Wednesday, October 31, 2007

FOMC Cuts 25bps...

... and they say they're done.

Or to be more precise, now that they've cut a total of 75bps, they've got a neutral bias with upside risks to inflation balancing downside risks to growth. So going forward rates are as likely to go up as down.

Here's the statement:
The Federal Open Market Committee decided today to lower its target for the federal funds rate 25 basis points to 4-1/2 percent.

Economic growth was solid in the third quarter, and strains in financial markets have eased somewhat on balance. However, the pace of economic expansion will likely slow in the near term, partly reflecting the intensification of the housing correction. Today’s action, combined with the policy action taken in September, should help forestall some of the adverse effects on the broader economy that might otherwise arise from the disruptions in financial markets and promote moderate growth over time.

Readings on core inflation have improved modestly this year, but recent increases in energy and commodity prices, among other factors, may put renewed upward pressure on inflation. In this context, the Committee judges that some inflation risks remain, and it will continue to monitor inflation developments carefully.

The Committee judges that, after this action, the upside risks to inflation roughly balance the downside risks to growth. The Committee will continue to assess the effects of financial and other developments on economic prospects and will act as needed to foster price stability and sustainable economic growth.

Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Ben S. Bernanke, Chairman; Timothy F. Geithner, Vice Chairman; Charles L. Evans; Donald L. Kohn; Randall S. Kroszner; Frederic S. Mishkin; William Poole; Eric S. Rosengren; and Kevin M. Warsh. Voting against was Thomas M. Hoenig, who preferred no change in the federal funds rate at this meeting.
The problem I have with this statement is that it doesn't conform to what most members have said. There was clearly a very wide range of opinions going into this meeting, with Hoenig on the hawkish side and Mishkin on the dovish side, and everyone else scattered between. But unlike most meetings, the difference in preferred policy options between the hawks and the doves was a wide 50bps. That made it fairly easy to predict a 25 bp cut as a compromise, but it makes the interpretation of the statement a bit more complicated.

Why, for example, does the statement say the risks to inflation are roughly in balance with the downside risks to growth? Besides Hoenig, and maybe Plosser and Fisher, who believes that? Certainly not a majority on the FOMC. In late July, right before the mortgage meltdown, in his Humphrey Hawkins testimony, Bernanke forecasted real GDP growth in 2008 of 2.5% - 2.75%, and core PCE inflation of 1.75% - 2%. That's growth just barely at potential, and inflation within their comfort zone. Since then, every Fed speaker who's mentioned it has said the outlook for growth in 2008 has declined, downside risks have increased, and the outlook for inflation has moderated. So the consensus view of the FOMC is growth below potential in 2008 and inflation falling (Yellen, for example, has said this explicitly). That's not a scenario with balanced risks.

So how did we get this statement? It looks to me like the committee compromised by giving the moderates the rate cut, but giving the hawks the statement. The hawks are hoping the statement is tough enough to tie the FOMC's hands at the next meeting. But that's only going to happen if there's no bad news between now and then, and that isn't what's in the forecast...

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Counting Votes: What Will The Fed Do?

What's the Fed going to do on October 31st? To get an idea, I've gone back over everything they've said since the last meeting to try and figure out how each FOMC member is likely to vote. Below I've listed the three options the FOMC is likely to consider, along with arguments for each outcome, all culled from recent Fed speeches:

No Change:
We have yet to see convincing evidence that the housing recession is spilling over into the broader economy. While mortgage-related credit markets continue to be tight, prime corporate borrowers have seen little net change in their borrowing costs and their access to credit remains largely unaffected; labor markets remain tight, especially for skilled labor, and real income continues to grow at a healthy pace; exports have been strong due to a strong global economy, and inflation remains a risk partly due to higher oil prices and a weak dollar.

25 Basis Point Cut:
Residential investment has weakened more than expected, and inventories of unsold homes continue to grow. Home prices are falling in many areas of the country. Growth in consumer spending shows signs of slowing; higher credit costs for non-prime borrowers and reduced availability of credit have the potential to further weaken consumer spending growth; Uncertainty remains high and risks remain skewed to the downside. Additionally, core inflation has continued to trend down, implying the stance of policy has grown slightly more restrictive.

50 Basis Point Cut:
Given the large and growing inventory of unsold homes, further home price declines are likely. With mortgage-related credit markets remaining dysfunctional, a precipitous decline in housing prices cannot be ruled out. Should this occur in the face of a possible decline in employment, the downside risks would be significant, since job losses would further weaken demand for housing creating additional negative feedback effects. Given the long lags between policy actions and their impact on the economy, and the possibility that economic downturns can be difficult to reverse once they take hold, additional preemptive rate cuts are needed to insure against this outcome.

Counting Votes
With those set of options, let's turn to the members of the FOMC, whom I've listed below, plus the participants without votes. Links are to all the tagged posts here. Next to each name I've listed my best guess, if I have one, for what option or range they'd accept, along with their main concerns based on their public statements since the last FOMC meeting.

Board of Governors
Ben Bernanke: 25 bps, Insurance against downside risks; Taylor adjustment
Donald Kohn: 25 bps, Downside Risks.
Randall Kroszner: ?
Frederic Mishkin: 50 bps; Financial instability; Insurance against downside risks.
Kevin Warsh: ?

