Posts Tagged ‘fed chairman’

The Powell of Positive Thinking

March 8, 2023 7 comments

Yes: Federal Reserve Chairman Powell was very hawkish at his Congressional testimony on Tuesday and Wednesday. He clearly signaled (again) that once Fed overnight policy rates reach a peak, they would not be declining for a while. He additionally signaled that the peak probably will be higher than previously signaled (I’ve been saying and thinking 5% for a while, but it’s going to be higher), and even signaled the increasing likelihood of a return to 50bp hikes after the recent deceleration to 25bps.

This latter point, in my view, is the least likely since all of the reasons for the step down to 25bps remain valid: whether the peak is 5% or 6%, it is relatively nearby and the confidence that we should have that rates have not risen enough should therefore be decreasing rapidly. Moreover, since monetary policy works with a lag and there has been very little lag since the aggressive tightening campaign began, it would be reasonable to slow down or stop to assess the effect that prior hikes have had.

But here is the bigger point, and one that Powell did not broach. There is really not much evidence at all that the Fed’s hikes to date have affected inflation. It is completely an article of faith that they surely will, but this is not the same as saying that they have. Consider for a moment: in what way could we plausibly argue that rate hikes so far have been responsible for the decline in inflation? The decline in inflation has been entirely from the goods sector, and a good portion of that has been from used cars returning to a normal level (meaning, in line with the growth in money) after having overshot. How exactly has monetary policy driven down the prices of goods?

This is not to say that higher interest rates have not affected economic activity, and this (to me) is the real surprise: given the amount of leverage extant in the corporate world, it amazes me that we haven’t seen a more-serious retrenchment. Some of this is pent-up demand that still needs to be satisfied, for example in housing where significant rate hikes would normally dampen housing demand substantially and seems to have. However, there is a severe shortage of housing in the country and so construction continues (and home prices, while they have fallen slightly, show no signs of the collapse that so many have forecast). Higher rates are also rippling through the commercial MBS market, as many commercial landlords have inexplicably financed their projects with floating rate debt and where the cost of leverage can make or break the project.

Higher interest rates, on the other hand, tend to support residential rents, at least until unemployment eventually rises appreciably. I think perhaps that not many economists are landlords, but higher costs tend to not result in a desire to charge lower rents. On the commercial side, leases are for longer and turnover is more costly, but the average residential landlord these days is not facing a shortage of demand.

So where have rate hikes caused inflation to decline? Judging from the fact that Median CPI just set a new high, I think the answer is pretty plain: they haven’t. And yet, the Fed believes that if they keep hiking, inflation will fall into place. Where else can we more plainly see at work the maxim that “if a piece doesn’t fit, you’re not using a big enough hammer?” Or maybe, this is just a reflection of the notion that if you want something bad enough, the wanting itself will cause the thing to happen. [N.B. this is really more in line with the prescription from Napoleon Hill’s classic book “Think and Grow Rich”, but the title of Peale’s equally-classic “The Power of Positive Thinking” suggested a catchier title for this article. Consider it poetic license.]

Moreover, what we have seen is that higher interest rates have had the predicted effect on money velocity. Although I have elsewhere noted that part of the rebound in money velocity so far is due to the ‘spring force’ effect, there is substantial evidence that one of the main drivers of money velocity is the interest rate earned on non-cash balances. Enough so, in fact, that I wrote about the connection in June 2022 in a piece entitled “The Coming Rise in Money Velocity,” before the recent surge in velocity began. [I’d also call your attention to a recently-published article by Samuel Reynard of the Swiss National Bank, “Central bank balance sheet, money, and inflation,” where he incorporates money velocity into his adjusted money supply growth figure. Reynard is one of the last monetarists extant in central banking circles.]

Now, nothing that I have just written is going to deter Powell & Co from continuing to hike rates until demand is finally crushed and, according to their faith but in the absence of evidence to date, inflation will decelerate back to where they want it. But with long-term inflation breakevens priced at levels mirroring that faith, it is worth questioning whether there is some value in being apostate.

