MacroScope

How big is the Fed’s communications gap? Six months, give or take

You have to give Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke credit for standing his ground on data-dependence. Despite widespread suspicions, including on this blog, that the central bank would begin reducing the pace of its bond-buying stimulus in September simply because the markets were expecting it, the Fed chose to hold off in the face of a still-fragile economy.

Here’s how Bernanke addressed the issue of the market’s surprise at the Fed’s decision at his press conference:

I don’t recall stating that we would do any particular  thing in this meeting. What we are going to do is the right thing for the economy. And our assessment of the data since June is that, taken collectively, that it didn’t quite meet the standard of satisfying our – or of ratifying or confirming our basic outlook for, again, increasing growth, improving labor markets, and inflation moving back towards target. We try our best to communicate to markets – we’ll continue to do that – but we can’t let market expectations dictate our policy actions. Our policy actions have to be determined by our best assessment of what’s needed for the economy.

Still, even some Fed officials themselves have by now admitted the central bank did a poor job in communicating its message to markets in advance of the last meeting.

So, how wide is the Fed’s messaging gap? To get a rough measure, we can look at how much market expectations differed from central bank guidance at various points in time.

As election passes, German election keeps on chugging

Germany’s Ifo sentiment index is the big data release of the day and is forecast to continue its upward trajectory after the country’s PMI survey on Monday showed the private sector growing at its fastest rate since January.

Surveys have been strong through the last quarter, putting a question mark over the downbeat European Central Bank and German government forecasts for the second half of the year. The currency bloc as a whole looks set to pretty much replicate its 0.3 percent growth in the second quarter, nothing spectacular but a sign that recession is probably a thing of the past. The German economy rebounded strongly in the second quarter, growing by 0.7 percent. It might not quite match that in Q3 but it may not be far off.

After the Federal Reserve took its finger off the trigger, emerging markets have enjoyed some welcome respite. Hungary’s central bank meets today having cut interest rates by just 20 basis points in August, ending a run of successive quarter-point cuts stretching back into last year.

Back from the brink

Pulling back from the brink. The Federal Reserve certainly has and so has Silvio Berlusconi (so far).

Not much to say about the Fed directly, except that it’s surely still only a matter of time, but it certainly takes the pressure off the central banks meeting in our region today. German Bund futures have leapt about 1-1/2 points and Italian bond futures are up more than a full point. We can expect emerging market assets to climb sharply too – the Turkish lira is up three percent, for example, giving its embattled central bank some breathing space.

Further out though, what this has done is create more uncertainty rather than giving investors a firm direction of travel. Presumably, Bernanke and co. are somewhat alarmed about the durability of U.S. economic recovery, which should give everyone pause for thought.

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:

Note to markets: it’s been September all along for the Fed taper

Now that the outcome of one of the most anticipated Federal Reserve monetary policy meetings in history is just hours away, most investors and traders have settled on the view that the central bank will announce a plan to trim the pace of its $85 billion in monthly purchases of government and mortgage-backed securities on Wednesday. We just don’t know which, if any, of the two asset classes it will focus on, and by how much it will taper what it buys each month.

What most probably don’t know is that for all the incessant talk in financial markets over the past few months about uncertainty, the timing hasn’t really been in question. The consensus of forecasters polled by Reuters has been pretty clear since Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke hinted in May that quantitative easing might have to slow later in the year.

Fed doves becoming an endangered species

 

It’s official: Instead of policy doves on the U.S. central bank’s Federal Open Market Committee, there are now only “non-hawks.” A research note from Thomas Lam at OSK-DMG used the term in referring to recent remarks from once more dovish officials like Charles Evans of the Chicago Fed and San Francisco Fed President John Williams.

The implied message from the latest Fed comments (or reticence), namely from the non-hawks, is that policymakers are clearly assessing a broader spectrum of considerations – beyond data-dependence – when mulling over the prospect of tapering in September.

Lam neglected to mention the silence from arguably the most dovish Fed member of all, Boston’s Eric Rosengren. He and Evans were at the forefront of calling for continuous and aggressive stimulus in the form of asset purchases. But recently, the Fed as a committee has shifted away from its emphasis on balance sheet expansion toward forward guidance –  thus far with mixed success.

Euro chat resumes

After the summer lull, euro zone and EU finance ministers meet in Lithuania. The “informal Ecofin” can often be quite a big deal but with German elections only nine days away, it’s hard to see that being the case this time.

During the election campaign German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble let slip that Greece would need more outside help which would not include a haircut on Greek bonds held by euro zone governments and the ECB.

Since then, European Central Bank policymaker Luc Coene has said Athens might need two bouts of further assistance and Estonia’s prime minister told us yesterday the popular bailout fatigue he flagged as a danger last year had now faded and he was open to aiding Greece with a third bailout and helping other troubled euro zone nations too.

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.

For markets, non-farms eclipse G20

The G20 will wrap up with entrenched positions on Syria and a little more entente over the emerging market turmoil prompted by the Federal Reserve’s impending move to slow the pace of its dollar creation programme.

The BRICS are plugging away with their plan for a $100 billion currency reserve pool to help calm forex volatility but officials admitted this is still a work in progress and won’t be deployable soon.

So, as China and Russia told India – and Washington said more broadly – it’s still incumbent upon countries to put their own houses in order.
The unsurprising rule of thumb is that countries with profound domestic problems have been the ones hit hardest since Ben Bernanke first put up his tapering plan in May. So, while the Fed may have caused the ripples, the fact the rupee is drowning is more due to India’s gaping current account deficit and general economic malaise.

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.