The End of “Patient” and Questions for Yellen, by Tim Duy: FOMC meeting with week, with a subsequent press conference with Fed Chair Janet Yellen. Remember to clear your calendar for this Wednesday. It is widely expected that the Fed will drop the word “patient” from its statement. Too many FOMC participants want the opportunity to debate a rate hike in June, and thus “patient” needs to go. The Fed will not want this to imply that a rate hike is guaranteed at the June meeting, so look for language emphasizing the data-dependent nature of future policy. This will also be stressed in the press conference. Of interest too will be the Fed’s assessment of economic conditions since the last FOMC meeting. On net, the data has been lackluster – expect for the employment data, of course. The latter, however, is of the highest importance to the Fed. I anticipate that they will view the rest of the data as largely noise against the steadily improving pace of underlying activity as indicated by employment data. That said, I would expect some mention of recent softness in the opening paragraph of the statement. I don’t think the Fed will alter its general conviction that low readings on inflation are largely temporary. They may even cite improvement in market-based measures of inflation compensation to suggest they were right not to panic at the last FOMC meeting. I am also watching for how they describe the international environment. I would not expect explicit mention of the dollar, but maybe we will see a coded reference. Note that in her recent testimony, Yellen said:
But core PCE inflation has also slowed since last summer, in part reflecting declines in the prices of many imported items and perhaps also some pass-through of lower energy costs into core consumer prices.
Stronger dollar means lower prices of imported items. The press conference will be the highlight of the meeting. Presumably, Yellen will continue to build the case for a rate hike. Since the foundation of that case rests on the improvement in labor markets and the subsequent impact on inflationary pressures, it is reasonable to ask:
On a scale of zero to ten, with ten being most confident, how confident is the Committee that inflation will rise toward target on the basis on low – and expected lower – unemployment?
Considering that low wage growth suggests it is too early to abandon Yellen’s previous conviction that unemployment is not the best measure of labor market tightness, we should consider:
Is faster wage growth a precondition to raising interest rates?
I expect the answer would be “no, wages are a lagging indicator.” The Federal Reserve seems to believe that policy will still remain very accommodative even after the first rate hike. We should ask for a metric to quantify the level of accommodation:
What is the current equilibrium level of interest rates? Where do you see the equilibrium level of interest rates in one year?
A related question regards the interpretation of the yield curve:
Do you consider low interest long-term interest rates to be indicative of loose monetary conditions, or a signal that the Federal Reserve needs to temper its expectations of the likely path of interest rates as indicated in the “dot plot”?
Relatedly, differential monetary policy is supporting capital inflows, depressing US interest rates and strengthening the dollar. This dynamic ignited a debate of what it means for the economy and how the Fed should or should not respond. Thus:
The dollar is appreciating at the fastest rate in many years. Is the appreciating dollar a drag on the US economy, or is any negative impact offset by the positive demand impact of looser monetary policy abroad? How much will the dollar need to appreciate before it impacts the direction of monetary policy?
Given that the Fed seems determined to raise interest rates, we should probably be considering some form of the following as a standard question:
Consider the next six months. Which is greater – the risk of moving too quickly to normalize policy, or the risk of delay? Please explain, with specific reference to both risks.
Finally, a couple of communications questions. First, the Fed is signaling that they do not intend to raise rates on a preset, clearly communicated path like the last hike cycle. Hence, we should not expect “patient” to be replaced with “measured.” But it seems like the FOMC is too contentious to expect them to shift from no hike one meeting to 25bp the next, then back to none – or maybe 50bp. So, let’s ask Yellen to explain the plan:
There appears to be an effort on the part of the FOMC to convince financial markets that rate hikes, when they begin, will not be on a pre-set path. Given the need for consensus building on the FOMC, how can you credibly commit to renegotiate the direction of monetary policy at each FOMC meeting? How do you communicate the likely direction of monetary policy between meetings?
Finally, as we move closer to policy normalization, the Fed should be rethinking the “dot plot,” which was initially conceived to show the Fed was committed to a sustained period of low rates. Given that the dot-plot appears to be fairly hawkish relative to market expectations, it may not be an appropriate signal in a period of rising interest rates. Time for a change? But is the Fed considering a change, and when will we see it? This leads me to:
Cleveland Federal Reserve President Loretta Mester has suggested revising the Summary of Economic Projections to explicitly link the forecasts of individual participants with their “dots” in the interest rate projections. Do you agree that this would be helpful in describing participants’ reaction functions? When will this or any other revisions to the Summary of Economic Projections be considered?
Bottom Line: By dropping “patient” the Fed will be taking another step toward the first rate hike of this cycle. But how long do we need to wait until that first hike? That depends on the data, and we will be listening for signals as to how, or how not, the Fed is being impacted by recent data aside from the positive readings on the labor market. http://economistsview.typepad.com/economistsview/fed_watch/
Patient’ is History: The February employment report almost certainly means the Fed will no longer describe its policy intentions as “patient” at the conclusion of the March FOMC meeting. And it also keep a June rate hike in play. But for June to move from “in play” to “it’s going to happen,” I still feel the Fed needs a more on the inflation side. The key is the height of that inflation bar. The headline NFP gain was a better-than-expected 295k with 18k upward adjustment for January. The 12-month moving average continues to trend higher:
Unemployment fell to 5.5%, which is the top of the central range for the Fed’s estimate of NAIRU. Still, wage growth remains elusive:
Is wage growth sufficient to stay the Fed’s hand? I am not so sure. Irecently wrote:
My take is this: To get a reasonably sized consensus to support a rate hike, two conditions need to be met. One is sufficient progress toward full-employment with the expectation of further progress. I think that condition has already been met. The second condition is confidence that inflation will indeed trend toward target. That condition has not been met. To meet that condition requires at least one of the following sub-conditions: Rising core-inflation, rising market-based measures of inflation compensation, or accelerating wage growth. If any were to occur before June, I suspect it would be the accelerating wage growth.
I am less confident that we will see accelerating wage growth by June, although I should keep in mind we still have three more employment reports before that meeting. Note, however, low wage growth does not preclude a rate hike. The Fed hiked rates in 1994 in a weak wage growth environment:
And again in 2004 liftoff occurred on the (correct) forecast of accelerating wage growth:
So wage growth might not be there in June to support a rate hike. And, as I noted earlier this weaker, I have my doubts on whether core-inflation would support a rate hike either. That leaves us with market-based measures of inflation compensation. And at this point, that just might be the key:
If bond markets continue to reverse the oil-driven inflation compensation decline, the Fed may see a way clear to hiking rates in June. But the pace and timing of subsequent rate hikes would still be data dependent. I would anticipate a fairly slow, halting path of rate hikes in the absence of faster wage growth. Bottom Line: “Patient” is out. Tough to justify with unemployment at the top of the Fed’s central estimates of NAIRU. Pressure to begin hiking rates will intensify as unemployment heads lower. The inflation bar will fall, and Fed officials will increasingly look for reasons to hike rates rather than reasons to delay. They may not want to admit it, but I suspect one of those reasons will be fear of financial instability in the absence of tighter policy. June is in play.