As 2016 began to evolve, it quickly became apparent that Federal Reserve Chairman Janet Yellen faced the very real possibility that her legacy would amount to being just another central banker who failed miserably in their efforts to raise interest rates back into positive territory. The Federal Reserve was set to follow in the footsteps of the Bank of Japan and the Riksbank, seemingly oblivious to their errors. In September of last year, a confident Yellen declared the Fed would be different. From the transcript of her press conference:
ANN SAPHIR. Ann Saphir with Reuters. Just to piggyback on the global considerations—as you say, the U.S. economy has been growing. Are you worried that, given the global interconnectedness, the low inflation globally, all of the other concerns that you just spoke about, that you may never escape from this zero lower bound situation?
CHAIR YELLEN. So I would be very—I would be very surprised if that’s the case. That is not the way I see the outlook or the way the Committee sees the outlook. Can I completely rule it out? I can’t completely rule it out. But, really, that’s an extreme downside risk that in no way is near the center of my outlook.
Shuddering financial markets in the wake of the Fed’s first rate hike since 2006 certainty tested Yellen’s confidence that failure to exit the zero bound was nothing more than an “extreme” tail risk. Indeed, it looked all too possible, even as policymakers such as Federal Reserve Vice-Chair Stanley Fischer and San Francisco Federal Reserve President John Williams counseled dismissing financial market turbulence as something the economy could withstand as it has in the past (ignoring though the role the Fed play in such resilience).
Luckily for Yellen, she heeded the warnings of Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard, who has since last fall has cautioned that the Fed faced more danger than commonly believed within the confines of the Eccles Building. With her speech this week, Yellen clearly embraced Brainard’s warnings. She is choosing the risk of overheating the economy – and sending inflation above target – over the risk of failing at the one and perhaps only chance to leave the zero bound behind.
While the exit from the zero bound remains uncertain, Yellen’s new path is at least more likely to succeed than blindly ignoring financial market signals by following through with expected rate hikes. And that’s important for more than just Yellen’s legacy. Her legacy is intertwined with the health of the US economy.
There is much to be had in Yellen’s speech this week. Highlights include an awareness that the neutral rate of interest is not rising as quickly as expected, the global economy is a risk that cannot be ignored, the recent uptick in inflation might be less than meets the eye, and a recognition that falling long-rates represent an expectation of easier monetary policy, and the Fed needs to meet that expectation to ensure that financial market remain sufficiently accommodative.
But two points in particular caught me eye. The first was a deeper appreciation of the asymmetric risks facing policymakers. Yellen notes that although the Fed retains a litany of potential unconventional tools:
“…if the expansion was to falter or if inflation was to remain stubbornly low, the FOMC would be able to provide only a modest degree of additional stimulus by cutting the federal funds rate back to near zero.”
If you want to successful pull off the zero bound, you better make sure that you conditions give you some distance from that bound before you need to start cutting again. That distance is effectively almost none, and will likely remain limited for substantial time. Better to move glacially rather than gradually.
But more important was the role of deteriorating inflation expectations in her analysis. Recall that in her September speech, Yellen sought to emphasize her faith in the Phillips curve as a reason to begin rates hikes sooner than later. She noted the importance of anchored inflation expectations in her assessment, saying:
“…the presence of well-anchored inflation expectations greatly enhances a central bank's ability to pursue both of its objectives--namely, price stability and full employment...
… Although the evidence, on balance, suggests that inflation expectations are well anchored at present, policymakers would be unwise to take this situation for granted. Anchored inflation expectations were not won easily or quickly: Experience suggests that it takes many years of carefully conducted monetary policy to alter what households and firms perceive to be inflation's "normal" behavior, and, furthermore, that a persistent failure to keep inflation under control--by letting it drift either too high or too low for too long--could cause expectations to once again become unmoored.”
The stability of inflation expectations is now, however, less certain:
"The inflation outlook has also become somewhat more uncertain since the turn of the year, in part for reasons related to risks to the outlook for economic growth...
… Lately, however, there have been signs that inflation expectations may have drifted down. Market-based measures of longer-run inflation compensation have fallen markedly over the past year and half, although they have recently moved up modestly from their all-time lows. Similarly, the measure of longer-run inflation expectations reported in the University of Michigan Survey of Consumers has drifted down somewhat over the past few years and now stands at the lower end of the narrow range in which it has fluctuated since the late 1990s…
…Taken together, these results suggest that my baseline assumption of stable expectations is still justified. Nevertheless, the decline in some indicators has heightened the risk that this judgment could be wrong."
To be sure, Yellen recognizes that inflation may rebound more quickly than expected, but the overall thrust of her argument is that although labor markets have continues to improve and rising wages suggests the economy is reaching full employment, the risks to stable inflation expectations are now too on the downside. And if expectations become unanchored, the Fed will fail to meet it’s 2 percent inflation target anytime soon. Moreover, the Fed would be faced with trying to re-establish expectations in the absence of their conventional tools. That might be a tall order.
Bottom Line: Rising risks to the outlook placed Yellen’s legacy in danger. If the first rate hike wasn’t a mistake, certainly follow up hikes would be. And there is no room to run; if you want to “normalize” policy, Yellen needs to ensure that rates rise well above zero before the next recession hits. The incoming data suggests that means the economy needs to run hotter for longer if the Fed wants to leave the zero bound behind. Yellen is getting that message. But perhaps more than anything, the risk of deteriorating inflation expectations – the basis for the Fed’s credibility on its inflation target – signaled to Yellen that rates hike need to be put on hold. Continue to watch those survey-based measures; they could be key for the timing of the next rate hike.