Federal Reserve

Robin Harding

Andrew Levin, a Fed staffer who worked extensively on Janet Yellen’s communication reforms when she was vice-chair, sets out a set of principles for central bank communications in a paper at today’s Hoover central banking conference.

He calls for press conferences after every Fed meeting and a quarterly, Bank of England-style monetary policy report. Mr Levin is currently at the IMF but this a direction many Fed officials want to go.

Here are Mr Levin’s principles, with my highlights in bold, and comments in italic: Read more

Robin Harding

The most newsy point from NY Fed president William Dudley’s speech today was his call for a change in exit strategy, urging the central bank to reinvest in its mortgage portfolio. But there was a lot more going on in the speech: Mr Dudley put a dovish spin on the Fed’s inflation target. He said bank regulation may be driving down neutral interest rates, and he put markets on notice that how they price bonds will decide how the Fed changes interest rates.

(1) Inflation is coming

Mr Dudley’s tone on inflation was different to the isn’t-it-worringly-low type of remarks that Fed officials have tended to make recently. Instead, he expects inflation to head upwards, and seemed to be testing arguments for why Fed policy should not react.

“With respect to the outlook for prices, I think that inflation will drift upwards over the next year, getting closer to the FOMC’s 2 percent objective for the personal consumption expenditure deflator . . . That said, I see little prospect of inflation climbing sharply over the next year or two. There still are considerable margins of excess capacity available in the economy—especially in the labor market—that should moderate price pressures.”

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Robin Harding

The Fed is locked into bad equilibrium where it is forced to change policy gradually, because that is what markets expect, which in turn means policy works better with gradual changes.

That is the possibility outgoing Fed governor Jeremy Stein has raised in a speech on Tuesday evening. Read more

Robin Harding

This table is the Fed’s response to researchers who say that only short-term unemployment puts downward pressure on inflation. It comes from a newly published research paper by Michael Kiley, a senior economist on the Fed staff. Read more

Claire Jones

For those who have followed the scrap between Raghuram Rajan, governor of the Reserve Bank of India, and his counterparts at the European Central Bank and the Federal Reserve on the ill-effects of Fed tapering, Benoît Cœuré’s thoughtful speech today is worth a read.

In Mr Rajan’s view, the way the Fed conducts its monetary policy is irresponsible. The US central bank acts merely on the basis of national interest, with scant regard for the ramifications of mass dollar printing in a world where the dollar remains the dominant reserve currency.

These attacks have usually been parried with remarks that central banks such as the Fed (and, given its role as issuer of the only other real reserve currency, the ECB) have little choice but to act within the national interest given the scope of their mandates. From Mr Coeure’s boss Mario Draghi earlier this year:

Draghi: Mr Rajan is really an excellent economist. What one would have to demonstrate to speak of selfishness is the following. One would have to show that monetary policy actions within the United States, the ECB and so on were decided for reasons other than for the sake of the mandate and that, as a result, they were harmful to other countries. As I said, the priority for all of us is compliance with our mandate, which for us is maintaining price stability and for the Federal Reserve Board is the dual mandate.

Mr Cœuré’s speech is interesting as, while he does not go so far as to side with Mr Rajan, he is not so intellectually dishonest as to say that all is fine with the pre-crisis orthodoxy. In short, this said that if everyone just sticks to their inflation targeting mandate and flexible exchange rates everything will be just great. Read more

Claire Jones

Forward guidance is central banking’s latest fad. Since the nadir of the crisis, all four of the major central banks have adopted their own version of it.

But is this fashion for keeps? That depends on whether the policy works.

Guidance involves saying what you’re going to do, before doing it. This, central banks hope, will temper markets’ uncertainty about what happens to interest rates.

Whether it works or not, then, depends on how much markets trust policy makers to do what they say they’re going to do. If investors think policy makers are lying, or central banks lose credibility by reneging on their pledges, then the guidance could harm reputations for a long time to come.

So does it work? According to a paper, published by the Bank for International Settlements today, it does. Well, sort of.

Yet the research also flags that if forward guidance does succeed, it could end up doing more harm than good. Read more

Robin Harding

There could be serious financial turmoil when the Fed eventually raises interest rates, even without a lot of leverage in the financial system, according to this year’s paper at the US Monetary Policy Forum in New York. If the analysis is correct then it is an argument against very easy monetary policy – but the paper is quite limited.