Regional Fed Presidents with votes:
Timothy Geithner, New York: ?
Eric Rosengren, Boston: 25 bps, Insurance against downside risks.
Charles Evans, Chicago: 25 bps, Insurance against downside risks.
Thomas Hoenig, Kansas City: 0-25bps
William Poole, St. Louis: 25 bps, Potential for housing spillover; Downside risks.

Regional Fed Presidents without votes:
Sandra Pianalto, Cleveland*: ?
Charles Plosser, Philadelphia*: 0-25 bps; No housing spillover; Taylor adjustment.
Richard Fisher, Dallas*: 0-25 bps; No housing spillover; Inflation risks remain.
Gary Stern, Minneapolis*: ?
Jeffrey Lacker, Richmond: ?
Dennis Lockhart, Atlanta: ?
Janet Yellen, San Francisco: 50 bps; Financial instability; Insurance against downside risks; Taylor adjustment

*voter in 2008

That leaves quite a dispersion of opinion. So how might this play out? The inflation hawks (Hoenig, Lacker, Plosser, Poole) might argue for no rate cut, but with core PCE falling, expected to continue falling, and well inside the Fed's comfort zone, those arguments won't get very far. Plus only two of the hawks have votes. Mishkin and Yellen will likely make the case for a 50bp cut, but without more evidence of weakness outside of housing, that will be a tough sell, unless Fed staff has significantly downgraded its Greenbook economic forecast. That leaves a 25bp cut as the easy compromise outcome, which is my prediction.

The Fed Funds options market is also expecting a 25bp cut;
Karl Smith at Modeled Behavior expects the Fed to stand pat;
Tim Duy at Economists' View also expects no cut, but is worried;
William Polley expects a 25bp cut, but hopes to see a few hawks dissent;
knzn also expects 25bps, but thinks they should cut more;
Greg Ip, at the WSJ Blog, provides his summary of possible outcomes.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Mishkin on Financial Instability (10/26/07)

Governor Mishkin gave a speech today on "Financial Instability and the Federal Reserve as a Liquidity Provider." In it, he reviews the history of financial panics with only passing reference to current credit market problems. He makes no mention of current economic conditions or monetary policy.

He does, however, refers for a second time to a paper he wrote ten years ago on "The Causes and Propagation of Financial Instability: Lessons for Policymakers" (pdf). He last referred to this paper in a speech on Sept 10th, eight days before the Fed surprised the market with a 50bp cut.

The paper concludes with a review of how the Fed should respond to financial instability:

One problem in deciding whether to engage in the lender-of-last resort role is to recognize that for it to be effective, it has to be implemented quickly. Less intervention is required the faster the lender-of-last-resort role is implemented....

However, the need for the lender-of-last-resort action to be quick does mean that central banks may not be able to wait until all the information is in that tells them a financial crisis is about to occur or is occurring. To wait too long to implement a lender-of last resort policy could be disastrous.
Given that credit markets have not returned to normal since the 50bp cut on Sept 18, my guess is that Mishkin will be arguing for another 50bp cut on Oct 31. I doubt, though, that the rest of the FOMC will go along with him.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

New Chicago Fed President Charles Evans on the Economic Outlook

Charles Evans, the new President of the Chicago Fed and current FOMC voter, gave his first speech yesterday on the Current Economic Outlook. After reading through it a couple times, I get the impression that his thinking on monetary policy is very much aligned with Bernanke, Kohn and Mishkin.

The speech covers a lot of ground in a very clear way, so I'd encourage you to read the entire thing. I want to focus here just on his discussion about "acknowledging uncertainties" when deciding on monetary policy. Just about every recent Fed speaker has mentioned significant downside risks to the economic outlook. Evans tells us how these tail risks to the outlook effect policymaking:

Some risks relate to possible events or extreme macroeconomic outcomes that are not very likely to occur, but whose cost in terms of output or inflation could be quite large. In such cases, it is prudent to adjust policy to be more or less accommodative than we otherwise would as insurance against the highly adverse outcome. These are the risk management or pre-emptive views of policy I mentioned earlier, and they are a common component in central bankers' strategies. But if the extreme event does not occur or its influence subsides quickly, then it is incumbent upon policymakers to recalibrate policy — and to do so from a baseline that accounts for how the additional insurance put into the system affects the outlook for growth and inflation.
He then describes the particular downside scenario that he's thinking about:
To me, the uncertainties about how financial conditions might evolve and affect the real economy mean that risk management considerations have an important role in the current policy environment. The cutback in nonconforming mortgage originations and the continued high level of inventories of unsold homes will result in further weakness in housing markets. ... Housing demand and prices could weaken a good deal more than we expect. ... A more pronounced downturn could weigh more heavily on consumer spending. In addition, further delinquencies and foreclosures could add to the problems with mortgage-backed securities. This, in turn, could generate further adverse effects on financial conditions that support economic activity. Together, such events would pose a more serious downside risk to growth.

