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.

Time to taper the taper talk?

It’s been three months since the Federal Reserve first hinted that it’s going to have to ease off on its extraordinary monetary stimulus, but financial markets are still not settled on the matter.

But while volatility is on the rise – surely partly a result of thinned trading volumes during the peak summer vacation season – the consensus around when the Fed will start cutting back hasn’t budged.

That makes endless daily reports from traders linking that to the latest falls in asset prices, particularly U.S. Treasuries and non-U.S. share prices, not terribly convincing.

Obama’s second chance to reshape the Fed

Lost in the bizarre Yellen vs. Summers tug-of-war into which the debate over the next Federal Reserve Chairman has devolved, is the notion that President Barack Obama is getting a second shot at revamping the U.S. central bank.

The perk of a two-term president, Obama will get to appoint another three, potentially four officials to the Fed’s influential seven-member board of governors in Washington. This may buy the president some political wiggle room when it comes to his pick for Fed chair, since he might be able to placate Republicans with one or two “concession” appointments. Every Fed governor gets a permanent voting seat on the policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee.

Elizabeth Duke, the last George W. Bush appointee, is already on her way out. So is Sarah Bloom Raskin, who after a relatively short stint at the board is moving to the Treasury, to be Jack Lew’s Deputy Secretary. Then there’s the awkward suspicion that, if Obama passes up Fed Vice Chair Janet Yellen, by far the favorite for the top spot, she will also step down after a long career in the Federal Reserve system, including many years as head of the San Francisco Fed.

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.

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:

In his own words: Fed’s Bullard explains dovish dissent

The following is a statement from the St. Louis Fed following the decision by its president, James Bullard, to dissent from the U.S. central bank’s decision to signal a looming reduction in its bond-buying stimulus program:

Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis President James Bullard dissented with the Federal Open Market Committee decision announced on June 19, 2013.  In his view, the Committee should have more strongly signaled its willingness to defend its inflation target of 2 percent in light of recent low inflation readings.  Inflation in the U.S. has surprised on the downside during 2013.  Measured as the percent change from one year earlier, the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) headline inflation rate is running below 1 percent, and the PCE core inflation rate is close to 1 percent.  President Bullard believes that to maintain credibility, the Committee must defend its inflation target when inflation is below target as well as when it is above target.

President Bullard also felt that the Committee’s decision to authorize the Chairman to lay out a more elaborate plan for reducing the pace of asset purchases was inappropriately timed.  The Committee was, through the Summary of Economic Projections process, marking down its assessment of both real GDP growth and inflation for 2013, and yet simultaneously announcing that less accommodative policy may be in store.  President Bullard felt that a more prudent approach would be to wait for more tangible signs that the economy was strengthening and that inflation was on a path to return toward target before making such an announcement.

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.”

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.