We are heading into the March FOMC meeting next week. The recessionistas are on the sidelines, waiting for data to turn in their favor. I suspect they have a long wait. In the meantime, FOMC participants will hone their arguments as they prepare for what is likely to be a contentious meeting. At stake is not a decision of rates; they will hold steady.
At stake is a decision on the balance of risks. Do they want to send a dovish, neutral, or hawkish signal for the April and June meetings? I expect them to default to the neutral/dovish side. I don't think there is sufficient weight on the hawkish side of the FOMC to drive an aggressive rate signal at this juncture.
Labor markets shook off the January "slowdown" with nonfarm payrolls rising an above-consensus 242k. The twelve-month trend is slowing, but ever so gradually:
The unemployment rate held constant near the Fed's estimate of the natural rate:
The labor force participation rate is now 0.5 percentage points above its September low. Assuming this trend will continue, the US economy can sustain fairly strong job growth while unemployment rates drift lower very gradually, in line with the Fed's expectations. It would also give the Fed a bit more breathing room with regards to raising rates. And it would help boost potential GDP growth as it helps offset weakness in productivity growth.
Incoming data, including the inflation uptick, will solidify the positions of those FOMC participants opposed to an extended pause. A fairly clear split emerged in recent weeks. David Harrison at the Wall Street Journal:
The report likely will accentuate a growing split among Fed officials. On one side are regional Fed bank presidents such as San Francisco's John Williams, Richmond's Jeffrey Lacker and Kansas City's Esther George who continue to press for rate increases this year. In the other camp are policy makers who prefer to take a more cautious approach and wait until the effects of the global financial turmoil and the fall in oil prices have played themselves out. Count the Dallas Fed's Robert Steven Kaplan, Boston's Eric Rosengren and Philadelphia's Patrick Harker among them.
And to be sure, the Fed will have its external critics as well. Drew Matus, chief US economist at UBS, told Bloomberg Surveillance that the Fed will "take the coward's way out" by not raising interest rates in the first half of this year.
I don't find this a compelling interpretation. If you are a "coward" by definition, you are not "brave." And one should remember there is a fine line between "brave" and "foolhardy." I suspect that Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen will wisely follow Falstaff's advice and recognize that discretion is the better part of valor. True, one can argue that some financial indicators have stabilized since the January FOMC meeting:
To be sure, stocks and oil are off their lows, while the dollar is off its highs. Even market-based inflation expectations are heading back up. Panic has subsided. On the surface, that may add weight to the argument that the Fed should "just follow the data." But corporate bond spreads, although narrowing, still indicate fairly tight credit conditions:
This is on top of a very cold IPO market. So while incoming data points towards solid growth in Q1, the Fed still needs to stand down while the lagged impacts of this winter's financial tightening pass through to the real economy. Discretion. Yes, this does put the Fed at risk of falling behind the curve. A dovish Fed now on the back of an improving economy suggests that the yield curve will steepen in the near term. If necessary, the Fed can chase that with a higher Fed funds rate in the back half of the year.
Also suggesting caution on the part of the Fed is a renewed awareness of the sensitivity of global financial flows to the Fed's policy stance. Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard:
Financial tightening associated with cross-border spillovers may be limiting the extent to which U.S. policy diverges from major economies. As policy adjusts to the evolution of the data, the combination of heightened spillovers from weaker foreign economies, along with a lower neutral rate, could result in a lower policy path in the United States relative to what many had predicted…
And New York Federal Reserve President William Dudley:
Our monetary policy actions, however, often have global consequences that, in turn, influence the U.S. economy and financial markets. At the same time, external factors can impact the monetary policy transmission mechanism in the U.S. and influence the effectiveness of our monetary policy in achieving our objectives. We cannot appropriately calibrate policy without keeping these spillover and feedback effects in mind.
The degree to which the Federal Reserve can tighten short-term rates is limited by the extent of global feedback effects. In short, the Fed has limited capacity to defy the pattern of zero (or negative) rates abroad.
Overall, I don't believe a Federal Reserve pause is inconsistent with the data. All it takes is the realization that financial market outcomes are in fact data. Ultimately, just prices and quantities of bonds and stocks and other assets - data just like any other data that measure prices and quantities of labor or goods. Data that provides insight into the direction of the economy. Or, as Dudley explained:
The federal funds rate is only one element of the broader set of financial conditions affecting the U.S. growth and inflation outlook. Tighter financial conditions abroad do spill back into the U.S. economy, and policymakers must take this into account in their assessment of appropriate monetary policy. Of course, this does not mean that we will let market volatility dictate our policy stance. There is no such a thing as a "Fed put." What we care about is the country's growth and inflation prospects, and we take financial market developments into consideration only to the extent that they affect the economic outlook.
Still, I am sympathetic to complaints of communication confusion. Harrison concludes his article:
Fed officials, chief among them Ms. Yellen, have repeated for months that their interest-rate decisions will depend on the economic data. It could be harder to make that case if it appears the central bank is acting contrary to increasingly strong data.
The Summary of Economic Projections is a woefully incomplete description of the Fed's reaction function. It attempts to distill the Fed's reaction function into a simple Taylor rule that abstracts away from financial sector. In other words, it does not capture the role of the financial sector in the Fed's reaction function. And I think it fails to do so because of complex endogeneities involved (the Fed is an integral part of the financial sector) and, as a consequence, a lack of consensus about the implications for the Fed's reaction function.
Indeed, Cleveland Federal Reserve President Loretta Mester, Kansas City Federal Reserve President Esther George, San Francisco Federal Reserve President John Williams, and Board of Governors Vice Chair Stanley Fischer all appear to discount the importance of the Fed's financial reaction function (see here and here for example). Brainard and Dudley clearly see a more complex relationship.
Where does Yellen stand? My sense is that six months ago, Yellen's position would align close to Fischer. But I think she would now find Brainard's position more persuasive, especially with Dudley's support. That suggests that Yellen will work to pull the Fed towards a neutral/dovish statement.
Fed will hold steady next week. Key FOMC participants are shifting in a dovish direction. The financial market volatility, which induced clear tightening in financial conditions, bolstered the Brainard's arguments. Despite solid incoming data, the Fed will find it necessary to tread cautiously in the months ahead.