I want to emphasize that I do not see this extreme outcome as likely. But it is one of those high cost outcomes that we should guard against. The challenge is to calibrate the insurance in light of the lower probability of the spillover event occurring. Furthermore, if in fact the more likely scenario unfolds in which conditions improve and risks recede, then policy should be prepared to respond to any developments that threaten the inflation outlook.
I read that as saying they will continue to cut rates until Fed funds is below neutral. The only real question is: "Where's neutral?" Evans estimates potential real GDP growth at "somewhat above 2.5%." Adding that to current core PCE inflation of 1.75% YoY, that implies neutral is about 4.25%. If they're only thinking of 25bps of insurance, that gets us to a target fed funds rate of 4%, or three more 25 bps cuts. It's important to note that getting to a 4% rate does not require any of the growth risks to materialize, just for them to be out there. If housing starts to spill-over as the Beige Book has hinted, we should expect to see much lower rates.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Mishkin on Core vs Headline Inflation

Fed Governor Frederic Mishkin gave a speech yesterday on "Headline versus Core Inflation in the Conduct of Monetary Policy." In it, he laid out the best sound-bite argument I've yet heard for focusing on core inflation rather than headline: "Responding to headline inflation is inappropriate because it generates extensive variability in the unemployment rate." He runs through a detailed example to make the point:

Because the point about headline inflation is so important, I would like to illustrate it further with simulations of FRB/US, the model of the U.S. economy created and maintained by the staff at the Federal Reserve Board. To keep the experiments as clean as possible, I assume that the economy begins at full employment and with both headline and core inflation at desired levels. The economy is then assumed to experience a shock that raises the world price of oil about $30 per barrel over two years; the shock is assumed to slowly dissipate thereafter. In each of two scenarios, a Taylor rule is assumed to govern the response of the federal funds rate; the only difference between the two is that in one scenario the funds rate responds to core PCE inflation, while in the other it responds to headline PCE inflation. Figure 2 illustrates the results of these two scenarios:
The federal funds rate jumps higher and faster when the central bank responds to headline inflation rather than to core inflation, as would be expected (top-left panel). Likewise, responding to headline inflation pushes the unemployment rate markedly higher than otherwise in the early going (top-right panel), and produces an inflation rate that is slightly lower than otherwise, whether measured by core or headline indexes (bottom panels). More important, even for a shock as persistent as this one, the policy response under headline inflation has to be unwound in the sense that the federal funds rate must drop substantially below baseline once the first-round effects of the shock drop out of the inflation data. Responding to headline inflation is therefore inappropriate because it generates extensive variability in the unemployment rate--variability that is much more subdued when policy responds to core inflation.

This is a much more effectively way of communicating to the public why the Fed should focus on core inflation. I hope going forward they work on refining this line of line of reasoning. Maybe then mentions of core inflation won't be associated with ignorant jokes about economists who neither eat nor drive.

Bernanke Say They'll Cut Aggressively, If...

Ben Bernanke gave a speech today covering academic developments in the area of Monetary Policy under Uncertainty. He didn't explicitly discuss current monetary policy issues, but he did give us a big clue when he talked about how economists' thinking about the structure of the economy has changed over the last 40 years: his elegant 1967 paper, Bill Brainard showed that uncertainty about the effect of policy on the economy may imply that policy should respond more cautiously to shocks than would be the case if this uncertainty did not exist. Brainard's analysis has often been cited as providing a theoretical basis for the gradual adjustment of policy rates of most central banks. Alan Blinder has written that the Brainard result was "never far from my mind when I occupied the Vice Chairman's office at the Federal Reserve. In my view, . . . a little stodginess at the central bank is entirely appropriate"
This has created the expectation in the markets that the Fed will adjust monetary policy gradually. Bernanke seems to want to dispel this belief:
An important practical implication of all this recent literature [on optimal and robust control] is that Brainard's attenuation principle may not always hold. For example, when the degree of structural inertia in the inflation process is uncertain, the optimal Bayesian policy tends to involve a more pronounced response to shocks than would be the case in the absence of uncertainty. The concern about worst-case scenarios emphasized by the robust-control approach may likewise lead to amplification rather than attenuation in the response of the optimal policy to shocks. Indeed, intuition suggests that stronger action by the central bank may be warranted to prevent particularly costly outcomes.
In introducing these topics, Bernanke made an explicit parenthetical reference to research on the "transmission mechanism of monetary policy." He gave an entire speech on the topic seven weeks ago, so that fact that he's bringing it up again should tell us how much he's thinking about it. This passage, from his Jackson Hole speech on Housing, Housing Finance, and Monetary Policy on Aug 31, 2007, summarizes that thinking:
The dramatic changes in mortgage finance that I have described appear to have significantly affected the role of housing in the monetary transmission mechanism. Importantly, ...housing is no longer so central to monetary transmission as it was. In particular, ...the availability of mortgage credit today is generally less dependent on conditions in short-term money markets, where the central bank operates most directly.... Most estimates suggest that, because of the reduced sensitivity of housing to short-term interest rates, the response of the economy to a given change in the federal funds rate is modestly smaller and more balanced across sectors than in the past.
So if we apply those messages to the current economic situation, what I'm hearing Bernanke say is:
  1. Monetary policy can't stop the current housing recession,
  2. Interest rate cuts will be slower and less effective that they used to be,
  3. So if we see the housing recession spillover into the broader economy, we will cut rates very aggressively.
With this in mind, your homework is to re-read the Beige Book, then go look at the Fed Funds probabilities for the Oct 31st meeting outcome. Then decide whether you agree with the market's assessment that no rate cut is more likely than a 50 bp cut (putting aside the fact that a 25 bp cut is most likely).

