MacroScope

Bond market prices Fed out – but just wait ‘til the debt ceiling

U.S. government bonds sold off last week following December Fed meeting minutes indicating growing doubts inside the central bank about the effectiveness of quantitative easing. Yields on benchmark 10-year notes hit an eight month high of 1.975 percent on Friday, in part as investors priced out some of the Fed asset purchases traders had been counting towards the end of 2013.

Other forces were also at work. Markets were relieved that the ‘fiscal cliff’-related expiration of Bush-era tax cuts had been circumvented, and encouraged by some moderately better U.S.economic data. The S&P 500 closed the first week of the year at its highest in five years.

Still, as has erroneously been the case in recent years, talk of a bond bubble resurfaced.

Richmond Fed President Jeffrey Lacker was asked about it at a bankers’ conference in Baltimore. He answered:

It’s virtually impossible to say something is a bubble in real time. I do think markets at times overshoot, and that could be possible in the long-term debt market.

Revenge of the Fed hawks – sort of

Gabriel Debenedetti contributed to this post

Federal Reserve officials appear to be getting cold feet. Having just announced an open-ended bond buying program in September and then broadening it in December, minutes from last month’s policy meeting suggested an increasing caution about additional monetary stimulus among the Federal Open Market Committee’s core of voting members.

Several (members) thought that it would probably be appropriate to slow or to stop purchases well before the end of 2013, citing concerns about financial stability or the size of the balance sheet.

That’s considerably quicker than investors had in mind. Stock and bond markets recoiled at the prospect.

What Bernanke didn’t tell us

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke spoke to reporters for well over an hour at his quarterly press conference this week, but he was vague on the most important question of monetary policy today: what exactly would it take for the central bank to either ramp up or curtail the pace of monthly asset purchases? Since bond buys have effectively replaced interest rates as the dominant tool of Fed policy in recent years, the central bank’s new thresholds, which reference only rates, are not particularly useful.

After all, in the original threshold plan as crafted by its inventor, Chicago Fed President Charles Evans, the Fed would offer a jobless rate trigger for quantitative easing itself.

Asked about this during his briefing, Bernanke said:

We are prepared to vary that as new information comes in. If the economy’s outlook gets noticeably stronger we would presumably begin to ramp-down the level of purchases. But, again, the problem with giving a specific number is that there are multiple criteria on which we make this decision. We will be looking at the outlook for the labor market, which is very important. We will also be looking at other factors that could be affecting the outlook for the economy, for example – I hope it won’t happen – if the fiscal cliff occurs, as I have said many times, I don’t think the Federal Reserve has the tools to offset that event, and in that case, we obviously have to temper our expectations about what we can accomplish.

Fed’s numerical thresholds are a bad idea: Goldman’s Hatzius

Updates with Fed decision

The Federal Reserve on Wednesday took the unprecedented step of tying its low rate policy directly to unemployment, saying it will keep rates near rock bottom until the jobless rate falls to 6.5 percent. That’s as long as inflation, the other key parameter of policy, does not exceed 2.5 percent.

Jan Hatzius, chief economist at Goldman Sachs, however, said in a research note published ahead of the decision that the shift may not be very effective.

Would such a move be a good idea? We’re not so sure. Calendar guidance may be theoretically flawed, but it is working reasonably well in practice. Fed officials have managed to keep expectations for the funds rate in the next few years pinned near zero, and the market now understands that this is more of a commitment to the promotion of future economic recovery than an expectation of future economic weakness.

Jobs, triggers and the Fed

As Federal Reserve officials debate whether to use thresholds for inflation and joblessness to guide monetary policy, Friday’s jobs report may be a cautionary tale.  The idea of thresholds is to pick markers for potential policy change – an unemployment rate of 6.5 percent, for instance, as a guidepost for when the central bank might begin to raise rates – so that the market has a better idea of where Fed policy is headed. As the unemployment rate nears that level, the theory goes, investors will gradually start to price in tightening; if the unemployment rate rises again, they’ll price it out.

But some Fed officials, notably the hawkish heads of the Richmond, Philadelphia and Dallas regional Fed banks, oppose the idea. One reason: the unemployment rate alone cannot capture the state of the labor market. Friday’s report show why.

Unemployment in November fell to 7.7 percent, the lowest in nearly four years. But the decline was not a sign of labor market strength – far from it. People were giving up looking for jobs, signaling hopelessness, not hope.