Moving Goalposts

November 14, 2013 9 comments

The equity melt-up continues, with the S&P 500 now up more than 25% year-to-date in a period of stagnant growth and an environment of declining market liquidity. The catalysts for the latest leg up were the comments and testimony by Fed Chairman-nominee Janet Yellen, whose confirmation hearings began today.

Her comments should alleviate any fear that Yellen will be anything other than the most dovish Fed Chairman in decades. Ordinarily, potential central bankers take advantage of confirmation hearings to burnish their monetarist and hawkish credentials, in much the same way that Presidential candidates always seem to try and campaign as moderates. It makes sense to do so, since the credibility of a central bank has long been considered to be related to its dedication to the philosophy that low and stable prices promote the best long-term growth/inflation tradeoff. Sadly, that no longer appears to be the case, and Janet Yellen should easily be confirmed despite some very scary remarks in both the scripted and the unscripted part of her hearing.

In her prepared remarks, Yellen commented that “A strong recovery will ultimately enable the Fed to reduce its monetary accommodation and reliance on unconventional policy tools such as asset purchases.” Given half a chance to repeat the tried-and-true mantra (which Greenspan used repeatedly) about the Fed balancing its growth and inflation responsibilities by focusing on inflation since growth in the long run is maximized then inflation is low and stable…Yellen focused on growth as not only the primary but virtually the only objective of the FOMC. As with Bernanke, the standard which has been set will be maintained: we now use extraordinary monetary tools until we not only get a recovery, but a strong recovery. My, have the goalposts moved quite a lot since Volcker!

That means that QE may indeed last forever, since QE may be one of the reasons that the recovery is not strong (notice that no country which has employed QE so far…or ever, as far as I know…has enjoyed a strong recovery). In a very direct sense, then, Yellen has declared that the beatings will continue until morale improves. And I always thought that was just a saying!

I would call that borderline insanity, but I am no longer sure it is borderline.

Among other points, Yellen noted that the Fed is intent on avoiding deflation. In this, they are likely to be successful just as I am likely to be successful in keeping alligators from roosting on my rooftop. So far, there is no sign of it happening, hooray! I must be doing something right!

Yellen also remarked that the Fed might still consider cutting the interest it pays on banks’ excess reserves, or IOER. The effect of this would be to release, all at once, some large but unknown quantity of sterile reserves into the transactional money supply. If there was any question that she is more dovish than Bernanke, there it is. It was never clear why the Fed was pursuing such a policy – flood the market with liquidity, and then pay the banks to not lend the money – unless the point was merely to reliquify the banks. It is as if the Fed shipped sealed crates of money to banks and then paid them rent for keeping the boxes in their safes, closed. If you’re going to do QE, this is at least a less-damaging way to do it although it raises the question of what you do when you need the boxes back. Yellen, on the other hand, is open to the idea of telling the banks that the Fed won’t pay them any longer to keep those boxes unopened, and instead will ship them crowbars. This only makes sense if you really do believe that money causes growth, but has nothing to do with inflation.

The future Fed Chairman also declared that the Fed has tools to avert emergence of asset bubble. Of course, no one really doubts that they have the tools; the question is whether they know how and when to use the tools. And, to bring this to current events, the question is no longer whether they can avert the emergence of an asset bubble, but whether they can deflate the one they have already re-inflated in stocks, and an emerging one in property! Oh, wait, she’s at the Federal Reserve…which means she won’t realize these are bubbles until after the bubble pops, and then will say that no one could have known.

Now, it may be that the U.S. is merely nominating Dr. Yellen in self-defense, to keep the dollar from becoming too strong or something. Last week’s surprise rate cut from the ECB, and the interesting interview by Peter Praet of the ECB in which he opens the door for asset purchases (which interview is ably summarized and dissected by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard here), keeps the heat on the Fed to remain the most accommodative of the major central banks.

