MacroScope

Fed taxonomy: Lacker is a hawk, not a bull

Not to mix too many animal metaphors but, generally speaking, monetary policy hawks also tend to bulls on the economy. That is, they are leery of keeping interest rates too low for too long because they believe growth prospects are stronger than economists foresee, and therefore could lead to higher inflation.

That is not the case, however, for Richmond Fed President Jeffrey Lacker, a vocal opponent of the central bank’s unconventional bond-buying stimulus program, particular the part of it that focuses on mortgages. He reiterated his concerns last week, saying the Fed should begin tapering in September by cutting out its mortgage bond buying altogether.

But when I asked him whether upward revisions to second quarter gross domestic product reinforced his case, Lacker was surprisingly skeptical of forecasts for a stronger performance in the second half of the year.

You look through the last couple of quarters and the last couple of years back to 2009 – we’re getting 2 percent growth on average. The kind of noteworthy thing is the softness in disposable income. The savings rate’s going down. People who have been projecting an acceleration of growth had been thinking that the decline in the savings rate was going to do it. But this is steady consumption growth, and a decline in disposable income growth. So I just don’t see where an acceleration of growth is going to come from. I think growth is likely to average about 2 percent going forward.

That puts him well below the median ‘central tendency’ forecasts published quarterly by policymakers, which as of June projected growth between 3 percent and 3.5-percent for next year.

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.

Post-Jackson Hole, Fed Septaper still appears on track

With all the QE-bashing that went on at the Federal Reserve’s Jackson Hole conference this year, it was difficult not to get the sense that, barring a major economic disappointment before its September meeting, the central bank is on track to begin reducing the monthly size of its bond purchase program, or quantitative easing.

If anything, the fact that this expectation has become more or less embedded in financial markets means that the Fed might as well go ahead and test the waters with a small downward adjustment of say, $10 billion, from the current $85 billion monthly pace, while waiting to see how employment conditions develop in the remainder of the year.

Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart, who is not a voter this year but tends to be a bellwether centrist on the Federal Open Market Committee, told Reuters on the sidelines of the meeting that he would be ‘comfortable’ with a September tapering “providing we don’t get any really worrisome signals out of the economy between now and the 18th of September.” (Does this count? Probably not.)

The other big question at Jackson Hole

It will be a tough one to avoid. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s absence from Jackson Hole is just one in a series of strong hints he will step down at the end of his second term in January. So, it is only natural that a lot of the talk on the sidelines of this year’s conference will inevitably revolve around the issue of his replacement.  

But there is another, potentially more important question that needs to be answered in the shadow of Wyoming’s majestic Grand Teton peaks: Why have top U.S. Fed officials, even dovish ones, become increasingly queasy about asset purchases despite falling inflation?

Thus far, policymakers have discussed the prospect of a reduction in the pace of their bond-buying stimulus in terms of an improvement in the economy and the prospect of an even brighter outlook toward year-end and in 2014. Yet the U.S. economy, while outpacing its even more anemic rich-nation counterparts, is hardly besieged by runaway growth of the sort that would normally lead central banks to tighten monetary policy. And by even talking about reducing bond buys, the Fed has helped push interest rates up more than a full percentage point, to a two year high, in just a few months.

Recalculating: Central bank roadmaps leave markets lost

Central banks in Europe have followed in the Federal Reserve’s footsteps by adopting “forward guidance” in a break with traditionBut, as in the Fed’s case, the increased transparency seems to have only made investors more confused.

The latest instance came as something of an embarrassment for Mark Carney, the Bank of England’s new superstar chief from Canada and a former Goldman Sachs banker. The BoE shifted away from past practice saying it planned to keep interest rates at a record low until unemployment falls to 7 percent or below, which it said could take three years.

Yet the forward guidance announcement went down with a whimper. Indeed, investors brought forward expectations for when rates would rise – the opposite of what the central bank was hoping for – although the move faded later in the day.

St. Louis blues: Fed’s Bullard gets a sentence

Ellen Freilich contributed to this post

Talk about getting a word in edgewise. St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank President James Bullard got almost a full sentence in the central bank’s prized policy statement.

