MacroScope

Uncertain about the effects of uncertainty on jobs

Job number one at the Federal Reserve these days is to bring down high U.S. unemployment without sparking inflation. Job number two, it sometimes seems, is explaining just how unemployment got so high in the first place.

Two recent papers published by the San Francisco Fed offer what look like opposite takes on the topic.

“(S)tates in which businesses cited poor sales also registered disproportionately sharp drops in jobs and household spending,” wrote Princeton University professor Atif Mian and University of Chicago Booth School of Business professor Amir Sufi in a February Economic Letter.

This supports the view that a drop in aggregate demand led to job losses during the recession…While business concerns about government regulation and taxes also rose steadily from 2008 to 2011, there is no evidence that job losses were larger in states where businesses were more worried about these factors.

In other words, it’s not uncertainty over government policy that hurts jobs, it’s lack of demand.

U.S. housing outlook still promising despite rise in rates: Citigroup economist

U.S. housing sector fundamentals remain favorable despite the recent rise in interest rates and the sharp drop in housing starts in June, says Citigroup economist Peter D’Antonio.

Housing starts fell 9.9 percent to a ten-month low of 836,000 units in June.

But the decline was almost all in the volatile multi-family sector, D’Antonio notes. Single-family starts remained in a range just below 600,000, while multi-family fell 26 percent to 245,000.

Multi-family starts have been an important growth sector in housing in the past year, but month-to-month changes in multi-family starts – noted for their volatility – are meaningless. Multi-family housing starts rose 21 percent in March, fell 32 percent in April, rose 28 percent in May, then fell 26 percent in June.

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.

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.

Inflation, not jobs, may hold key to Fed exit

It’s that time of the month again: Wall Street is anxiously awaiting the monthly employment figures – less because of its interest in job creation and more because of what the numbers will mean for the Federal Reserve’s unconventional stimulus policies.

As one money manager put it all too candidly: “Bad news is good news in this market lately because it keeps the Fed buying bonds and interest rates low.”

Given that the Fed is the closest thing the world has to a global central bank, what happens at the Federal Open Market Committee doesn’t often stay in the Federal Open Market Committee. Indeed, emerging markets have become increasingly volatile since Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said policymakers might curtail the pace of asset buys in coming months.

The rationale for a December Fed taper

Vincent Reinhart, a former top Federal Reserve researcher who is now chief U.S. economist at Morgan Stanley, believes the U.S. central bank will begin pulling back on the pace of asset purchases in December. Here’s how he arrives at that timeline:

We believe the Fed is going to need to see four employment reports averaging net gains in nonfarm payrolls of at least 200,000 to justify reducing the pace of its asset purchases. The arithmetic of the calendar would then put the earliest date of tapering/tightening in September, which conveniently for the Fed is a meeting followed by a press conference.

Our economic forecast, however, suggests that there will be more slip-sliding through the soft patch, implying that December is the more likely start.

Is Congress the ‘enabler’ of a loose Fed?

We heard it more than once at today’s hearing of the Joint Economic Committee featuring Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke: the central bank’s low interest rate policies are allowing Congress to delay tough decisions on long-term spending.

As U.S. senator Dan Coats asked pointedly: “Is the Fed being an enabler for an addiction Congress can’t overcome?”

Yet, if you read the subtext of Bernanke’s testimony closely, it may actually be Congress that is enabling a loose Federal Reserve.

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.

Pigeonholing Fed hawks

Richard Fisher, the Dallas Fed’s outspoken president, is happy to be labeled a monetary policy hawk. After all, he sometimes quips, “doves are part of the pigeon family.” That may be so. But thus far, the doves have had the upper hand in the policy debate – and the economic data appear to bear them out.

Fed hawks like Fisher have warned that the U.S. central bank’s prolonged policy of low interest rates and asset purchases risks a future spike in inflation. Yet despite the Fed’s aggressive efforts, inflation is actually drifting lower, not higher, suggesting there is something to the dovish notion that there is still ample slack in the U.S. economy following a lackluster recovery from the historic slump of 2007-2009.

Regional Fed hawks tend to argue that the Fed should not overreach in its efforts to bring down unemployment because the only thing it can really control in the long-run is inflation. Says Jeffrey Lacker, president of the Richmond Fed:

I’ll say it again…

 

European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi felt it necessary yesterday to depart from the script at a ceremony awarding an honorary degree to reiterate his message from last Thursday – that the ECB could cut interest rates again and was looking at pushing the deposit rate which it charges banks for holding their funds overnight into negative territory in an attempt to get them to lend again.

Nothing new in the message obviously but the fact he felt the need to repeat it at a forum at which nobody would expect him to could be telling. Draghi has form here. It was at a pre-Olympics conference in London last July that he delivered his “whatever it takes” to save the euro pledge that fundamentally shifted the terms of the currency bloc’s debt crisis.

That the recession-plagued euro zone economy could do with a shot in the arm is beyond question though Draghi insisted countries must not let up on their debt-cutting. Very different tone from the prime ministers of Italy and Spain who demanded action to cut unemployment though Italy’s Enrico Letta said growth could be boosted without increasing debt.