The Fed took an interesting risk by holding policy steady on Wednesday. With green shoots all the rage, policymakers are ready to step to the sidelines as they monitor the progress of their many programs. And clearly, they must have known that the 3% level on 10-year Treasuries was dependent on the expectation that policymakers would expand the pace of outright purchases of those assets, but are betting that economic conditions will remain sufficiently weak to prevent a crippling increase in rates. Still, given that policymakers still see the economy in decline, albeit at a slower rate, the odds favor additional easing in the months ahead, especially considering expectations of a widening output gap. Recall that labor markets, and the threat of deflation, kept the Fed easing well past the end of the recession in 2001.
Short of an outbreak of inflation, or a unexpected and unlikely surge of growth, there is little reason to think that the Fed is ready to bring policy to a sustained pause. And an imminent rise in inflation remains an outside risk for the Fed; the focus remains consistently on disinflation or, worse yet, outright deflation. A key paragraph is:
In light of increasing economic slack here and abroad, the Committee expects that inflation will remain subdued. Moreover, the Committee sees some risk that inflation could persist for a time below rates that best foster economic growth and price stability in the longer term.
Policymakers are counting on a rising output gap (both here and abroad) and lags in the price setting process to keep inflation at bay. Indeed, this must be the case, as some of the current numbers are really not all that comforting. I am not inclined to place too much focus on headline inflation – oil prices appear to have found a bottom around $50 a barrel, and sustained hints of a firming of global economic activity would promise to send prices higher, thus offsetting the strong disinflationary impact of falling energy prices since the middle of 2008. In contrast to low year-over-year headline numbers, the personal income and outlays report for March revealed that core PCE prices gained by 0.2% in each of the past three months, pushing the annualized three month trend back above 2%:
And note that near-term inflation expectations have climbed back up into a normal range:
From this perspective, policymakers have done a good job anchoring inflation expectations against the possibility of deflation. Is this enough, however, to unsettle FOMC members? Despite these inflationary hints, it is simply unlikely that the Fed would ignore the disinflationary implications of the output gap. One way to ignore the gap is to argue that the US will revert to an emerging market inflation dynamic. I think such an argument requires a steady depreciation of the Dollar to hold – which could happen, but a Dollar crisis looks, for the moment, unlikely given relative global weakness. One could also argue that estimates of potential output are optimistic and don’t reflect the importance of structural change in the economy. This is the issue that Nick Rowe at the Worthwhile Canadian Initiative attempts to tackle:
Even in the short run a good banking and financial system will be important in re-allocating capital between growing and declining sectors, if there are shifts in relative demand. If people want fewer cars and more restaurant meals, but banks cannot shift loans from car manufacturers to restaurants, the Short Run Aggregate Supply curve may shift left, because the restaurants won’t be able to expand to meet demand, and car manufacturers’ prices or wages may be sticky downwards.
If you see the financial crisis as causing the recession by shifting the SRAS curve left, then monetary and fiscal policies, which shift the AD curve right, are not the appropriate cure. Even if you see leftward shifts of the SRAS curve as only part of the story, you will see limits on what monetary and fiscal policy can achieve. When expansionary monetary and fiscal policies start to cause excessive inflation, before output and employment have returned fully to normal, you will know that purely AD policies have reached the limit of what can be expected from them.
Nick is slapped down by Brad DeLong:
But if bad banks have shifted the AS curve inward, then right now we should have stagflation: depression and inflation, as output falls and prices rise. We don’t. The argument that fiscal and monetary policies won’t reduce unemployment to normal levels because we have a supply side problem is completely incoherent in an AS-AD framework.
Brad is correct that in a traditional AS-AD framework, bad banks are demand shocks, not supply shocks. There is still something about Nick’s argument that is important – the financial system redirected capital investment into housing and consumption related activities. Presumably, potential output includes the ability to build and sell as many houses the US economy produced at the height of the housing bubble. But what good is that output if we don’t want to build and sell that many houses in the future? How do we redirect capital away from those sectors? And how long does it take? Arguably, the narrowing of the US trade deficit is pushing that adjustment forward, as the US economy can’t focus entirely on producing nontradable goods. Recall Brad DeLong from 2005:
There is an alternative scenario, one in which foreigners’–including foreign central banks’–desired holdings of dollar-denominated assets shortly hit the wall, and the asset price shifts that result from desired holdings’ hitting the wall reduce, or do not increase, confidence in the dollar.
In this alternative scenario, the U.S. has to move about ten million workers out of currently-favored sectors–construction, home-equity-credit financed consumer expenditures, and so on–into export and import-competing manufactures. How much structural unemployment does such a sectoral shift require, and how long does the structural unemployment last? Other countries have to shift up to forty million workers out of export manufactures into other industries, and to generate demand for the products of those industries (without destabilizing their own monetary systems and asset prices, as Japan appears to have done at the end of the 1980s). The U.S. Federal Reserve would have to cope with whatever inflationary pressures are generated by rising import prices. Foreign central banks would have to cope with whatever stresses on their own asset prices are created by enormous losses of value in the stocks and bonds of their exporting companies.
If structural unemployment is rising – not because banks are currently bad, but engaged in bad behavior in the past – attempts to reduce unemployment back to pre-recession levels will yield higher inflation. This problem is minimized if labor resources can be quickly redirected into other sectors, a process that Nick above is implying is hampered by the existence now of bad banks. But, as Brad suggested in 2005, getting to inflation in the current environment seems to require a Dollar collapse – a story that for now is difficult to tell.
All of which is interesting, but even if you believe that structural unemployment is rising, I don’t think anyone believes it is near the 8.5% rate for March (not to mention the underemployment rate of 15.6%). Nor does anyone expect that recent green shoots are sufficient to keep unemployment from rising further. Moreover, note that the Employment Costs Index released today reveals the continued slide in employee compensation costs – consistent with the FOMC’s concerns about economic slack.
Indeed, the ECI highlights the risks of the Fed’s move to hold steady policy: Declining wage growth, coupled with higher interest rates, would play havoc with household efforts to reduce balance sheets and intensify the need to boost saving rates. Hence why the risks still favor additional policy easing – especially if programs such as TALF and PPIP are less successful than imagined.
In short, the shoots are much too green and the output gap much too wide to stimulate much discussion on Constitution Avenue that the end of easing has conclusively been reached. A pause to assess, yes. But Fed officials will be looking for clear and convincing evidence that economic activity is both self sustaining (not likely to fade after the initial burst of federal stimulus moves through the pipeline) and sufficient to substantially reduce the output gap before they sound the all clear signal. An end to the rapid pace of job loss is very different from a return to steady job growth. Again, recall the sustained pattern of easing in the wake of the 2001 recession – we need to go a long way up from -6% GDP growth before the job engine is started. To be sure, there should be some lingering concern that the Fed will act quickly (or at least the markets will act quickly), if there is a perceived need to withdraw monetary accomodation. But the data are well short of what would be necessary to justify such a shift in policy in the near future.