Friday, October 19, 2007

Recommended Reading on Inflation Measures

The Inflation Update, by Stephen G. Cecchetti
October 16, 2007

A Reconciliation between the Consumer Price Index and the Personal Consumption Expenditures Price Index (pdf),
by Clinton P. McCully, Brian C. Moyer, and Kenneth J. Stewart
Bureau of Economic Analysis Working Papers
September 2007

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Pianalto Provides No Clues

Sandra Pianalto, President of the Cleveland Fed, gave a brief speech today on "National and Regional Economic Conditions." Pianalto is not currently a FOMC voter, and she tends to stick to local issues rather than broad macro themes, so she doesn't usually provide much insight into FOMC thinking. She made only one brief mention of policy:

Since our September 18 meeting, the housing sector has remained very weak, but output and employment in other sectors appear to be holding up. Inflation and inflation expectations continue to be moderate and anchored. The strains in financial markets that were so evident and worrisome in mid-September appear to have lessened somewhat. During the past few weeks, as market participants have gained a better understanding of their financial positions and the positions of others, financial markets have become more stable. The Federal Open Market Committee meets again on October 30th and 31st, and we will once more assess developments and act as needed to foster price stability and maximum sustainable economic growth.
That unfortunately tells us exactly nothing about the likely course of monetary policy.

Pianalto will have an FOMC vote starting in January 2008. In the two previous years when she had an FOMC vote (2004 and 2006), she did give more policy-focused speeches, so hopefully we'll get more policy insight from her next year.

The Beige Book Hints at a Housing Spillover

The Fed's Beige Book painted a picture of benign inflation and mild growth. Housing remains very weak, but no wide-spread housing spillover are yet obvious:

"Residential real estate markets continued to weaken, and most Districts reported additional declines in home sales, prices and construction."

"At firms without direct ties to real estate and construction, contacts are still wary that credit tightening and slowing construction might slow activity in their industry, but there is cautious optimism because few see much evidence of such spillovers at this time."

"Consumer spending expanded, but reports were uneven and suggest growth was slower in September and early October than in August."

"Labor markets remain tight across much of the country, and there continues to be moderate upward pressure on wages and benefits. Job growth eased in some regions, however, and wage pressures softened."

"Competitive pressures are restraining retail price increases in many instances."
However, when we look at some of the regional reports, the signs become a little more worrying. If you look at the Case-Shiller home price indices, you'll find that the hardest hit areas are in Florida. Prices in Miami and Tampa are down an average of 6.85% YTD. If we take a closer look at the report from the Atlanta District, which is the district that includes Florida, we find the first hint of a spillover from housing:
"In Florida, several contacts noted that the pace of hiring has slowed, with workers laid off from the homebuilding sector finding it more difficult to find alternative employment."
You get a similar picture on the West Coast. California, Las Vegas and Phoenix have also seen significant recent declines in house prices, with their respective Case-Shiller price indices down an average of 3.77% YTD. If we look in detail at the San Francisco District report, which covers all the western states, we again start to see the first signs of spillover from housing to broader weakness in consumer and business spending:
"Reports on retail sales suggested growth on balance but at a slower pace than in the last few survey periods. ... Demand for home furnishings fell further as the slowdown in housing markets intensified."

"Sales decelerated for advertising agencies and providers of media services, as weak demand for ... home furnishings held down advertising expenditures...."
Now contrast that with the details of the Dallas district, where home prices are still firm (up 2.1% YTD in Dallas):
"The [Dallas Fed District] economy is still digesting ... a slow down in homebuilding and residential real estate, but there continues to be little evidence that this is significantly affecting the broader District economy."
Housing is beginning to spill over. The question is whether there will be enough evidence that the spillover effect is big enough to convince the hawks on the FOMC to vote for a cut on Oct 31, rather than waiting until the Dec 11th meeting for more evidence to appear. Any way you cut it, though, the odds of an additional rate cut have gone up.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Bernanke Drops No Hints (Again)

Ben Bernanke, as has been his habit, dropped very few hints in his speech today on "The Recent Financial Turmoil and its Economic and Policy Consequences."

The majority of the speech was a review of financial market events, mostly repeating the points made by other recent Fed speakers, plus a review of FOMC deliberations, which he paraphrased from the FOMC minutes that were released last week.

The only new information we get is his assessment of events since the Sept 18 meeting, along with the data he'll be watching most closely:

Since the September meeting, the incoming data have borne out the Committee's expectations of further weakening in the housing market, as sales have fallen further and new residential construction has continued to decline rapidly. The further contraction in housing is likely to be a significant drag on growth in the current quarter and through early next year. However, it remains too early to assess the extent to which household and business spending will be affected by the weakness in housing and the tightening in credit conditions. We will be following indicators of household and business spending closely as we update our outlook for near-term growth. The evolution of employment and labor income also will bear watching, as gains in real income support consumer spending even if the weakness in house prices adversely affects homeowners' equity.
In short, I don't think this speech is going to change anyone's mind about the outcome of the Oct 31st FOMC meeting. It sounds to me like Bernanke is still largely undecided himself.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Fed Hasn't Cut Real Rates, Yet...

Do you want a hint as to what the Fed will do at the next FOMC meeting? You're in luck because Ben Bernanke just gave us a big one in his opening remarks at the conference on John Taylor's Contributions to Monetary Theory and Policy:

The Taylor rule also embeds a basic principle of sound monetary policy that has subsequently been referred to as the Taylor principle. According to this principle, when a shock causes a shift in the inflation rate, the central bank must adjust the nominal interest rate by more than one-for-one. This ensures that the real interest rate moves in the right direction to restore price stability.
That doesn't sound like much of a hint, I know, but read on.

