MacroScope

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.

There are a number of possible explanations, and the reality likely combines some element of each. One, sadly, is politics. As much as the central bank likes to tout its independence, policymakers were clearly caught off guard by the blowback, both in Congress and among the public, to unconventional monetary policy. The perception that the Fed was acting recklessly, even if erroneous, was relatively widespread, even among some respected voices in the economics community.

A second, likely more salient issue for Fed officials is the prospect that their asset purchases could adversely affect financial markets in some way. This could happen if the prolonged period of low rates stokes asset bubbles. This concern has prompted Kansas City Fed President Esther George to dissent against the Fed’s decisions so far this year to maintain stimulus levels steady. Jeremy Stein, an influential board governor who may have some intellectual sway with Bernanke and others, highlighted risk  to financial stability from ongoing asset buys in a speech earlier this year.

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.

Two Fed financial stress measures show conditions still easy

Composure restored. Despite gut-clenching stock market swoops and a violent 100 basis point upward spike in 10-year bond yields since the Fed’s June 19 meeting and press conference with Chairman Ben Bernanke, financial conditions are still very easy.

That ought reassure officials at the U.S. Federal Reserve that some normalcy has been restored in financial markets after the abrupt reaction to their decision to signal they would scale back bond purchases later this year.

A persistent upward scramble in yields and mortgage rates could chill spending and investment, potentially undermining economic recovery.

Fear the Septaper

Credit to Barclays economists for coining the term ‘Septaper’

A solid U.S. employment report for June appears to have cemented market expectations that the Fed will begin to reduce the pace of its bond-buying stimulus in September.  Average employment growth for the last six months is now officially above 200,000 per month.

Never mind that, even at this rate, it would take another 11 months for the job market to reach its pre-recession levels – and that’s not counting the population growth since then.

John Brady, managing director at R.J. O’Brian & Associates in Chicago, nails the market’s sentiment:

Full blown damage control?

Call it the great wagon circling.

Central bankers are talking tough in the face of the wild gyrations in financial markets. But it’s becoming increasingly clear they are sweating – and drawing up contingency plans to assuage the panic that’s taken hold since Chairman Ben Bernanke last week sketched out the Fed’s plan for winding down its QE3 bond-buying program. U.S. policymakers in particular must have predicted investors would react strongly. But now that longer-term borrowing costs have spiked to near a two-year high, they look to be entering full-blown damage control.

Here’s Richard Fisher, head of the Dallas Fed, speaking to reporters in London on Monday:

I’m not surprised by market volatility – markets are manic depressive mechanisms… Collectively we will be tested. We need to expect a market reaction… Even if we reach a situation this year where we dial back (stimulus), we will still be running an accommodative policy.