7 Questions For Janet Yellen (If I Had Her Phone Number)

by: Hedgeye


Recent commentary out of Federal Reserve policymakers solidifies our expectations that the Fed will surprise investors to the dovish side.

This note was originally published August 13, 2014 at 23:43 in Macro by Hedgeye Macro analyst Darius Dale.

When I started as a junior analyst in this business, I had the fortunate experience from learning from one of the best Retail & Apparel analysts in the world, Hedgeye Sector Head Brian McGough. One of my primary responsibilities on Brian’s team was to update models during earnings season and take notes on conference calls.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that “management” knew little more about the future than even I did. In fact, listening to how bearish many of those executives sounded during what was a generational opportunity to buy domestic consumer discretionary stocks (i.e. mid-2009) sounded increasingly at odds with the Hedgeye Macro Team’s almost-giddy bullish view on the US consumer.

I learned three valuable lessons from that experience that have shaped, if not defined my analytical career:

  1. No one knows anything about the future. We’re all getting paid handsomely to bet on what we view as the most probable outcome (i.e. “guess”).
  2. While relative levels of compensation would indicate otherwise, corporate executives are not any better than you or I at predicting the future state of their own operating performance – let alone the broader economy. The best they can do for you in a 1x1 meeting is provide you with details that may border on material nonpublic information – something we vehemently shun at Hedgeye.
  3. There is no “management” to call in macro.

Regarding that last point, we often joke in meetings with prospective customers that “God called us” whenever we’re asked to describe the research process that has allowed us to stay on the opposite side of both buy-side and sell-side consensus on the direction of interest rates in both 2013 and 2014 (i.e. accurate).

In reality, our process is a combination of rigorous quantitative methods, meticulous study of economic history and a willingness to incorporate relatively newer disciplines such as behavioral finance and complexity theory into our analysis. We’re certainly not always right, but over the years we’ve found that combination to be the most successful at generating a high probability of accuracy on a consistent basis.

If, however, there was a management team to call in macro, it would most likely be the Federal Reserve. Their incessant and growing interference with financial markets has certainly amplified their role in both the price discovery process and the pace of economic activity.

While we don’t have Janet Yellen’s phone number, or the numbers of any of her minions among the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, or their minions at CNBC or the WSJ, we can at least pretend to engage in a 1x1 dialogue with them by asking and responding to commentary from their recent statements. We do this below with a satirical interview that incorporates sound bites from Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer’s 8/11 speech at the Swedish Ministry of Finance:

  • Q: Hedgeye: Tell us about the Fed’s track record on growth.
  • A: Fischer: “Year after year we have had to explain from mid-year on why the global growth rate has been lower than predicted as little as two quarters back. Indeed, research done by my colleagues at the Federal Reserve comparing previous cases of severe recessions suggests that, even conditional on the depth and duration of the Great Recession and its association with a banking and financial crisis, the recoveries in the advanced economies have been well below average... These disappointments in output performance have not only led to repeated downward revisions of forecasts for short-term growth, but also to a general reassessment of longer-run growth. From the perspective of the FOMC, even in the heart of the crisis, in January 2009, the central tendency of the Committee members' projections for longer-run U.S. growth was between 2-1/2and 3 percent. At our June meeting this year, these projections had fallen to between roughly 2 and 2-1/4 percent.”

  • Q: Hedgeye: Interesting. Why do you think growth has been so slow in the post-crisis era?
  • A: Fischer: “As Cerra and Saxena and Reinhart and Rogoff, among others, have documented, it takes a long time for output in the wake of banking and financial crises to return to pre-crisis levels. Possibly we are simply seeing a prolonged Reinhart-Rogoff cyclical episode, typical of the aftermath of deep financial crises, and compounded by other temporary headwinds. But it is also possible that the underperformance reflects a more structural, longer-term, shift in the global economy, with less growth in underlying supply factors… In the United States, three major aggregate demand headwinds appear to have kept a more vigorous recovery from taking hold. The unusual weakness of the housing sector during the recovery period, the significant drag--now waning--from fiscal policy, and the negative impact from the growth slowdown abroad--particularly in Europe--are all prominent factors that have constrained the pace of economic activity.”

  • Q: Hedgeye: So, to be clear, you do not think your Policies To Inflate have had anything to do with the fits and starts in growth we’ve seen over the past several years?
  • A: Fischer: [no comment]

  • Q: Hedgeye: Moving along, what do you make of claims that ZIRP and quantitative easing after quantitative easing are effectively holding back the recovery by depressing the “animal spirits” needed for a true economic cycle?
  • A: Fischer: “… turning to the aggregate supply side, we are also seeing important signs of a slowdown of growth in the productive capacity of the economy--in the growth in labor supply, capital investment, and productivity. This may well reflect factors related to or predating the recession that are also holding down growth. How much of this weakness on the supply side will turn out to be structural--perhaps contributing to a secular slowdown--and how much is temporary but longer-than-usual-lasting remains a crucial and open question.”

  • Q: Hedgeye: Interesting that you mention labor supply. Can you talk a little bit about “slack”, which has been a hot topic amongst monetary policymakers in recent weeks?
  • A: Fischer: “There has been a steady decrease in the labor force participation rate since 2000. Although this reduction in labor supply largely reflects demographic factors--such as the aging of the population--participation has fallen more than many observers expected and the interpretation of these movements remains subject to considerable uncertainty. For instance, there are good reasons to believe that some of the surprising weakness in labor force participation reflects still poor cyclical conditions. Many of those who dropped out of the labor force may be discouraged workers.”

  • Q: Hedgeye: Lastly, can you share with us any insights you guys may have that we may not yet be aware of as it relates to your “data dependent” guidance on policy normalization?
  • A: Fischer: “At the end of the day, it remains difficult to disentangle the cyclical from the structural slowdowns in labor force, investment, and productivity. Adding to this uncertainty, as research done at the Fed and elsewhere highlights, the distinction between cyclical and structural is not always clear cut and there are real risks that cyclical slumps can become structural; it may also be possible to reverse or prevent declines from becoming permanent through expansive macroeconomic policies.”

  • Q: Hedgeye: So basically what you’re saying is, “We really have no clue what we’re doing or where we’re headed, but we’re going to attack every problem as if it were a nail and we’re the hammer.” Is that more-or-less accurate?
  • A: Fischer: [no comment]

Moving along, if you aren’t yet familiar with the debate surrounding the outlook for US monetary policy we’ve been attempting to prepare investors for since JAN, we highly encourage you to review the following Reuters article: "Yellen Resolved to Avoid Raising Rates Too Soon; Fearing Downturn" (7/12).

All told, we remain the bears on US interest rates/bulls on long-term Treasuries as growth is likely to slow throughout 2H14.

Meanwhile, Consensus Macro remains out to lunch with their expectations of perpetually compounding +3% QoQ SAAR GDP growth – expectations that don’t even align with their full year view of +1.7%. Specifically, if GDP compounds at +3.1% in Q3 and Q4, full year GDP will equate to +2.1%, not the +1.7% currently expected by Bloomberg Consensus. I know it’s August, but c’mon, that’s just analytically lazy. Update those forecasts!

For those of you who are still grinding away with us, we wish you a restful night’s sleep and a very productive morning.


Darius Dale

Associate: Macro Team