The Taylor principle says that when inflation rises, the Fed should raise nominal rates by more than the increase in inflation, so that real rates go up too. Conversely, when inflation falls, the Fed should cut rates by more than the fall in inflation, so that real rates decline. Bernanke, above, calls the Taylor Principle "a basic principle of sound monetary policy." Frederic Mishkin called it a "key principle" in a recent paper. Don Kohn, in a 2005 speech, called it a "basic precept, embraced by central bankers everywhere."

So with that in mind, let's revisit a passage from Janet Yellen's speech earlier this week:
Over the past twelve months, the price index for personal consumption expenditures excluding food and energy, or the core PCE price index, has increased by 1.8 percent. Just several months ago, the twelve-month change was quite a bit higher, at nearly 2½ percent. It wouldn’t surprise me if core PCE price inflation edged down a little bit more over the next few years.

[I] considered the larger-than-usual cut in the funds rate prudent because... the stance of monetary policy... was growing more restrictive as core inflation gradually trended down.
Well that's quite interesting. Let's take a look at the data. The graph below (click to enlarge) shows several key interest rates, all deflated by the year-over-year change in core PCE. The top two lines are real mortgage rates for conforming and jumbo mortgages. Those rates are significantly higher than they were at the start of the year, adding to downward pressure on real-estate prices. The lower two lines are overnight LIBOR and the Fed funds rate, again both significantly higher than at the start of the year, and still firmly in restrictive territory.

The reason is that core YoY PCE has fallen by about 65 bps since the Fed stopped raising rates last July. The recent trend is even steeper. The 6-month annualized PCE deflator has fallen by 130 bps over that same period, implying the YoY rate will continue to fall:
That puts the Fed, according to their own Taylor Principle that's "embraced by central bankers everywhere", pretty far behind the curve. So can someone explain to me again why the market isn't expecting another rate cut on October 31st?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Yellen on the Economic Outlook (Oct 9, 2007)

Earlier this week, Janet Yellen, President of the San Francisco Fed, gave a speech on "Recent Financial Developments and the U.S. Economic Outlook." Yellen is one of the most informative and articulate Fed speakers; I'd highly recommend putting all her speeches on your reading list. This speech covers lots of ground, but there are three points I want to highlight.

On recent economic performance:

Recent data on personal consumption expenditures have been robust. Manufacturing output and orders for core capital goods have been upbeat, and business investment in equipment and software promises to be a bright spot. Despite the hike in borrowing costs for higher-risk corporate borrowers and the illiquidity in markets for collateralized loan obligations, it appears that financing for capital spending for most firms remains readily available on terms that have been little affected by the recent financial turmoil.... That said, most of these data are too early to reflect the effects of the financial turmoil, and those effects are more likely to show up in data for the current quarter.

Translation: We're not paying too much attention to Q3 indicators; you shouldn't either.

On housing and employment:

"The downturn in house prices would likely be intensified by a simultaneous decline in employment, should that occur, since significant job loss would weaken demand for housing and raise foreclosures."

"Should the decline in house prices occur in the context of rising unemployment, the risks could be significant."
Translation: The Fed will act very aggressively to counter any signs of increasing unemployment.

On inflation and the Fed funds rate:

Turning to inflation, signs of improvement in underlying inflationary pressures are evident in recent data. Over the past twelve months...the core PCE price index, has increased by 1.8 percent. Just several months ago, the twelve-month change was quite a bit higher, at nearly 2½ percent. It wouldn’t surprise me if core PCE price inflation edged down a little bit more over the next few years.

...the stance of monetary policy before the September meeting was probably a bit on the restrictive side.... In fact, the stance of policy was growing more restrictive as core inflation gradually trended down.

Translation: Pay attention to real interest rates. Even after the 50bp cut, the real fed funds rate is still higher than it was at the beginning of the year.

This last point by itself argues pretty strongly for another 25bp cut on Oct 31.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Recommended Reading on Housing

Recent Developments in Real Estate, Financial Markets, and the Economy by Eric Rosengren
President, Federal Reserve Bank of Boston
October 10, 2007

Real Estate in the U.S. Economy, by William Poole
President, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis
October 9, 2007

Proceedings of the 2007 Jackson Hole Symposium on Housing, Housing Finance and Monetary Policy, especially the papers by Leamer, Shiller and Mishkin.
September 1, 2007

Poole on Housing and Recessions

Bill Poole, the outgoing President of the St Louis Fed, gave a speech yesterday on housing that essentially endorsed Ed Leamer's view from his Jackson Hole talk that housing recessions are almost always the proximate cause of full-blown recessions:

Consider Figure 6 ... Each line shows the average contribution to real GDP growth (in percentage points) eight quarters before and after each cycle peak from 1953 to 2001. There are three lines representing the contribution to real GDP growth from residential fixed investment (housing), nonresidential structures (commercial and industrial), and business equipment and software investment. These are the major components of private fixed investment.

Residential investment typically turns down ... well before the other two investment components. The figure shows that, on average, housing peaks about three quarters before a recession starts....

