Despite some occasionally hawkish rhetoric from a handful of disaffected Federal Reserve bank presidents, expect the Fed to remain on hold until inflationary threats clearly emerge. In practice, that means the Fed is not likely to raise rates until the unemployment rate resumes its downward trajectory. Soft though generally positive data coupled with market turbulence over the winter scared most policymakers straight with regards to their overly-optimistic plans to normalize policy. The risks to the outlook are simply too one-sided too believe this is anything like the tightening cycles of the past.
Generally positive incoming data continues to defy the predictions of the recessionistas. ISM data, both manufacturing:
posted improved headline numbers with general solid internals. The worst of the manufacturing downturn may be behind us. The JOLTS numbers:
have remained fairly stable in recent months, suggesting no significant changes in dynamics in labor flows in and out of firms. Not surprisingly, nonfarm payroll growth remains on its steady path:
The unemployment rate ticked up in March as the labor force grew:
The Fed would like unemployment to settle somewhat below their estimates of the natural rate to promote further reduction of underemployment. So a stagnant unemployment rate at these levels argues for stable policy.
One red flag I see is that temporary employment has stalled, suggesting some loss of momentum:
Nothing to panic about, just something I am watching. Indeed, in many ways the current dynamic is not dissimilar to the mid-90s, when the economy sputtered in the wake of tighter monetary policy. Then, like now, the Fed need to back down in response. The economy subsequently gathered steam.
Moreover, declining estimates of first quarter growth also give the Fed reason to remain on hold. Soft consumption, weaker auto sales, still anemic manufacturing, and a rising trade deficit have all conspired to bring the latest Atlanta Fed estimate of first quarter growth to an anemic 0.4%. To be sure, this might just be the first quarter curse of recent years. As such, the Fed may be confident it does not represent the pace of underlying activity. And they expect that the worst impact of the rising dollar and falling oil prices on manufacturing will soon be behind us. But they don't know these things - and it will take another three months of data at least until they know these things. That pushes that date of another rate hike into the until June at the earliest, but don't be surprised if they want to see a more complete picture of the second quarter before acting.
A steady unemployment rate at or above the Fed's estimate of the natural rate also argues for a substantial policy pause. I am hard pressed to see a reason for the Fed to resume hiking rates until unemployment clearly resumes declining. This holds true even if a growing labor force drives a flattening unemployment rate. The Fed will see that as evidence that excess slack remains in the economy, hence inflationary pressures are less than feared when the unemployment rate was heading steadily lower.
Note also tamer inflation in February after a spike the previous month:
This supports Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen's caution over reading too much into any one inflation reading.
Financial indicators have firmed in recent months:
That said, the improvement for most indicators largely just offsets the damage done during the winter. And credit conditions for less than perfect debt remain less than perfect.
In short, while the data is not indicating a recession it upon us, and supportive of the case for improvement later this year, it also gives little reason to justify a rate hike anytime soon.
Furthermore, the Fed appears to have stopped - at least for the moment - pursuing rate hikes for the sake of hiking rates. The financial market turmoil made them realize that yes, the policy risks are asymmetric, and they need to take the asymmetries seriously. Chicago Federal Reserve President Charles Evans concisely summaries the challenges of being hit with a negative shock while near the zero bound:
Faced with such uncertainty, policymakers could make two potential policy mistakes. The first mistake is that the FOMC could raise rates too quickly, only to be hit by one or more of the downside surprises. In order to put the economy back on track, we would have to cut interest rates back to zero and possibly even resort to unconventional policy tools, such as more quantitative easing. I think unconventional policy tools have been effective, but they clearly are second-best alternatives to traditional policy and something we would all like to avoid. I should note, too, that with the economy facing a potentially lower growth rate and lower equilibrium interest rates, the likelihood of some shock forcing us back to the effective lower bound may be uncomfortably high. The difficulties experienced in Japan and Europe come to mind.
And compares it to the challenges of being hit with a positive shock:
The second (alternative) potential policy mistake the Committee could make is that sometime during the gradual normalization process the U.S. economy experiences upside surprises in growth and inflation. Well, policymakers have the experience and the appropriate tools to deal with such an outcome; we probably could keep inflation in check with only moderate increases in interest rates relative to current forecasts. Given how gradual the rate increases are in the baseline SEP, policy could be made a good deal more restrictive, for example, by simply increasing rates 25 basis points at every meeting — just as we did during the measured pace adjustments of 2004–06. A question for the audience: Who thinks those were fast? So, to me, concerns about the risks of rapid increases in rates in this scenario seem overblown.
Until now, the driving argument for raising rates was that they needed to do so to avoid a faster pace of rate hikes. But as Evans points out, why the rush? Would it really be so bad to raise rates at a "moderate" pace rather than a "gradual" or what has become now a "glacial" place? After all, they have better tools to reduce inflation than to raise it. Clearly, many Fed officials did not appreciate the asymmetry of risks until this past winter.
Separately, Boston Federal Reserve President Eric Rosengren argued that financial market participants are getting it wrong:
So, while problems could still arise, I would expect that the very slow removal of accommodation reflected in futures market pricing could prove too pessimistic. While it has been appropriate to pause while waiting for information that clarified the response of the U.S. economy to foreign turmoil, it increasingly appears that the U.S. has weathered foreign shocks quite well. As a consequence, if the incoming data continue to show a moderate recovery – as I expect they will – I believe it will likely be appropriate to resume the path of gradual tightening sooner than is implied by financial-market futures.
He seems to have learned little from Federal Reserve Vice-Chair Stanley Fisher's experience in January:
WELL, WE WATCH WHAT THE MARKET THINKS, BUT WE CAN'T BE LED BY WHAT THE MARKET THINKS. WE'VE GOT TO MAKE OUR OWN ANALYSIS. WE MAKE OUR OWN ANALYSIS AND OUR ANALYSIS SAYS THAT THE MARKET IS UNDERESTIMATING WHERE WE ARE GOING TO BE. YOU KNOW, YOU CAN'T RULE OUT THAT THERE IS SOME PROBABILITY THEY ARE RIGHT BECAUSE THERE'S UNCERTAINTY. BUT WE THINK THAT THEY ARE TOO LOW.
They would probably be better off just stating their expectations as the baseline rather than appearing to challenge the markets so directly. But they can't seem to help themselves; they seem to view it as their job to warn that rate hikes are coming, that markets are getting it wrong, an unnecessarily hawkish message for a central bank trying to raise inflation while facing an asymmetric balance of risks. Not sure what the point is anyway - if Rosengren is at two rate hikes this year while the market is at one, is that difference really all that significant? Is he just priming us for Fed minutes that will also be more hawkish than current market expectations?
And the implied hawkish message has proven consistently wrong, for that matter. The history of this recovery is that while the Fed always sounds hawkish relative to market expectations, the Fed has consistently moved in the direction of market expectations.
Bottom Line: The Fed is on hold for at least a few months until the data provides a more definite reason to justify another hike. With any luck, if the Fed continues to hold steady now, maybe they will get the chance to chase the long-end of the curve higher later - which is exactly what they need to be able to "normalize" policy. Expect officials to remind us that they expect a faster pace of a rate hikes than markets anticipate. But I think the bar for further hikes has risen since December. An appreciation of the asymmetric policy risks will prod them to seek more definitive signs inflationary pressures are growing to justify the next rate hike.