MacroScope

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.

Little wonder: The central bank’s preferred inflation measure was just reported to have dipped to a paltry 0.8 percent, less than half the Fed’s 2 percent inflation target. The Fed said in its statement:

The Committee recognizes that inflation persistently below its 2 percent objective could pose risks to economic performance, but it anticipates that inflation will move back toward its objective over the medium term.

U.S. minimum wage hike would offer short-term economic stimulus: Chicago Fed

President Barack Obama proposed a hike in the U.S. minimum wage during his State of the Union Address in February. Since then, we haven’t really heard very much about the proposal. That’s too bad for a U.S. economy that could still use a bit of a boost, according to new research.

A paper from the Chicago Fed finds that, while there might be little impact on long-term growth prospects from a higher minimum wage, the measure could add as much as 0.3 percentage point to gross domestic product in the short-run. That’s not insignificant for an economy that expanded at a soft annualized rate of just 1.1 percent over the last two quarters.

This is how the authors summarize their findings:

A federal minimum wage hike would boost the real income and spending of minimum wage households. The impact could be sufficient to offset increasing  consumer prices and declining real spending by most non-minimum-wage households and, therefore, lead to an increase in aggregate household spending. The authors calculate that a $1.75 hike in the hourly federal minimum wage could increase the level of real gross domestic product (GDP) by up to 0.3 percentage points in the near term, but with virtually no effect in the long term.

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.

Inflation, not jobs, may hold key to Fed exit

It’s that time of the month again: Wall Street is anxiously awaiting the monthly employment figures – less because of its interest in job creation and more because of what the numbers will mean for the Federal Reserve’s unconventional stimulus policies.

As one money manager put it all too candidly: “Bad news is good news in this market lately because it keeps the Fed buying bonds and interest rates low.”

Given that the Fed is the closest thing the world has to a global central bank, what happens at the Federal Open Market Committee doesn’t often stay in the Federal Open Market Committee. Indeed, emerging markets have become increasingly volatile since Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said policymakers might curtail the pace of asset buys in coming months.

What to expect from Bernanke testimony and Fed minutes this week

Financial markets this will be keenly focused on congressional testimony from Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and minutes from the central bank’s April 30-May 1 meeting, particularly given a thin data calendar. The latter may be the more interesting one, since it will offer hints into how far Fed officials are leaning in a direction of curbing the pace of its bond-buying stimulus, potentially late this summer.

The economic backdrop has been just mixed enough to leave policymakers cautious about taking their foot off the gas. Still, if we get a few more months of strength in the labor market, Fed officials may just be able to say “substantial progress” has been made in the outlook for the labor market – their stated precondition for an end to asset buys.

Still, Harm Bandholz at Unicredit says markets should not confuse a debate about tapering bond buys with some immediate reversal of the Fed’s policy of ultra low rates.

Currency peace: G20 gives BOJ a pass for deflation fight

All the talk of currency wars is mostly just that – talk. This week’s meeting of the Group of 20 nations at the International Monetary Fund was living proof. Despite speculation that emerging nations would redouble their criticism of extraordinarily low rates in advanced economies, the G20 ended up largely supporting the Bank of Japan’s new and bold stimulus efforts aimed at combating years of deflation.

Mr. currency wars himself, Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega, told reporters Japan’s monetary drive was understandable given its struggle with falling prices and stagnant wages, even if he called for close monitoring of its potential spillover effects.

Outgoing Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney said Japan’s action is consistent with the G20 communiqué that called for countries to refrain from competitive devaluation. Carney, the head of the G20′s Financial Stability Board, takes over the Bank of England in July. His comments echo recent remarks from Fed Vice Chair Janet Yellen.

Fed speaks, but does market listen?

Jonathan Spicer contributed to this post

When the Fed adopted thresholds for its low interest-rate policy last December, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said they would make “monetary policy more transparent and predictable to the public.” But now that the policy is fully in place, it doesn’t seem that the public and the Fed are predicting the same thing at all. Not even close.

In their policy statement following a two-day meeting that wrapped up Wednesday, Fed policymakers removed any reference to date-based policy guidance, saying only that exceptionally low rates would remain in place as long as unemployment remains above 6.5 percent and inflation is not seen to top 2.5 percent. But as recently as December, the Fed’s statement suggested policymakers did not believe those thresholds would be met until at least mid-2015.

The market, as personified by traders ofU.S.short-term rate futures at the Chicago Board of Trade, believes differently. According to CME Group’s FedWatch, which uses fed fund futures prices to estimate market expectations, traders were pricing in a 55 percent chance of a first rate hike by October 2014 – eight months before the Fed’s forecast last month. Threshold-based policy does not seem to have brought the market and the Fed onto the same page – not even to the same year.

Big government kept a “contained depression” from being a Great one: Levy

David Levy says he is bullish on the U.S. economy long term. But for now, the country is effectively stuck in a “contained depression,” the chairman of the Jerome Levy Forecasting Center told Reuters during a recent visit to our Washington bureau.

Still, things could have been much worse, says the third generation economist. For Levy, the interventions of a large and proactive federal government prevented a repeat of the 1930s.

In this corrective process, the reason we haven’t had a collapse in profits as we had in the Great Depression is we have – what nobody seems to like very much – a big government that’s stabilizing it by just simply running these deficits and being a much more active lender of last resort.

Could the private sector stage a stimulus plan?

Since the financial crisis, the federal government has implemented a fiscal stimulus plan and the Federal Reserve took to the road of monetary stimulus, actively seeking new routes to revive the U.S. economy.

The private sector, however, has been laggard in adding its muscle to the revival efforts. Private firms have added employees, but very cautiously, and wages are stagnant. Meanwhile, a huge amount of cash sits idle on corporate balance sheets.

“Capital expenditure plans are being retrenched,” notes Dan Heckman, senior fixed income strategist and senior portfolio manager at Minneapolis, Minnesota-based US Bank, with $80 billion in assets under management. “Most major corporations are sitting on tons of cash. They have no appetite for borrowing and credit line utilization is at all-time lows.”

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.