Figure 6 makes clear that housing... leads the economy into recession and out of recession.
Here's the graph of year-over-year changes in residential investment:

So if past is prologue then we've got a problem, because it means we're already in a recession.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

FOMC Minutes for Sept 18, 2007

The Fed released the minutes of their Sept 18th FOMC meeting, detailing their decision to lower the Fed funds rate by 50bps. Let's start at the end:

"Members judged that a lowering of the target funds rate was appropriate to help offset the effects of tighter financial conditions on the economic outlook. Without such policy action, members saw a risk that tightening credit conditions and an intensifying housing correction would lead to significant broader weakness in output and employment. ... In order to help forestall some of the adverse effects on the economy that might otherwise arise, all members agreed that a rate cut of 50 basis points at this meeting was the most prudent course of action."
Three thing to make note of: First, all members favored cutting 50 bps, including the non-voters. That matters because four regional Fed voters will rotate in January. Second, their main worry is that weakness in housing will be intensified by tighter mortgage market conditions, and that will feed into broader economic weakness. That's important at least as much for what they're not saying, namely that they're not primarily concerned with current growth, employment, inflation etc. Third, they don't expect the 50 bp cut to fully counter the deterioration in the economic outlook.

Now on to the details. Here's how they described the economic environment immediately prior to cutting 50bps:
" date, initial claims for unemployment insurance did not indicate a substantial and widespread weakening in labor demand, and labor markets across the country generally remained fairly tight"

"...some recent data and anecdotal information pointed to a possible nascent slowdown in the pace of expansion."

" conditions confronting most nonfinancial businesses did not appear to have tightened appreciably"

"Participants reported that recent financial market developments generally appeared to have had limited effects to date on business capital spending plans and expected that business investment was likely to remain healthy in coming quarters."

"...participants noted that foreign demand remained robust and net exports appeared strong."
That couldn't be clearer: current growth isn't really a problem, certainly not enough to justify their 50 bp cut.

The Fed really does mean it when they say they respond to changes in the outlook for growth and inflation. On the inflation outlook:
"Incoming data on consumer price inflation combination with the easing of pressures on resource utilization in the current forecast, led the staff to trim slightly its forecast for core PCE inflation."

"Headline PCE inflation ... was expected to slow in 2008 and 2009."

"...they generally were a little more confident that the decline in inflation earlier this year would be sustained."

"They also agreed that the inflation situation seemed to have improved slightly and judged that it was no longer appropriate to indicate that a sustained moderation in inflation pressures had yet to be shown."
Again, the message is pretty clear: inflation isn't the central concern. Now on to the growth outlook:
"...the staff marked down the fourth-quarter forecast ... [and] also trimmed its forecast of real GDP growth in 2008"

"...participants judged that credit markets were likely to restrain economic growth in the period ahead."

"...meeting participants focused on the potential for recent credit market developments to restrain aggregate demand in coming quarters."

"...participants judged that some further slowing of employment growth was likely."

"...a further tightening of terms for home equity lines of credit and second mortgages seemed possible, which could weigh on consumer spending, especially for consumer durables."
Ok, now we're getting somewhere. Growth is expected to be below potential through 2008, largely due to problems in credit markets.

So the forecast is for lower inflation and below potential growth through 2008. The only missing piece is the balance of risks for that forecast:
"...participants regarded the outlook for economic activity as characterized by particularly high uncertainty, with the risks to growth skewed to the downside."

"Some participants cited concerns that a weaker economy could lead to a further tightening of financial conditions, which in turn could reinforce the economic slowdown."

"The disruptions to the market for nonconforming mortgages were likely to reduce further the demand for housing"

"...subprime mortgages remained essentially unavailable, little activity was evident in the markets for other nonprime mortgages, and prime jumbo mortgage borrowers faced higher rates and tighter lending standards."

"...if declines in house prices were to damp consumption, that could feed back on employment and income, exerting additional restraint on the demand for housing."
Ouch. Not only do they see downside risks to their growth forecast, but they see the potential for those downside risks to snowball into even greater downside risks. No wonder the 50bp cut was unanimous.

In response, the Fed funds futures markets priced in significantly lower odds of a rate cute this year. Here are the odds for the Oct 31 meeting outcome, before and after the release of the minutes:

I think the market has got it wrong; more cuts are coming.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Recommended Reading on the Taylor Rule

Discretion versus Policy Rules in Practice (pdf) by John Taylor
Carnegie-Rochester Conference Series on Public Policy, 1993

The Fed’s Monetary Policy Rule (pdf) by William Poole
The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review, 2006

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Kohn on the Economic Outlook

Don Kohn, the Vice Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, gave a speech today on the Economic Outlook. Kohn is, in my opinion, one of the three most influential members of the FOMC (along with Bernanke and Mishkin), in terms of his ability to frame the debate, so his speeches are worth studying in detail.

When reading through this speech there are a couple important things to keep in mind, especially in light of Friday's better-than-expected employment situation report (pdf), which revised August payroll growth to +89,000 from -4,000.

The recent tightening in the credit markets affects the real economy with a significant lag, the same way an increase in the Fed funds rate would. This credit tightening is happening concurrently with a very deep housing recession, but one that so far has stayed within the housing sector and not spread to the rest of the economy. However, downturns in housing have historically almost alway spread to other sectors of the economy (read Ed Leamer's paper for the gory details). The easiest way, by far, to accelerate the housing downturn and guarantee that it leads to a full-blown recession is to cut off access to mortgage credit. That's precisely what's happened in the jumbo mortgage market (see Felix Salmon for a review). These credit-channel effects are very powerful and very predictable, but they play out in slow motion, over several quarters at least. 1990 is the right analog, not 1998. In such a situation, if the Fed sees significant downside risks to growth, one would expect the Fed to cut rates preemptively, even if current growth and inflation numbers wouldn't seem to otherwise justify a rate cut.

