With the leaves turning to gold signaling the end of summer, so too will the Fed be facing its own change of seasons as quantitative easing comes to an end. With asset purchases likely ending in October, time is growing short for the Fed to communicate a plan for the normalization of policy. To be sure, the outline of the plan is already in place, with interest on reserves playing a primary role backed by overnight repurchase operations. The timing of any action to raise rates, however, is likely to become a more contentious issue during the fall. Hawks will be pitted against doves as the former focus on improving labor markets while the latter point to underemployment and low inflation as reason for patience. The baseline scenario is that Fed Chair Janet Yellen guides the Fed to a delayed and gradual rate hike scenario. Given that this is just about the most dovish scenario imaginable at this juncture, the balance of risks is weighted toward a more aggressive approach to normalization.
The FOMC next meets Sept. 16 and 17. The almost certain outcome of that meeting will be another $10 billion cut from the Fed's asset purchase program. The subsequent press conference provides the opportunity to communicate more clearly the technical elements of the normalization process if the Fed feels sufficiently confident in the broad outlines of their plan. Less certain is a change in the forward guidance to reflect the dissent of Philadelphia Federal Reserve Charles Plosser:
Voting against was Charles I. Plosser who objected to the guidance indicating that it likely will be appropriate to maintain the current target range for the federal funds rate for "a considerable time after the asset purchase program ends," because such language is time dependent and does not reflect the considerable economic progress that has been made toward the Committee's goals.
The ability to maintain the considerable period language will likely be dependent on the next employment report. The pattern of initial unemployment claims data points toward fairly strong momentum in labor markets:
Further improvements in labor markets will make it difficult to promise a "considerable" period of time before the FOMC decides conditions are ripe for the first rate hike. Moreover, I found Yellen's language regarding the summary of labor market conditions in her Jackson Hole speech to be intriguing:
One convenient way to summarize the information contained in a large number of indicators is through the use of so-called factor models. Following this methodology, Federal Reserve Board staff developed a labor market conditions index from 19 labor market indicators, including four I just discussed. This broadly based metric supports the conclusion that the labor market has improved significantly over the past year, but it also suggests that the decline in the unemployment rate over this period somewhat overstates the improvement in overall labor market conditions.
Notice that the unemployment rate only "somewhat" overstates improvement in labor market conditions. "Somewhat" is not a word that suggests much conviction. Quite the contrary. And Yellen would have good reason to have little conviction on this point. I would caution against reading too much of significance into the Fed's new labor market indicators. I think the insightful Carola Binder absolutely nailed this one:
The main reason I'm not too excited about the LMCI is that its correlation coefficient with the unemployment rate is -0.96. They are almost perfectly negatively correlated--and when you consider measurement error you can't even reject that they are perfectly negatively correlated-- so the LMCI doesn't tell you anything that the unemployment rate wouldn't already tell you. Given the choice, I'd rather just use the unemployment rate since it is simpler, intuitive, and already widely-used.
Yellen sent her staff to prove that the unemployment rate does not accurately represent labor market improvement, and they created a measure that is almost perfectly negatively correlated with unemployment. In effect, the staff proved what Yellen has said repeatedly. For example, back in April:
I will refer to the shortfall in employment relative to its mandate-consistent level as labor market slack, and there are a number of different indicators of this slack. Probably the best single indicator is the unemployment rate.
If the unemployment rate remains the single-best indicator, it is no wonder then that Yellen's Jackson Hole speech was pragmatic not dogmatic. And pragmatic relative to the current baseline suggests the risk is toward tighter than expected monetary policy.
All that said, the actual inflation data still argues for patience. The higher inflation we witnessed this spring proved to be temporary:
Moreover, the flattening yield curve is suggestive of global deflationary forces:
And financial markets are not sending a warning that inflation expectations are shifting upward:
How do I put this all together? I tend to think the risk is that the employment data pulls the timing of the first rate hike forward. I have been focused on mid-year with a preference for the second quarter over the third. That said, I find it difficult to entirely discount the March meeting, especially if we see a string of solid employment reports. The March meeting also has the benefit of having a press conference. The inflation data, however, still argue for a gradual pace of interest rate hikes, thus Yellen should be able to argue that as long as inflation remains contained, there is no need to normalize policy aggressively even if such a policy begins a little earlier.
Indeed, I think the hawks will argue that Yellen is most likely to be able to maintain a dovish trajectory if she pulls forward the timing of the first rate hike to reflect that the Fed is close to meeting its targets. This is also the easiest way to alleviate any tension in FOMC if incoming labor reports suggest to FOMC members that the zero interest rate stance is excessively accommodative. It would also be arguably a pragmatic approach to policy making as Yellen outlined at Jackson Hole:
My colleagues on the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) and I look to the presentations and discussions over the next two days for insights into possible changes that are affecting the labor market. I expect, however, that our understanding of labor market developments and their potential implications for inflation will remain far from perfect. As a consequence, monetary policy ultimately must be conducted in a pragmatic manner that relies not on any particular indicator or model, but instead reflects an ongoing assessment of a wide range of information in the context of our ever-evolving understanding of the economy.
Bottom Line: The baseline path for interest rates is a delayed and gradual rate hike scenario beginning mid-2015. It seems reasonable, however, to believe that the risk is that this baseline is too dovish given the general progress toward the Fed's goals, a point made repeatedly by Fed hawks. Internal dissension to the baseline would only intensify in the face of another six months of generally solid economic news, especially on the labor front. Yellen would not want to risk the recovery, however, on an overly aggressive approach, especially in the face of low inflation. Considering the path of the data relative to the various policy factions with the Fed, I believe the risk is that the Fed pulls forward the date of the first rate hike as early as March - still seven months away! - while maintaining expectations for a gradual subsequent rate path.