in Tokyo at an IMF meeting panel. The cacophony picks up on Wednesday, with remarks from Minneapolis Fed president and recent dovish convert Narayana Kocherlakota, the board’s regulation-czar Dan Tarullo and the ever hawkish Richard Fisher from Dallas. On Thursday, Yellen will directly address monetary policy in another speech, while board governors Jeremy Stein and Sarah Raskin offer a rare peak into their macroeconomic views. Philadelphia Fed President Charles Plosser and Jim Bullard of the St.Louis Fed, both of whom have opposed QE3, are also on tap. Jeff Lacker, the lone dissenter on this year’s FOMC, will close the week on Friday.

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.