MacroScope

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.

In advance of this week’s two-day meeting culminating on Wednesday with Chairman Ben Bernanke’s press conference, it is worth re-reading the actual language of the Federal Reserve act (Section 2A.) that pertains to monetary policy objectives:

The Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System and the Federal Open Market Committee shall maintain long run growth of the monetary and credit aggregates commensurate with the economy’s long run potential to increase production, so as to promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates.

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.

Pigeonholing Fed hawks

Richard Fisher, the Dallas Fed’s outspoken president, is happy to be labeled a monetary policy hawk. After all, he sometimes quips, “doves are part of the pigeon family.” That may be so. But thus far, the doves have had the upper hand in the policy debate – and the economic data appear to bear them out.

Fed hawks like Fisher have warned that the U.S. central bank’s prolonged policy of low interest rates and asset purchases risks a future spike in inflation. Yet despite the Fed’s aggressive efforts, inflation is actually drifting lower, not higher, suggesting there is something to the dovish notion that there is still ample slack in the U.S. economy following a lackluster recovery from the historic slump of 2007-2009.

Regional Fed hawks tend to argue that the Fed should not overreach in its efforts to bring down unemployment because the only thing it can really control in the long-run is inflation. Says Jeffrey Lacker, president of the Richmond Fed:

Abe’s European spring break: Japan stimulus sends euro zone yields to record lows

It wasn’t just the Nikkei. Euro zone government bonds rallied following Japan’s announcement of a massive new monetary stimulus. That sent yields on the debt of several euro zone countries to record lows on bets that Japanese investors might be switching out of Japanese government bonds into euro zone paper, or might soon do so.

The Bank of Japan on Thursday announced extraordinary stimulus steps to revive the world’s third-largest economy, vowing to inject about $1.4 trillion into the financial system in less than two years in a dose of shock therapy to end two decades of deflation.

Austrian, Dutch, French and Belgian borrowing costs over ten years fell to record lows as investors piled into euro zone debt offering a pick-up over Germany. The bond rally was led by 10- and 30-year maturities after the BOJ said it would double its holdings of long-term government bonds.

Missing definition in 1982 Fed glossary: quantitative easing

It’s not difficult to see why quantitative easing was not high on the Federal Reserve’s list of priorities in 1982. The term was nowhere to be found in the handy booklet pictured above, which I found while perusing the shelves of Reuters’ two-desk bureau inside the U.S. Treasury. Paul Volcker’s Fed was still battling runaway inflation, so policy options designed for a zero interest rate environment were nowhere near the horizon.

More interesting, perhaps, is what the pamphlet’s brief introduction says about a technology that is now so commonplace it is overlooked — and about the social milieu of central bankers.

These days, it would be quite reasonable for an expert in ‘EFTS’ to inform a co-worker that he used a ‘debit card’ at an ‘ATM’ to get money to buy a tennis racket.

Beware: UK services PMI is no crystal ball for QE

Take with a pinch of salt economists who say Tuesday’s strong UK services PMI  might persuade the Bank of England to hold off from restarting its printing presses this week.

BoE policymakers been perfectly willing over the last few years to vote in favour of more asset purchases after a rise in the services PMI number.

Only the last decision for more quantitative easing — July 2012 — came after a decrease in the services PMI’s main index. While members of the Monetary Policy Committee rely on the PMIs as a monthly gauge of economic activity, it’s clear the surveys can’t be read as any proxy for policy decisions.

Fed stimulus benefits still outweigh risks, Lockhart tells Reuters

The Federal Reserve is cognizant of the potential costs of its unconventional policies, but the economic benefits from asset purchases are still far greater than the potential costs, Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart told Reuters in an interview from his offices.

What follows is an edited transcript of the interview.

The December meeting minutes seemed to signal a shift in sentiment at the central bank toward a greater focus on the policy’s costs. How concerned are you about the risks from QE? Has the cost/benefit tradeoff changed for you? What’s your sense of how long you’ll need to keep going?