Now, with that in mind, on to the speech. I've quoted the meaty section of Kohn's speech in full below, with his comments on major risks to growth in black, and risks to inflation in red:

I expect that the financial market turmoil of the past few months will leave an imprint on the cost and availability of credit to many household and business borrowers. The greatest effects have been on credit related to residential real estate; in addition to the problems with nonprime and jumbo first mortgages, second mortgages and home equity lines of credit that many households have been using to finance purchases of household durables and other consumer goods and services probably will become more expensive and less available as well. Banks are likely to be especially cautious about making new loans and financing commitments while substantial uncertainty about the quality of loans and the extent of demands from previous commitments persists. So it would not be surprising to see less-generous credit for a wide variety of loans to business and households. And, the rates for some loans are tied directly to elevated libor or other rates in term funding markets.

More generally, credit will probably not be as easily available and as inexpensive for many borrowers as it was a few months ago, even after market functioning improves. In several segments of the financial markets, compensation for taking on risk had for some time seemed too low to be sustainable. In addition, more credit is likely to flow through banks, and leverage in the nonbank sectors of the financial markets will be lower. The higher levels of capital relative to assets should form the basis for a more stable system, but the spread of lending rates over the cost of funds will need to rise so that capital can earn a competitive rate of return.

Many people had expected the Federal Reserve to follow a gradual path of rate reductions in response to financial market developments--say, 25 basis points in September and another 25 basis points in October. Such a path would be in keeping with how we have often approached our policy choices, as it has the advantage of allowing us to calibrate our policy as we see how the economic situation is evolving and responding to earlier policy moves. However, given the circumstances at the time of the September FOMC meeting, there were strong arguments in favor of the larger action of a 50 basis point decrease in the federal funds rate. For one thing, it seemed that a decrease of that size could well be necessary to promote moderate growth. We had been holding the federal funds rate at 5-1/4 percent, well above the expected rate of inflation, in part to compensate for what had been very narrow yield spreads and readily available credit. We did not know how quickly markets would recover, the extent to which credit terms and standards would be tightened, or precisely how households and businesses would respond to recent or forthcoming financial developments. But, pending further evidence, a 50 basis point easing was not an unreasonable first approximation of what might be required to keep the economy on a sustainable growth path.

In addition, I thought that economic performance would be better served by the Federal Reserve taking its chances on responding too much, or too rapidly, to the turmoil in financial markets rather than acting too little, or too slowly. Sluggish or inadequate easing risked a weaker real economy that might cause lenders to pull back even more, leading to a deteriorating situation that could prove difficult to reverse. With the news on inflation relatively favorable of late and with inflation expectations seemingly well anchored, I believed that we would be able to offset the cut in the federal funds rate--if it turned out to be larger than needed--in time to preserve price stability.

Since the September FOMC meeting, we have seen some signs of improvement in some markets that were severely disrupted. For example, investors appear to be differentiating more among risk characteristics of asset-backed commercial paper programs; term funding has become a little more readily available to banks and commercial paper issuers; and the run-off in commercial paper outstandings has slowed. But spreads in these markets are still quite high by historical standards and funding maturities are very short, leaving many markets vulnerable to unpleasant surprises. In mortgage markets, spreads for rates on jumbo prime mortgage loans over those on conforming, agency eligible, loans have come down a bit, but are still elevated. Indeed, it may be a while before market participants regain enough confidence to price and trade certain types of assets and more normal liquidity conditions are restored.

Our policy action will not be able to avert all of the weakness in the economy that may be in train for the next several months. Monetary policy works with a lag, and the effects of our easing action will have their maximum effect only after several quarters. In particular, housing markets are likely to remain depressed in coming months as housing demand is restrained by the difficulty in obtaining mortgages and perhaps also by spreading expectations on the part of buyers that house prices will fall, as they already have in a number of markets. And, although builders have reduced housing starts sharply, they have made very little progress in reducing the number of unsold new homes on the market. As a result, even absent a further deterioration in sales, residential construction would probably decline further in the months ahead, imparting a significant drag on overall growth in real gross domestic product.

Beyond housing, it is too early to tell what effect financial market turmoil is having on household and business spending, though very preliminary and partial information suggest that thus far the effects seem to be limited. Moreover, the available data indicate that the economy entered this period still expanding at a moderate pace. For example, consumption held up well this summer supported by solid growth in real incomes. And, the recent data on orders and shipments of capital goods and on nonresidential construction indicated further growth in capital outlays in August. That said, credit availability is likely to be tighter than before, consumer confidence is down, and businesses will probably be a little more cautious for a while, suggesting that these components of aggregate demand could become more subdued in coming months.

Over time, however, I anticipate that the economy will move back onto a moderate growth track. The housing market should gradually recover as the cutback in production and lower prices help reduce the inventory overhang. And, as it does, the drag on growth from the declines in residential construction will abate, providing a boost to overall economic activity. To be sure, households are likely to start to save more out of their current incomes as they come to realize that they cannot count on a rise in the value of their real estate to build their retirement nest eggs. However, households have been surprisingly resilient to recent economic shocks, and any rise in the saving rate probably would be gradual. More generally, consumer spending should continue to be supported by ongoing growth in employment and income. In the business sector, balance sheets are in good shape, and most firms are not likely to face an appreciable tightening of credit availability. As a result, I anticipate that they will expand their investment spending to keep pace with rising household demands and with strength in export markets. In sum, once we get through the near-term weakness caused by the extra downleg from the housing contraction and any spillover from tighter credit conditions, I am looking for moderate growth with high levels of employment.