Bernanke’s structuralist concession: Fed chief quietly downgrades U.S. economic potential

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For the first time, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has given credence to the idea that America’s long-term economic potential may have been permanently scarred by the turmoil of recent years. In a speech to the Economic Club of New York, Bernanke said:

 The accumulating evidence does appear consistent with the financial crisis and the associated recession having reduced the potential growth rate of our economy somewhat during the past few years. In particular, slower growth of potential output would help explain why the unemployment rate has declined in the face of the relatively modest output gains we have seen during the recovery.

True, Bernanke came nowhere near saying monetary policy was impotent to improve the situation. Indeed, he argued that the weaker potential growth “seems at best a partial explanation of the disappointing pace of the economic recovery.”

The trouble with the Fed’s calendar guidance on rates

Sometimes, communication can be the art of what not to say. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke took pains this week to make clear that the central bank’s indication that it will likely keep rates low until mid-2015 does not mean it expects growth to remain weak for that long.

By pushing the expected period of low rates further into the future, we are not saying that we expect the economy to remain weak until mid-2015; rather, we expect – as we indicated in our September statement – that a highly accommodative stance of monetary policy will remain appropriate for a considerable time after the economic recovery strengthens.

The comments speak to a key problem with the notion of calendar-based forward guidance, first adopted by the Fed in August of 2011: each time officials push the date further into the future, they risk dampening financial market sentiment, thereby having the opposite effect to the stimulus it intended.

How big will the Fed’s QE3 end up being?

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Polling data courtesy of Chris Reese

We’ll know it when we see it. That’s essentially been the Federal Reserve’s message since it launched an open-ended bond-buying stimulus plan that it says will remain in place for as long “the outlook for the labor market does not improve substantially.” Which begs the question: how much larger is the central bank’s $2.9 trillion balance sheet likely to get?

Minutes from the Federal Reserve’s October meeting point to solid support within the central bank for ongoing monetary easing via asset purchases well into 2013.

A number of participants indicated that additional asset purchases would likely be appropriate next year after the conclusion of the maturity extension program in order to achieve a substantial improvement in the labor market.

Yellen’s quiet revolution at the Fed

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Janet Yellen, the Federal Reserve’s influential Vice Chair and possible future replacement for Chairman Ben Bernanke, delivered an important speech this week. Entitled “Revolution and Evolution in Central Bank Communications,” Yellen traces the deep shift in sentiment towards the importance of policy transparency.

In 1977, when I started my first job at the Federal Reserve Board as a staff economist in the Division of International Finance, it was an article of faith in central banking that secrecy about monetary policy decisions was the best policy: Central banks, as a rule, did not discuss these decisions, let alone their future policy intentions. While the Federal Reserve is required by the Congress to promote stable prices and maximum employment, Federal Reserve officials at that time avoided discussing how policy would be used to pursue both sides of this mandate. Indeed, mere mention of the employment side of the mandate, even by the mid-1990s, was described in a New York Times article as the equivalent of “sticking needles in the eyes of central bankers.”

In her remarks, Yellen endorsed the concept of policy thresholds first championed by Chicago Fed President Charles Evans. Her backing suggests such numerical guideposts for policy – we’ll keep stimulating until jobs improve and as long as inflation doesn’t creep too far from the Fed’s 2 percent target – are effectively a done deal, though it remains unclear how quickly policymakers can agree on the details.

Fed’s Lockhart explains what he means by “substantial improvement” on jobs

Federal Reserve officials have linked their open-ended stimulus program to substantial improvement in the labor market. So now, it’s up to Fed watchers to hone in on a definition of substantial, no small task in a world of multiple and often conflicting indicators on the job market.

In a speech to the Chattanooga Rotary Club on Thursday, Dennis Lockhart offered some insights into how he’s thinking about the process:

For policy purposes, I think it’s appropriate to be cautious about relying on a single indicator of labor market trends—for example, the unemployment rate—to determine whether the condition of “substantial improvement” has been met. The official national unemployment rate published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics is the most prominent statistic in the mind of the general public. As a policymaker, I want to have confidence that a decline of this headline number is reinforced by other indicators and evidence of broad labor market improvement in its many dimensions. The challenge my FOMC colleagues and I will face is communicating in simple and trackable terms what this phrase “substantial improvement” means while respecting the complex reality of many moving parts. […]