(The USMPF, organised by the Chicago Booth business school, is a once-a-year event where a group of market economists present a paper to a gathering of Fed pooh-bahs. The authors this year are Michael Feroli of JP Morgan, Anil Kashyap of Chicago Booth, Kermit Schoenholtz of NYU Stern and Hyun Song Shin of Princeton.) Read more

Robin Harding

A quick update as the hoopla builds ahead of today’s Fed decision.

Will they taper?

Based on reporting ahead of the blackout period I put the odds of a taper at roughly 50 per cent for December and 50 per cent for January. We’ve been reporting since October that a December taper was still on the agenda so this shouldn’t be regarded as a sudden or unconsidered development.

Since the blackout started there has been a succession of strong data on retail sales, industrial production and homebuilder confidence. We have also had a budget deal. Therefore, I think the chances of a taper today are more than 50 per cent.

It is hard to call this too confidently, however, because the case for waiting is so easy. Read more

Robin Harding

I have written masses about the upcoming FOMC meeting, the upshot of which is that a small taper is likely on Wednesday, but not guaranteed because of uncertainty about the growth outlook (and the prospect of an imminent budget crisis). What I want to do here is proceed on the assumption that the Fed tapers and discuss how it might do so. NB: this is analysis based on insight into how the Fed works. If someone had told me exactly what was going to happen it would be on the front page of the paper.

(A) Designing a taper

The first thing to note is that the FOMC did the hard part in June when it set out a tapering scenario that would see asset purchases end in the summer of 2014 with an unemployment rate of about 7 per cent. That scenario explains why there is uncertainty about tapering in September: with the main parameters already decided, the details of September’s decision do not matter that much, so if individual FOMC officials are passionate about a particular point they may be able to influence the outcome. Read more

Robin Harding

For the last three years, there has been no breakfast for journalists on the opening day of Jackson Hole, while we write up a dramatic, market-moving speech by Ben Bernanke. It’s a more sedate start this year with a thoroughly wonkish paper by Stanford’s Robert Hall.

There is not much new in it on policy. It starts with a fairly straightforward rundown on why the economy got into such a mess when interest rates hit zero after the financial crisis, and it ends by agreeing with last year’s paper by Michael Woodford on what to do with monetary policy (QE doesn’t work, you need commitments about future policy, not just guidance).

The meat of Mr Hall’s paper is about why inflation did not fall much after the crisis despite high levels of unemployment. This has been a surprise during the last few years: unemployment has not driven down wages in a way that led to deflation. Read more

Claire Jones

Not Bernanke

Jackson Hole, the nearest thing on the central banking calendar to Davos, is upon us again, with some of the world’s most senior monetary officials set to head out to the upmarket Wyoming resort over the next few days.

Unlike the annual bash in the Swiss Alps, however, Jackson Hole, which kicks off on Thursday evening and closes on Saturday night, is usually a bit more than a talking shop. Of late, it has been the venue of choice for Fed chair Ben Bernanke to offer clues on where policy is heading.

But, while tapering looks like it is almost upon us, those hoping for more detail on the pace at which the US central bank will slow its asset purchases will not get it from Bernanke this weekend. Read more

By James Politi in Washington

In his final press conference before heading to Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts, for summer holidays, president Barack Obama was asked about his looming pick to succeed Ben Bernanke as Federal Reserve chairman.

We’ll try to parse his words, like a Fed statement.

On timing – Mr Obama repeated that he would make the decision in the autumn, which technically begins September 22. But some speculate that a choice could come sooner. Mr Obama might take the time over the holiday to ruminate and, perhaps inspired by the Atlantic ocean breeze, even make up his mind one way or the other.

On names – Mr Obama confirmed that Janet Yellen, the vice-chair, and Larry Summers, the former Treasury secretary and a top White House economic adviser in 2009 and 2010, are the leading candidates, mentioning them by name and calling them “terrific people”. Interestingly, he left out Don Kohn, a former Fed vice-chair who he had mentioned as a possibility in meetings with congressional Democrats last week. But he did say there were a “couple of other candidates” too. Read more

By James Politi in Washington

Richard Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, is about as outspoken as it gets when it comes to officials at the US central bank. And in Portland, Oregon on Monday — as he spoke to a conference of state retirement administrators — he waded into the heated battle to succeed Ben Bernanke as the next Fed chairman.

His main message seemed to be that the Fed did not need a “prima donna” at its helm – which naturally led to speculation about whether he was referring to Larry Summers, the former treasury secretary, or Janet Yellen, the current vice-chair, who are the two leading candidates for the post. Read more

By James Politi in Washington

Capping a week flooded with US economic data, July’s job figures are out. So, what did we learn this time around?