I would not say at this point that, in any respect, the costs, which are largely longer-term and speculative, outweigh the benefits of maintaining a highly accommodative climate that is being contributed to by both large-scale asset purchases and our interest rate policy. Having said that, I think policymakers have to be aware that in a policy such as quantitative easing or large-scale asset purchases, continuing to build up the challenge of reversal of that policy, or the challenge of normalization, has to be on your mind. I don’t think we’ve gotten to the point where the costs outweigh the benefits. I’m a believer, although of course it’s very hard to isolate cause and effect in the real world, that our policy has benefited the economy and that the improving situation that we are now seeing is at least in part a result of monetary policy.

Will the Fed adopt thresholds for bond buys?

Tim Ahmann contributed to this post

Suddenly top Wall Street firms are talking about the possibility that the Fed might adopt numerical thresholds for asset purchases, in the same way it has done with interest rates more broadly.

Writes Mike Feroli, chief economist at JP Morgan and a former NY Fed staffer:

Perhaps the most interesting element of Fed policy at the current juncture is how they communicate the conditions that will lead to a slowing or a halt in asset purchases. The speed with which the Committee produced the numerical threshold rate guidance is a reminder that the Bernanke Fed can get their homework done early, but even so we do not look for any news on this front next week.

First, the discussion of this topic is still in its infancy; even the numerical threshold guidance took a few months of debate to finalize. Second, since the introduction of the Chairman’s press conference the FOMC has shown a strong preference to make big decisions – and ones potentially subject to public misunderstanding – at meetings associated with a press conference. There is no press conference scheduled for next week’s meeting. Third, given the complicated task of quantifying the costs of balance sheet expansion, it’s not even certain the Fed will ever communicate the economic conditions that would slow or stop their asset purchases.

from The Great Debate:

Stubborn national politics drag down the global economy

Four years ago world leaders, meeting in the G20 crisis session, agreed they would all work to move from recession to growth and prosperity.  They agreed to a global growth compact to be delivered by combining national growth targets with coordinated global interventions. It didn’t happen. After the $1 trillion stimulus of 2009, fiscal consolidation became the established order of the day, and so year after year millions have continued to endure unemployment and lower living standards.

Only now are there signs that the long-overdue shift in national macro-economic policies may be taking place. The new Japanese government is backing up a "minimum inflation target" with a multi-billion-dollar stimulus designed to create 600,000 jobs. In what some call the “reverse Volcker moment,” Ben Bernanke has become the first head of a central bank for decades to announce he will target a 6 percent level of unemployment alongside his inflation objective. And the new governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has told us that "when policy rates are stuck at the zero lower bound, there could not be a more favorable case for Nominal GDP targeting.” Side by side with this shift in policy, in every area but the Euro, there is also policy progress in China. It may look from the outside as if November’s Communist Party Congress simply re-announced their all-too-familiar but undelivered wish to re-balance the economy from exports to domestic consumption, but this time the promise has been accompanied by a time-specific commitment: to double average domestic income per head by 2020.

The intellectual case for change is obvious. A chronic shortage of demand has developed for two reasons. First, as the IMF announced at the end of 2012, the adverse impact of fiscal consolidation on employment and demand has been greater than many people expected. Secondly, the effectiveness of quantitative easing has almost certainly started to wane. As former BBC chief Gavyn Davies has put it, “the supply potential of the economy is in danger of becoming dependent on, or ‘endogenous to,’ the weakness of domestic demand. ...With demand constrained in this way for such a lengthy period of time, supply potential is beginning to downsize to fit the low level of demand.” It is a new equilibrium that can be reversed only by boosting demand.

Time already to switch off the sterling printing presses?

A clutch of top UK economic forecasters on Thursday swept under the rug predictions for another 50 billion pounds of gilt purchases they thought would take place starting just in a few weeks.

News that the UK economy bolted ahead at a 1.0 percent quarterly pace in the three months to September – nearly double the consensus prediction in the Reuters Poll and easily more than twice the last measured growth rate in the United States – was probably a good enough reason on the surface.

But most agree the main reason was an extra work day compared with the prior quarter – when the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations left vast swathes of the country idle – along with a spending boost from accounting for tickets for the Olympic and Paralympic Games.