Kicking The Can

18/09/2015 at 3:43 pm

The big news this week, of course, was the Fed. Rarely has inaction been so exciting! The statement put out by its Board of Governors is quite pithy as these things go and worth a read in full, and the salient policy points are all sandwiched within a single paragraph as follows:

To support continued progress toward maximum employment and price stability, the Committee today reaffirmed its view that the current 0 to 1/4 percent target range for the federal funds rate remains appropriate. In determining how long to maintain this target range, the Committee will assess progress–both realized and expected–toward its objectives of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation. This assessment will take into account … labor market conditions … inflation pressures and … expectations, and readings on financial and international developments. The Committee anticipates that it will be appropriate to raise the target range for the federal funds rate when it has seen some further improvement in the labor market and is reasonably confident that inflation will move back to its 2 percent objective over the medium term.

US unemployment for August was 5.1%, down half a point from the beginning of the year and nearer the bottom than the top of the Fed’s own range for the “longer-run normal rate of unemployment” of 4.7-5.8%. There is nothing here to justify emergency monetary conditions whatsoever. Despite the statement, therefore, the US labour market was in practice irrelevant to the decision taken by its central bank.

On inflation, the Fed notes elsewhere the “transitory effects of declines in energy and import prices”, and is absolutely right to do so. Fortunately it also has access, just like the rest of us, to “core” measures of both consumer and producer price inflation which specifically exclude food and energy. Headline CPI has crashed down from 2.1% in the spring of last year to 0.2% today, but the core measure has risen this year from 1.6% to 1.8%, not meaningfully distant from the stated target of 2%. Again, this is not consistent with an emergency monetary stance.

Having abandoned at least one and a half of the two elements of its mandate, then, the Fed has effectively announced it is acting with reference primarily or solely to an unofficial third: “financial and international developments”.

In one sense this is a masterstroke. Attributing loose policy to sources other than the domestic economy eliminates the risk of a bearish response to a downbeat assessment of the situation at home. (The Fed has come a cropper here before.) When a central bank produces an economic assessment that is news. When it points to events offshore that everyone has already seen, it says nothing new.

From another angle, however, yesterday’s decision does not look quite so masterly. Invoking the stock market as a reason for cheap money used to be known as the Greenspan Put, a source of moral hazard under the eponymous Fed chairman which attracted some of the blame for the financial crisis. And at least efforts were made to justify Mr Greenspan’s option writing in terms of a “wealth effect” on US household spending. Extending the put to the stock market in China seems startlingly multilateral even for these enlightened times.

Furthermore, all the Fed has done is postpone a move which would have taken nobody by surprise if they had done it this week. It is still perhaps a little early to gauge the market reaction but stocks are down in both the US and Europe today. The dollar has weakened just a touch against the euro, is pretty much unchanged against sterling and the yen and the Chinese yuan has not budged, so there is as yet no consoling impact for American exporters and multinationals. All that is certain is that the postponement has prolonged a key source of uncertainty.

The impact of a 25bp rate hike would have had a negligible impact on everything apart from sentiment. And it is far from clear that its market impact would have been any worse than that of the Fed’s eventual, barely defensible decision to dither.

So much for the new mandate to shore up financial and international developments.

Kudos, in conclusion, to Jeff Lacker, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, the only one of the Fed’s twelve decision-makers to vote for a hike yesterday. His colleagues have in reality opted for nothing more cogent than mañana.

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