At least the ECB had a reasonable argument that there was room for them to paint the least attractive house on the block. Europe is the only one of the four major economies (I exclude China since quality data is “iffy” at best) where central-tendency measures of inflation are declining (see chart, source Enduring Investments).

globalinfAnd that is, of course, not unrelated to the fact that the ECB is the only one of the four major central banks to be presiding over low and declining money supply gowth (see chart, source Enduring Investments).

globalmsStill, the Bundesbank holdovers must be apoplectic at these developments. I wonder if it’s too late to nominate one of them to be our next Fed Chairman?

There is of course little desire in the establishment to do so. The equity market continues to spiral higher, making the parties louder and longer. It is fun while it lasts, and changing to a bartender with a more-generous pour might extend the good times slightly longer.

It is no fun being the designated driver, but the good news is that I will be the one without the pounding headache tomorrow.

[Hmmm…erratum and thanks to JC for catching it. The S&P is “only” up 25.6% YTD (my Bloomberg terminal decided that it wants to default to the return in Canadian dollars). So originally the first paragraph had “32%” rather than 25%. Corrected!]

Transparently Dovish

January 26, 2012 4 comments

Markets are finding it a little hard to believe that the Fed really said what it said. Stocks opened the day with a rally, along with commodities and bonds and especially TIPS. All of these markets leapt forward out of the gate, which is a completely understandable response. I was pretty clear in yesterday’s comment, but there were a couple of additional points that I either ignored or gave short shrift.

The first of these is that while I mentioned that Bernanke said “we’re not absolutists” about inflation, that really doesn’t capture the idea as clearly as he said it. Here is the full quote (and thanks BN for reminding me):

We are not absolutists. If there is a need to let inflation return a little bit more slowly to target to get a better result on unemployment then that is something that we would be willing to do.

It is hard to read that as anything except probably the single most-dovish thing that a Fed Chairman has said in eons. He explicitly states, essentially, that not only is employment as important as inflation in the FOMC’s consideration of its mandate, but that at this time inflation is actually subordinate to employment. This is essentially a vague form of the Evans Rule, which Chicago Fed President Evans proposed as a way to semi-formally declare that inflation doesn’t matter until (a) it’s out of control or (b) unemployment gets down to some certain level. Formally, it would read something like “the Fed will keep rates at zero and tolerate 3% (or 4%) annual inflation until unemployment is down to 7% (or 6%).” I wrote about this back in early November, never dreaming that it had a serious chance to become policy. It’s worse than policy now – it has a mushy informality that is guaranteed to make any ultimate decision to raise rates in restraint of inflation even more difficult. Back in November, I expressed my opinion of such a rule, and I must say I don’t disagree with this comment:

If they do take such a step, though, it is an unmitigated disaster for monetary policy and a sign to grab every real investment in sight. Because allowing 3% or 4% inflation has nothing to do with the Unemployment Rate, and moreover there is no sign that the Fed has anything like the kind of power they would need to lock the inflation rate at any particular level. Such a statement would mark a surrender against inflation in order to make a Quixotic charge on unemployment. If the world’s largest central bank goes that route, then bill-printers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your change.

It is inexcusable that I didn’t carry the “absolutist” quote to its full length and implication. But I also missed a small subtlety that is less egregious. The Fed, in stating formally that 2% inflation “is most consistent over the longer run with the Federal Reserve’s statutory mandate,”  already nudged the goalposts a bit. For some time it has been tacitly understood and occasionally communicated explicitly in speeches that the Fed operated as if it had a target of 2%-2.25% on core CPI inflation. The Fed has long preferred the core PCE Deflator as a measure of inflation, and the PCE deflator has generally run around 25bps lower than core CPI over time, so the 2-2.25% CPI target was really a 1.75%-2.00% target on core PCE.[1] By saying that the Fed’s informal target was 2%, the Committee (a) nudged the target up slightly from 1.75%-2.00% to just 2.00%, and (b) made clear that inflation can go at least another 0.3% higher before it even gets to the target, and probably wouldn’t alarm them until it was at least 0.8% higher than the current level. That would be a core CPI inflation rate around 3.0%, well above the current level. No wonder they aren’t alarmed at the strong, steady advance in core CPI!

