MacroScope

Time for Fed to rethink its forward guidance?

Federal Reserve officials have largely acknowledged by now that leading markets to believe the central bank would reduce its bond buying stimulus in September and then failing to do so was a communications blunder.

For Zach Pandl, a former Goldman economist now at Columbia Management, this means the Fed may have to reshape its guidance to financial markets – even if the exact contours of the changes remain unclear.

Last month’s surprise may have increased the odds that the committee will rework its forward guidance in some way (though this will depend importantly on the identity of the next Fed Chair).

Chairman Bernanke appeared to back away from the threshold-based guidance given at the December 2012 and June 2013 meetings, but he was noncommittal about what changes the committee could make in the future. Plus, if Fed officials were to revise their views on the costs and/or efficacy of QE, they may attempt to lean harder on the forward guidance tool.

Charles Plosser, president of the Philadelphia Fed said on Tuesday the central bank undermined markets’ trust in its promises by not living up to expectations of a reduction in the pace of bond purchases in September.

Fed doves strike back


Now that Washington’s circus-like government shutdown has put a damper on hopes for stronger U.S. economic growth going into next year, dovish Federal Reserve officials again appear to have the upper hand in the way of policy commentary.

Take Eric Rosengren, the Boston Fed President who had been unusually quiet as the tapering debate gathered steam. In a speech in Vermont on Thursday, he returned to a familiar theme – the central bank still has plenty of firepower and should not be afraid to use it.

Unfortunately, most of the risks to the outlook remain on the downside. Concerns over untimely fiscal austerity here and abroad, and the possibility of problems once again emerging in parts of Europe, could cause the Federal Reserve to miss on both elements of its dual mandate – employment and inflation – through 2016.

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.

ECB can claim one early victory for forward guidance

The European Central Bank can claim at least one early victory for forward guidance: forecasters have been persuaded by its promise to keep key interest rates low or lower for a long time.

While ECB officials have struggled to talk down rising money market rates that point to an undesirable early tightening of monetary policy, they have had more luck influencing market economists in Reuters polls.

That’s significant because both euro zone central banks and the Bank of England use Reuters polls as a measure of interest rate expectations.

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.

ECB’s Draghi walks the line

After today’s news conference we would happily endorse a new skill on Mario Draghi’s LinkedIn profile: Tightrope walking.

Draghi – having just returned from a summer holiday and looking a lot more relaxed than a month ago – tried to convince markets that the euro zone economy was recovering as expected, yet not sounding too upbeat to warrant higher market rates.

And so he did. Recent confidence indicators confirmed the expected gradual improvement in the economy, he told a smaller than usual crowd of journalists – whether the low attendence was down to the blue sky and 30 degrees outside or the brighter economic climate remains unclear.

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.

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.)