The Kansas City Federal Reserve's annual Jackson Hole conference is next week, and all eyes are looking for signs that Fed Chair Janet Yellen will continue to chart a dovish path for monetary policy well into next year. Indeed, the conference title itself - "Re-Evaluating Labor Market Dynamics" - points in that direction, as it emphasizes a topic that is near and dear to Yellen's heart. My expectation is that no hawkish surprises emerge next week. Despite continued improvement in labor markets, Yellen will push the Fed to hold back on aggressively tightening monetary policy. And with inflation still below target, wage growth constrained, and inflation expectations locked down, she holds all the leverage to make that happen.
Today, we received the June JOLTS report, a lagging, previously second-tier report elevated to mythic status by Yellen's interest in the data. The report revealed another gain in job openings, leading to further speculation that labor slack is quickly diminishing:
Anecdotally, firms are squealing that they can't find qualified workers. Empirically, though, they aren't willing to raise wages. Neil Irwin of The New York Times reports on the trucking industry as a microcosm of the US economy:
Yet the idea that there is a huge shortage of truck drivers flies in the face of a jobless rate of more than 6 percent, not to mention Economics 101. The most basic of economic theories would suggest that when supply isn't enough to meet demand, it's because the price - in this case, truckers' wages - is too low. Raise wages, and an ample supply of workers should follow.
But corporate America has become so parsimonious about paying workers outside the executive suite that meaningful wage increases may seem an unacceptable affront. In this environment, it may be easier to say "There is a shortage of skilled workers" than "We aren't paying our workers enough," even if, in economic terms, those come down to the same thing.
The numbers are revealing: Even as trucking companies and their trade association bemoan the driver shortage, truckers - or as the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls them, heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers - were paid 6 percent less, on average, in 2013 than a decade earlier, adjusted for inflation. It takes a peculiar form of logic to cut pay steadily and then be shocked that fewer people want to do the job.
A "peculiar form of logic" indeed, but one that appears endemic to US employers nonetheless. Meanwhile, from Business Insider:
Profit margins are still getting wider.
"With earnings growth (6.7%) rising at a faster rate than revenue growth (3.1%) in Q2 and in future quarters, companies have continued to discuss cost-cutting initiatives to maintain earnings growth rates and profit margins," said FactSet's John Butters on Friday.
This comes at a time when profit margins are already at historic highs.
Ever since the financial crisis, sales growth has been weak. However, corporations have been able to deliver robust earnings growth by fattening profit margins. Much of this has been done by laying off workers and squeezing more productivity out of those on the payroll.
Margins serve as a line of defense against inflation. In fact, I would imagine that Yellen's ideal world is one in which margins are compressing, because stable inflation expectations prevent firms from raising prices, while tight labor markets force wage growth higher. A Goldilocks scenario from the Fed's perspective. This is also the scenario that is most likely to foster the tension in the FOMC, as Fed's hawks argue for immaculate inflation while doves battle back about actual inflation. In any event, until wage growth actually accelerates, the likelihood of any meaningful, self-sustaining inflation dynamic remains very, very low.
Separately, a second justification for a moderate pace of tightening emerges. Via Reuters:
Approaching a historic turn in U.S. monetary policy, Janet Yellen has staked her tenure as chair of the Federal Reserve on a simple principle: she'd rather fight inflation than another economic downturn.
Interviews with current and former Fed officials indicate that Yellen and core decision-makers at the U.S. central bank are determined not to raise interest rates too early and risk hurting the fragile U.S. economy...
... The nightmare scenario she wants to avoid is hiking rates only to see financial markets and the economy take such a hit that she has to backtrack. Until the Fed has gotten rates up from the current level near zero to more normal levels, it would have little room to respond if the economy threatened to head into another recession.
Gasp! Is the reality of the zero bound finally sinking in at the Fed? The basic argument is that the Fed needs to at least risk overshooting to pull interest rates into a zone that allows for normalized monetary policy during the next recession. And given that the Fed knows how to effectively tame inflation while stimulating the economy at the zero bound in more challenging, the costs of overshooting are less than the costs of undershooting.
(Note that I suspect overshooting in this context is the 2.25%-2.5% range, but that still provides more leeway than a 2.25% cap.)
In addition, Yellen can point out that since the disinflation of the early 90s, the Fed has not faced an inflation problem, but instead has struggled with three recessions. This, on the surface, suggests that monetary policy has erred in being too tight, on average.
Bottom line: Anything other than a dovish message coming from the Jackson Hole conference will be a surprise. Tight labor markets alone will not justify an aggressive pace of tightening. An aggressive pace requires that those tight labor markets manifest themselves into higher wage growth and higher inflation. Yellen seems content to normalize slowly until she sees the white in the eyes of inflation.