MacroScope

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.

Eric Green at TD Securities said:

Inflation pressures remain very subdued, but downside momentum is fading. Y/y change in core prices was unchanged at 1.7% y/y, and while this may drift down to 1.6% y/y next month that should be the low in advance of an upward drift toward 2.0% by year end. The six-month average in core prices continues to shift incrementally higher and at 1.8% puts more distance with the trough of 1.4% in December. In effect, prices are low, but the move is to the upside. It is the turn in inflation momentum rather than the level of inflation that matters on the great tapering debate. May brought more evidence that the turn is in.

Not everyone believes the decline is something Fed officials can ignore. Even within the Fed, there is some concern. St. Louis Fed President Jim Bullard said recently: “Maybe this is noise in the data, maybe this will turn around, but I’d like to see some reassurance that this is going to turn around before we start to taper our asset purchase program.”

U.S. job market still in need of a jolt

The monthly payrolls report from the U.S. Labor Department will always be the big kahuna of economic releases.  Other, less prominent indicators of the American job market nonetheless can offer additional insight into the employment backdrop.

Take the clumsily-acronymed JOLTS report, which stands for Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey. It shows the ratio between job openings and job seekers, as well as the rate of new hires. The latter, unfortunately, is not particularly comforting.

The number of job openings at the end of April was 3.8 million, down slightly from the prior month’s 3.9 million.

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.

“This was really eye-opening for me”: Fed’s Raskin shocked at low quality of work at local job fair

The first portion of Federal Reserve Governor Sarah Bloom Raskin’s remarks to the Roosevelt Institute earlier this month were pretty standard central bank fodder. Raskin, on the dovish side of Fed monetary leanings, said U.S. unemployment was still too high, and far more progress was needed in bringing a somnolent job market back to life.

But the second half of her comments offered an unusually personal look at one Fed official’s dismay with the country’s economic situation. Stumbling into a job fair near her house, Raskin was stunned by the generally low quality of positions available. In her own words:

I became interested in this question of quality somewhat by accident. I did something atypical one day. I decided on my way into work I would stop at a jobs fair. There was a jobs fair at a local community college close to my home and I thought, I’m going to, you know, instead of pounding through all this heavy data that we typically look at at the board of governors, let me just go into this job fair. It turned out to be a really interesting morning, I have to say.

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:

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.

No relief in sight for millions of unemployed Americans: Cleveland Fed report

The new normal is getting old. And when it comes to America’s stuttering employment market, it’s not going to get much better any time soon, according to a new report from the Cleveland Fed.

The U.S. economy created 175,000 new jobs in May, while the jobless rate rose slightly. It was a neither-here-nor-there sort of report. In the Labor Department’s own words: Both “the number of unemployed persons, at 11.8 million, and the unemployment rate, at 7.6 percent, were essentially unchanged in May.” 

Unfortunately, this anemic pattern is likely to be long-lasting, write Cleveland Fed economists Mark Schweitzer and Murat Tasci.

Mystery of the missing Fed regulator

It’s one of those touchy subjects that Federal Reserve officials don’t really want to talk about, thank you very much.

For nearly three years now, no one has been tapped to serve as the U.S. central bank’s Vice Chairman for Supervision. According to the landmark 2010 Dodd-Frank bill, which created the position to show that the Fed means business as it cracks down on Wall Street, President Obama was to appoint a Vice Chair to spearhead bank oversight and to regularly answer to Congress as Chairman Ben Bernanke’s right hand man.

For all intents and purposes, Fed Governor Daniel Tarullo does that job and has done it for quite some time. He’s the central bank’s regulation czar, articulating new proposals such as the recent clampdown on foreign bank operations, and he keeps banks on edge every time he takes to the podium. But he has not been named Vice Chair, leaving us to simply assume he won’t be.

Is Congress the ‘enabler’ of a loose Fed?

We heard it more than once at today’s hearing of the Joint Economic Committee featuring Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke: the central bank’s low interest rate policies are allowing Congress to delay tough decisions on long-term spending.

As U.S. senator Dan Coats asked pointedly: “Is the Fed being an enabler for an addiction Congress can’t overcome?”

Yet, if you read the subtext of Bernanke’s testimony closely, it may actually be Congress that is enabling a loose Federal Reserve.