 


1) A mixed bag but the jobs report could favour a later taper

Federal Reserve officials hoping that the July jobs report would provide a decisive answer to their dilemma over when to start tapering the asset purchases are likely to have been sorely disappointed.
The data were a classic mixed bag – with the unemployment rate dropping 0.2 percentage points from 7.6 per cent to 7.4 per cent but payroll growth slowed, running below expectations.
But on the margins, the data are likely to offer proponents of a later taper just a bit more ammunition than supporters of an early taper. The Fed is likely to give more weight to the weaker payrolls “establishment” survey than the stronger but more volatile household survey, which measures joblessness.
The question for fans of slowing down asset purchases at the FOMC’s next meeting on September 17-18 is whether a slight slowing in job creation is sufficient to deter them, and it may not be. And luckily for FOMC members, they still have more than six weeks of data – including another jobs report – to make up their minds. Read more

For many years, one of the most enduring mantras of central banking was along the lines of “we never pre-commit to future actions, because all of the information we have about the state of the economy is already contained in the actions we have just announced”. Now that has been completely abandoned. With the ECB and the BoE changes announced today, the central banks are shouting from the rooftops that “we are all forward guiders now”. Read more

The declines in the prices of bonds and many risk assets since the Fed’s policy announcements last week have followed a sharp rise in the market’s expected path for US short rates in 2014 and 2015. This seems to have come as surprise to some Fed officials, who thought that their decision to taper the speed of balance sheet expansion in the next 12 months, subject to certain economic conditions, would be seen as entirely separate from their thinking on the path for short rates. Events in the past week have shown that this separation between the balance sheet and short rates has not yet been accepted by the markets.

The FOMC under Chairman Bernanke has worked very hard on its forward policy guidance, so there is probably some frustration that the markets have “misunderstood” the Fed’s intentions. Richard Fisher, the President of the Dallas Fed, said that “big money does organise itself somewhat like feral hogs”, suggesting that markets were deliberately trying to “break the Fed” by creating enough market turbulence to force the FOMC to continue its asset purchases. Read more

When we look back on the FOMC meeting on June 19 2013, it will probably be seen as the moment when the Fed signalled that it was beginning the long and gradual exit from its programme of unconventional monetary easing. The reason for this was clear in the committee’s statement, which said that the downside risks to economic activity had diminished since last autumn, presumably because the US economy had navigated the fiscal tightening better than expected and the risks surrounding the euro had abated.

This was the smoking gun in the statement. With downside risks declining, the need for an emergency programme of monetary easing was no longer so compelling. The Fed has been the unequivocal friend of the markets for much of the time since 2009, and certainly ever since last September. That comfortable assumption no longer applies. Read more

Robin Harding

When the Fed began its third round of quantitative easing last autumn, the most recent jobs report in hand was for August, which showed an unemployment rate of 8.1 per cent. Today the unemployment rate is 7.6 per cent. The Fed said it would keep buying assets, currently at a pace of $85bn-a-month, until there is a “substantial improvement” in the “outlook for the labour market”. The question is whether the current data meet that condition or at least bring it close enough that the Fed can start to taper its purchases.

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Michael Steen

Last week anti-capitalist protesters outside the European Central Bank were dominating (at least the local) news in Frankfurt, this week it was the turn of the policymakers inside the building. The ECB is keeping its rates on hold at 0.5 per cent and Mario Draghi, president, has been quizzed on where the eurozone is headed.

The ECB staff’s quarterly economic forecasts have been tweaked, so this year’s contraction is greater than previously forecast at 0.6 per cent and next year’s growth forecast creeps up to 1.1 per cent (but then a year is a long, long time in economic forecasting.)

What else have we learnt? Read more

Robin Harding

The current FOMC meeting, which starts today and concludes tomorrow without a Ben Bernanke press conference, is unlikely to produce much news. Steady movement towards a taper of the $85bn, QE3 programme of asset purchases has been checked by a run of bad economic data since March.

I get no sense that much has changed in the thinking of most FOMC officials. There is still a fair bit of confidence that the underlying state of the economy has improved (see, for example, the comments of Boston Fed president Eric Rosengren). The main effect of weak payrolls and the sequester is to increase uncertainty about the trajectory of the economy. That encourages the status quo – and open-ended QE means the default is continued purchases. Read more