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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.