Federal Reserve Governor Stanley Fischer gave a very nice speech this weekend that shed light on the current monetary policymaking process. I found three points particularly notable. First:
One important but underappreciated aspect of the SEP is that its projections are based on each individual's assessment of appropriate monetary policy. Each FOMC participant writes down what he or she regards as the appropriate path for policy. They do not write down what they expect the Committee to do. Yet the public often misinterprets the interest rate paths we write down as a projection of the Committee's policy path or a commitment to a particular path.
The interest rate projections in the SEP do not represent the Committee's forecast because there is no such forecast. And they certainly do not represent a policy commitment. It is often easy, however, to use the shorthand of referring to the median of the SEP projections as the Fed's forecast, which is why we fall in the habit of doing so. It is important to realize, however, that this is not an official forecast, and even if it were, it can change over the year so it is not a promise.
My preference is to view the median SEP projection as a baseline to assess policy shifts throughout the year. For instance, I do not believe that incoming data suggests that the Fed will raise its projection relative to the baseline at the upcoming March FOMC meeting. In other words, the median projection is not likely to shift from three to four hikes. This further suggests that given the Fed's predilection to delay rate hikes in favor of further labor market gains, there is no pressing reason for the Fed to hike in March. They still have plenty of time to raise rates three times this year if necessary and the data do not suggest they need to move early to act on the possibility of needing four rate hikes this year. So no rate hike is likely in March.
A second point from Fischer:
Figure 2 reproduces panels from the April 2011 Tealbook that show the staff's baseline forecast--the solid black line--as well as prescriptions from three simple policy rules that were generated using the FRB/US model. The panel on the left shows the paths for the federal funds rate, while the panels on the right show the implications of those policy prescriptions for the unemployment rate and core PCE (personal consumption expenditures) price inflation, respectively…
… How does the FOMC choose its interest rate decision? Fundamentally, it uses charts like those shown in figure 2 as an important input into the discussion. And in their discussion, members of the FOMC explain their policy choices, and try to persuade other members of the FOMC of their viewpoints.
An important takeaway here is that the Fed makes monetary policy decisions on the basis of a medium-term forecast. In other words, they tailor policy to meet their objectives over the medium term. This stands in contrast with criticism that the Fed either only sees the short-term outcomes of their actions or that they base policy only on the last piece of data. In reality, they are incorporating that most recent data into the medium term forecast and adjusting policy appropriately.
This process, however, is challenging for the public to understand. Moreover, I do not think the Fed has spent sufficient time explaining their actions in terms of the forecast. I suspect that the Fed may not be doing itself any favors with the opening paragraph of the FOMC statement, which is backwards-looking in nature and portrays the impression that the most recent data is the basis of policymaking. I thus appreciate that Fischer is using charts like these to explain policy choices and hope to see more of it in the future.
A final point from Fischer:
As the August 2011 meeting illustrates, the eureka moment I thought I had 50-plus years ago was a chimera. Why is that? First, the economy is very complex, and models that attempt to approximate that complexity can sometimes let us down. A particular difficulty is that expectations of the future play a critical role in determining how the economy reacts to a policy change. Moreover, the economy changes over time--this means that policymakers need to be able to adapt their models promptly and accurately in real time. And, finally, no one model or policy rule can capture the varied experiences and views brought to policymaking by a committee. All of these factors and more recommend against accepting the prescriptions of any one model or policy rule at face value.
The Fed relies on models, but not only models. Moreover, those models, or the underlying components of those models, such as the natural rate of interest, change over time. This is not a weakness of policymaking, it is a strength. The Fed responds to a changing economy. It is not possible to place the Fed in the straightjacket of a simplistic Taylor Rule and expect good outcomes for the economy. Clearly, this is intended to push back at ongoing efforts to limit the Fed's independence.
Bottom Line: Read Fischer's speech for a greater understanding of the interplay between models, forecasts, data and judgment that governs the Fed's policy choices.