But you should view these forecasts even more skeptically than usual. The FOMC emphasized the considerable uncertainty in the outlook. As I noted earlier, we do not know how financial markets will evolve, and we do not know how households and businesses will respond to financial developments. Naturally, these types of uncertainties are greatest when markets are behaving abnormally. The recovery from the problems of the early 1990s was prolonged because banks had to rebuild capital; the rebound from the market crisis of 1998 was swifter, helped along by higher productivity growth and the rise in the stock market that accompanied the optimism about high-tech profits. We will need to be nimble in adjusting policy to promote growth and price stability.

Of course, we would not have eased policy if the outlook for inflation had not been favorable. The recent data on consumer price inflation have been encouraging. Movements in energy prices have created volatility in overall inflation, but over the past twelve months both core and total prices for personal consumption expenditures rose 1.8 percent. Moreover, the near-term weakness in the economy should intensify competitive conditions in markets and reduce potential pressures on costs and prices. And, it will be critical for inflation expectations to remain well contained.

Two things to notice about his inflation comments: First, both current inflation readings and the inflation outlook are benign; Second, upside risks to inflation are not his main concern, and will not be a major consideration unless and until he sees a significant inflation uptick, which he clearly doesn't expect.

On the outlook for growth, all of the risks he cites are to the downside, and he expects those risks to persist for many months.

The Fed funds options market is now predicting no cut on Oct 31:

I think that's unlikely.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Fisher on Inflation

Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher came to the defense of core inflation in a speech today on "Inflation Measurement and Price Volatility." In doing so, he comes down firmly on the (correct) side of Brad DeLong and knzn in their slap-down of Barry Ritholtz and Dan Gross, who seem convinced that core inflation is some kind of conspiracy.

It is, of course, no such thing. The real reason that food and energy are ignored in core inflation is that, according to Fisher:

It boils down to what engineers call a "signal extraction" problem; struggling to eliminate "noise" in our monthly inflation measures and trying to maximize the amount of "signal." ... By ignoring items whose price movements display significant short-run volatility, statisticians and policymakers can get a better sense of underlying trends in consumer price inflation. Because the trends change only gradually, measures that give us a better sense of what they are today provide a better sense of where overall inflation will be tomorrow. To make inflation forecasts over the next 12, 18 or 24 months, we are much better off looking at the recent behavior of a core measure ... than we are looking at the recent behavior of headline inflation.

It really is just that simple. If you're interested in the debate, or if you have any sympathy for the Ritholtz/Gross view, do read the entire speech. It's a deeply informed, yet highly readable summary, and it's only 4 pages long. Plus you'll be treated to the rare event of a Fed speaker making a (kind of funny) joke.

For a deeper treatment of how to construct inflation measures that are better at predicting future headline inflation, read Measures of Core Inflation (pdf), by Julie Smith.

Finally, if knzn is reading this, Fisher must have read your proposal to target labor costs, rather than core inflation. Looks like that's not going to happen any time soon:
[T]here are macroeconomic models suggesting that if wages are stickier than prices, a central bank would do well to focus on an index of wages rather than prices. I just can't imagine central bankers lasting very long in their jobs if they continually announced to the public their desire to hold down wage growth.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Recommended Reading

Interview with Frederic Mishkin
The Region - Banking and Policy Issues Magazine
September 2007

In the Lap of the Gods
Speech by Richard Fisher, President of the Dallas Fed
Greater Dallas Chamber Annual State of Technology Luncheon
October 2, 2007

Monday, October 1, 2007

Lockhart in Q&A on Dollar Markets

I just listened to the Q&A from Lockhart's speech on Friday. This was quite interesting, especially in light of Mishkin's last speech on globalization:

"I should repeat the question, a very good question. What's my response to the view that the fed funds as a monetary tool and future fed funds cuts might not be so effective given the intertwined nature of our economy and our financial markets with the global markets. Well it's a very good question and I am confident that the management of the federal funds rate given its effect on dollar markets and global markets remains a very powerful instrument. So I am not, let's say, a believer in the argument that we have been emasculated in our powers to influence the overall economy by virtue of globalization."

It seems increasingly clear that the FOMC views significant dollar depreciation, induced by fed funds cuts, as the most likely monetary transmission mechanism in the event of U.S. economic weakness.

You should be able to predict how imminent this scenario is by counting the frequency of denials like this (again from Lockhart's Q&A):
"The question is what do I see happening regarding the value of the dollar and this is another one of those questions and topics that we at the fed leave to another agency, in this case it's the treasury. So I have to duck that question. It's not our brief to predict the direction of the dollar."
For future reference, as of 10/1/2007: EURUSD = $1.423, USDJPY= ¥115.78

Recommended Reading on the Phillips Curve

Inflation and Unemployment: A Layperson's Guide to the Phillips Curve (pdf)
by Jeffrey Lacker and John Weinberg,
FRB-Richmond Economic Quarterly,
Summer 2007

Implications of Behavioral Economics for Monetary Policy
Speech by Janet Yellen,
FRB- San Francisco,
Sept 28, 2007