Investors seem to barely believe their ears. While commodities ended the day +0.4%, stocks slipped into the red. Still, the equity chart to me bears an uncanny resemblance to the chart in the months following Bernanke’s Jackson Hole speech in which he essentially announced QE2 (see Chart, source Bloomberg).

Narrow ranges, steady advancement, and all on top of markets that were not cheap to begin with. Today’s selloff of a mere -0.6% doesn’t alarm me and I think equities will continue to climb, although commodities offer much more inflation “beta” at this stage of the cycle and with negative real rates.

In my view, this action is no less clear a sign that the Fed is going to continue to pump liquidity into the markets than Bernanke’s speech was in the summer of 2010. It is much more remarkable, in that back then core CPI was preparing to print a low of 0.6% and now it is 2.2% and rising, but it is not much less clear. After all, that has become the Fed’s game: transparency, transparency, transparency.

For a very long time (as in, more than a decade) I have been railing about how Fed glasnost is a bad idea with no real upside. It has generally been pretty lonely to have that view, since “transparency” seems like a good thing and in many areas of government we could use lots more. But I was pleased today to get news of a speech from former Fed Governor Warsh in which he said the transparency has gone too far:

Central bank transparency is good, but transparency that delineates future policy breeds market complacency. It threatens to undermine the wisdom of the crowds and the essential interchange with financial markets.

Now, I’ve said similar things in the past about transparency and market complacency – overconfidence breeds over-leverage; if you want to cause deleveraging then the Fed should start doing unpredictable, random things like moving the Fed funds rate 17bps one day and then moving it back the next day, or only making moves in prime numbers, or scheduling an FOMC ‘tea’ instead of a board meeting. Act crazy and investors will keep a bigger margin of safety, which means they will use less leverage. But Warsh raises another very interesting and important point that I haven’t noticed before: if the Fed is too busy telling the market what to do, it can’t be listening to the market to learn what to do. When you think about it, aside from arrogance this conveys a mistrust of markets that is a hallmark of liberal institutions. Failed liberal institutions.

In economic data today, Durable Goods and Chicago Fed came in strong, while New Home Sales was soft but at continued low levels which makes them irrelevant in any event. Initial Claims was roughly on-target (but we’re still in the choppy year-end waters during which Initial Claims can be ignored). But all of this is back-seat stuff if the Fed is pressing pedal to the metal.

Friday introduces another weekend filled with searing promise for solutions in Europe; and the weekend precedes a Monday stuffed with bitter disappointment. It seems to happen every week, and I don’t see any reason it should differ this week.


One quick note: in August 2010 I wrote an article called “The ‘Real Feel’ Inflation Rate,”  in which I discussed a paper I’d written discussing how economists might go about assessing quantitatively how inflation feels as distinct from how it is precisely measured. I’m pleased to report that the paper has finally been published in this month’s Business Economics, the journal of the NABE. It’s only available to subscribers, unfortunately, but membership in the NABE is only $150 per year online. (I am not a member, so consider this a public service message). I should mention that I am looking for a corporate partner who would be interested in developing the methodology and perhaps commercializing such an index – contact me if you are interested or know of someone who is.

[1] There are several differences between PCE and CPI. One important one at the moment is that the PCE deflator has a higher weight in housing, so it’s currently at 1.70% on core, but there are other differences as well covering the functional form, the items that are included or excluded for each one, and the weights for those. There may be a very slight reason to prefer PCE as a technically ‘better’ index, but there is a large reason to prefer CPI and that is that there is an explicit market price for inflation expectations in CPI form: inflation swaps. There is no such market price for PCE. So I don’t think the Fed has made the right decision anyway.