Some background: Bullard dissented at the Fed’s June meeting, arguing that, “to maintain credibility, the Committee must defend its inflation target when inflation is below target as well as when it is above target.” The latest inflation figures show the Fed’s preferred measure at 0.8 percent, less than half the central bank’s target.

Fast-forward to yesterday’s policy statement, which included the following new language:

U.S. GDP revisions, inflation slippage tighten Fed’s policy bind

Richard Leong contributed to this post

John Kenneth Galbraith apparently joked that economic forecasting was invented to make astrology look respectable. You were warned here first that it would be especially so in the case of the first snapshot (advanced reading) of U.S. second quarter gross domestic product from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Benchmark revisions to U.S. gross domestic product made for a bit of a mayhem for forecasters, who were way off the mark in predicting just 1 percent annualized growth when in fact the rate came it at 1.7 percent. Morgan Stanley had predicted a gain of just 0.2 percent.

Hours after the GDP release, Federal Reserve officials sent a more dovish signal than markets had expected, offering no hint that a reduction in the size of its bond-buying stimulus might be imminent. In particular, they flagged the risk to the recovery from higher mortgage rates as well as the potential for low inflation to pose deflationary risks.

Fed on guard over low U.S. savings rate

As Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke delivered what may have been his last testimony on monetary policy before Congress, most of the world’s attention was focused on what hints he might give about the timing of an eventual reduction in the pace of asset purchases.

Tucked in the actual semi-annual monetary policy report Bernanke delivered to lawmakers on Capitol Hill was a little-noticed reference to growing worries about the potential for an extended period of low savings, associated in part with long-stagnant wages, to thwart long-run economic progress.

Total U.S. net national saving – that is, the saving of U.S. households, businesses, and governments, net of depreciation charges – remains extremely low by historical standards.

Curse of the front-runner a bad omen for Fed contender Yellen?

The buzz on who will replace Ben Bernanke as Federal Reserve chairman has grown this year and amplified recently with talk of Lawrence Summers as a real possibility. There is also lingering speculation over Timothy Geithner, another previous U.S. Treasury Secretary, and former Fed Vice Chair Roger Ferguson among others as possible successors. Bernanke has provided no hint he wants to stay for a third term.

But above the din the central bank’s current vice chair, Janet Yellen, has remained the front-runner. Her deep experience and implicit policy continuity has crowned her the heir apparent until proven otherwise. A Reuters poll of economists showed Yellen was seen as far and away the most likely candidate.

Yet this is a familiar plot that has played out in other Western countries over the past year – with a shock climactic twist. New Zealand, Britain and Canada have all pulled the rug out from under the presumed front-runner and named a surprise new head of their respective central banks. And perhaps most worryingly for Yellen, in each case the overlooked candidate was the bank’s No. 2 official.

Loose lips sink ships? Fed’s latest transparency sows confusion, says Mizuho’s Ricchiuto

The complexity of non-traditional monetary policy is hard enough to explain to other economists and policymakers. Market participants prefer sound bites, opines Steven Ricchiuto, chief economist at Mizuho Securities USA in a note. As such, the more the Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke tries to explain the Federal Open Market Committee’s position on tapering and policy accommodation the more he confuses the message, Ricchiuto says.

The problem is fundamental to the nature of monetary policy. According to the Chairman, monetary policy accommodation is adjusted through the Fed Funds rate. Quantitative Easing (QE) is a separate policy. Yet he has also said that tapering is simply reducing accommodation, not tightening. These pronouncements work at cross purposes and ignore how the markets read policy. For the markets, QE is an extension of policy into non-traditional tools. Therefore, tapering is tightening. There is no such thing as reducing accommodation for market participants.

For the FOMC, it is the stock of bonds that have been purchased that defines policy, Ricchiuto says. Essentially, if the Fed stops buying Treasury and mortgage-backed securities but the Fed’s System Open Market Account (SOMA) doesn’t sell any, then policy is unchanged. This implies that long-term rates should remain unchanged.