MacroScope

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.

Model simulations conducted at the Federal Reserve generally find that the securities purchase programs have provided significant help for the economy. For example, a study using the Board’s FRB/US model of the economy found that, as of 2012, the first two rounds of LSAPs may have raised the level of output by almost 3 percent and increased private payroll employment by more than 2 million jobs, relative to what otherwise would have occurred.

Contrast that with the far meeker findings of a recent San Francisco Fed analysis of the impact of the second round of asset buys:

On fiscal ledge, corporate gain may be household’s pain

It doesn’t sound sustainable but, at least in coming months, businesses look set to keep booming even as consumers come under pressure – in line with the recent trend. That’s because the economic hit from the partial deal on the fiscal cliff will hurt salaried workers disproportionately, says Steven Ricchiuto, chief economist at Mizuho.

He writes:

Although the worst of the fiscal cliff has been avoided, the compromise is not macroeconomic neutral. Our calculations, in fact, suggest that the drag created by the reversal of the payroll tax cut and the various tax hikes on upper income households will cut real GDP by upwards of 0.5% to 1% from our preliminary 1.5% to 2% forecast.

Real GDP in the range of 0.5% to 1.5% this year implies that corporate profit growth will come at the expense of the wage earner. Moreover, the earnings focus assures a larger share of national income will accrue to the corporate sector. This implies another year of limited employment gains.

Bond market prices Fed out – but just wait ‘til the debt ceiling

U.S. government bonds sold off last week following December Fed meeting minutes indicating growing doubts inside the central bank about the effectiveness of quantitative easing. Yields on benchmark 10-year notes hit an eight month high of 1.975 percent on Friday, in part as investors priced out some of the Fed asset purchases traders had been counting towards the end of 2013.

Other forces were also at work. Markets were relieved that the ‘fiscal cliff’-related expiration of Bush-era tax cuts had been circumvented, and encouraged by some moderately better U.S.economic data. The S&P 500 closed the first week of the year at its highest in five years.

Still, as has erroneously been the case in recent years, talk of a bond bubble resurfaced.

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.

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.

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. […]

Could renewed U.S. economic strength turn the fiscal cliff into a fiscal ramp?

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The term ‘fiscal cliff’ has now safely transitioned from economic jargon to popular cliché. But how worried should Americans be about the growth-stunting mélange of expiring tax cuts and spending reductions set to begin kicking in at the start of next year?

Economists widely believe that if Congress fails to come to some sort of agreement on the budget, the U.S. economy would plunge into a deep recession. RBS economist Michelle Girard, however, thinks a recent pick up in U.S. economic activity could offset some of the cliff-related weakness.

While uncertainty over the fiscal cliff dominates most conversations, the relative strength of the underlying U.S. economy should not be forgotten. The expansion is today on firmer footing today than at any point in the past three to four years. No major economic imbalance exists. Moreover, headwinds that have hindered the pace of recovery are fading.

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.

Dancing on the edge of a (fiscal) cliff

With hundreds of billions worth of stimulus measures set to expire on Jan. 1, investors are all too aware that the United States is hurtling toward what economists are calling “a fiscal cliff.” It’s just that most seem to think Congress will execute one of its typical last-minute, hairpin turns to avoid plunging the economy over the edge.

As Russ Koesterich, global chief investment strategist at iShares told Reuters recently, “people are worried but they feel some sort of fix will get done.” Certainly the equity and bond markets back him up: the S&P 500 is up a healthy 12.7 percent this year while benchmark 10-year Treasury yields remain pinned beneath 2 percent.

Ethan Harris at Bank of America-Merrill Lynch isn’t so sure. After all, we’re talking about the same group of politicians who nearly forced the United States to default last year and earned it a credit downgrade from S&P in the process. This time, Republicans and Democrats will have just seven weeks to stitch up a deal, and they’ll have to do it while the wounds inflicted by a brutally negative a presidential election campaign are still fresh.