MacroScope

Bernanke’s seven-percent solution

 

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has a problem: how to wean markets from dependence on central bank stimulus. On Wednesday Bernanke did what some of his most dovish colleagues have urged for months. He laid out a clear path for how and when the Fed will bring its third round of bond-buying to a close.

It doesn’t take a master detective to figure out his solution – 7 percent.

“If the incoming data are broadly consistent with this forecast, the committee currently anticipates that it will be appropriate to moderate the monthly pace of purchases later this year, and if the subsequent data remain broadly aligned with our current expectations for the economy, we will continue to reduce the pace of purchases in measured steps through the first half of next year, ending purchases around mid-year,” Bernanke said in a press conference following the Fed’s two-day policy-setting meeting.

“In this scenario, when asset purchases ultimately come to an end, the unemployment rate would likely be in the vicinity of 7 percent, with solid economic growth supporting further job gains.”

Bernanke’s seven-percent solution has not elicited from markets the same “long sigh of satisfaction” that Sherlock Holmes emitted after shooting up in “The Sign of Four.”

Far from it: stocks tanked and borrowing costs – as measured by yields on U.S. Treasuries – soared.

Why low inflation may not prevent the Fed from reducing QE

Everybody knows U.S. unemployment, currently at 7.6%, is still too high – especially the millions of Americans struggling to find work. Less widely acknowledged is a recent dip in inflation that puts it well below the Federal Reserve’s 2 percent target. Indeed, at 0.7 percent in April, the Fed’s preferred inflation measure was less than half of the central bank’s explicitly stated goal. So why are Fed officials, gathered in Washington for their latest policy decision today, discussing a pullback in stimulus rather than an increase in it?

According to some economists, it’s because policymakers believe the recent decline in inflation will be transitory and that the rate will gradually move back up toward target as growth picks up during the rest of this year and in 2014. Yesterday’s report on consumer prices corroborated that prospect for some analysts.

Paul Ashworth, chief US economist at Capital Economics, wrote:

The low level of headline inflation largely reflects the drop back in commodity prices over the past 12 months, with even the low core rate partly explained by the indirect impact of those lower commodity prices. Under those circumstances, we wouldn’t expect the Fed to put too much weight on inflation being below its target. Once commodity prices level out, the downward pressure on consumer goods prices will begin to ease. In other words, this won’t prevent the Fed from beginning to reduce its monthly asset purchases, probably beginning in September.

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.

What’s a Fed to do? Taper talk persists despite missed jobs, inflation targets

As the Federal Reserve meets this week, unemployment is still too high and inflation remains, well, too low. That makes some investors wonder why policymakers are talking about curtailing their asset-buying stimulus plan. True, job growth has averaged a solid 172,000 net new positions per month over the last year, going at least some way to meeting the Fed’s criteria of substantial improvement for halting bond purchases.

So, either policymakers see brighter skies ahead or they want to get out of QE3 for other reasons they may rather not air too publicly: worries about efficacy or possible financial market bubbles.

“I don’t think the data dependent emphasis is the only ball the Fed is focusing on when mulling over the pace and extent of asset purchases,” says Thomas Lam, chief economist at OSK-DSG.

What’s in a (trend payrolls) number? The Chicago Fed paper that shook the markets, ever so slightly

      

Ann Saphir contributed to this post

The apparent conclusion from one of the most dovish regional Federal Reserve banks was rather surprising: The economy may actually need much smaller monthly job growth, of around 80,000 or less, in coming years in order for the jobless rate to keep moving lower. The immediate policy implication, it might seem, is that the U.S. central bank may have to tighten monetary policy much sooner than previously thought.

Andrew Brenner of National Alliance remarked that, while the report should be taken with a grain of salt, “this translates to lowering the bar to QE tapering.”

Right? Not necessarily, writes Goldman Sachs economist Jan Hatzius. Here’s why:

Forget the ‘wealth effect’: real wages drive U.S. consumer spending

 

Federal Reserve officials have touted the ‘wealth effect’ from higher stock prices and rising home values as a key way in which monetary policy boosts consumer spending and economic activity. But according to the results of a recent survey from the Royal Bank of Canada, that ethereal feeling of being richer on paper is no substitute for cold, hard cash.

Here’s how Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke explained the benefits of rising asset prices to the real economy during a press conference in September.

The tools we have involve affecting financial asset prices and those are the tools of monetary policy. There are a number of different channels – mortgage rates, I mentioned corporate bond rates, but also prices of various assets, like for example the prices of homes. To the extent that home prices begin to rise, consumers will feel wealthier, they’ll feel more disposed to spend. If house prices are rising people may be more willing to buy homes because they think that they will make a better return on that purchase. So house prices is one vehicle.

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.

MacroScope presents: ask the economist

MacroScope is pleased to announce the launch of ‘Ask the Economist,’ which will give our readers an opportunity to directly ask questions of top experts in the field. We are honored that Michael Bryan, senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, has agreed to be our first guest. In his role, Bryan is responsible for organizing the Atlanta Fed’s monetary policy process. He was previously a vice president of research at the Cleveland Fed.

The process is simple. We give you a heads up on our upcoming featured economist. You tweet us your question using the hashtag #asktheeconomist, or via direct message if you prefer. We select a handful of the most interesting queries this week, ship them over to our economist du jour. She or he will then answer each one in writing and we will post their response as a blogpost. And of course, you’ll be cited for asking the pithy question.

We look forward to your questions and thank you in advance for participating.

Let the games begin.

CME Group, home to bets on Fed policy, scrambles to keep watch

These days, it seems, everyone is trying to keep up with shifting market expectations for the Federal Reserve’s monetary policies. CME Group’s Fed Watch, which delivers a snapshot of those expectations based on futures tied to the Fed’s target for short-term rates, is no exception.

Rate futures traded at CME have dived since Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said last week that the U.S. central bank may decide to cut back on its purchases of Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities in the next few Fed policy meetings if data shows the economy is gaining traction. CME’s website dutifully translated the drop in rate futures into rising market expectations that the Fed’s first rate hike since 2008 could come in early 2015.

But the site was silent on the likelihood of the Fed raising rates any earlier – it simply didn’t include that data, because as recently as a week ago, the probabilities of a rate hike in 2014 were close to zero. Bernanke’s comments, and some strong data, changed all that. By Wednesday, CME had caught up, adding data on meetings in the second half of 2014. Just in the nick of time: by the day’s end, traders were pricing in a rate hike at the Fed’s December 2014 meeting.

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.