The Federal Reserve released March industrial production data Tuesday. Overall production was up 0.5% supported by a big jump in utilities. Despite the headline gains, it was something of a mixed message. First, the dispersion of weakness was the lowest since 2014:
It looks like with the rebound in energy prices and related production activity, the industrial side of the economy has turned a corner. On a softer note, manufacturing activity tumbled:
This was fairly disappointing considering the long run of solid growth beginning in the second half of last year. Slowing motor vehicle production took a bite out of the numbers. Specifically, autos, not trucks:
That chart makes it fairly clear that Americans prefer big vehicles to small ones. Overall motor vehicle sales are probably past their peak, and we can expect this source of weakness in industrial production to persist until sales settle into a new level. Note that motor vehicle output contributed 0.14 and 0.06 percentage points to overall growth in 2015 and 2016, respectively. That gives some sense of the magnitude of the opposite effect on growth this year - noticeable, but small.
Housing starts were below expectations, but February was revised upwards. Overall, a solid start to the year:
Yesterday Federal Reserve Governor Stanley Fischer gave remarks on central bank communication. Of more immediate relevance were his comments on balance sheet adjustment. Specifically, he doesn't see it as having a disruptive impact:
My tentative conclusion from market responses to the limited amount of discussion of the process of reducing the size of our balance sheet that has taken place so far is that we appear less likely to face major market disturbances now than we did in the case of the taper tantrum. But, of course, as we continue to discuss and eventually implement policies to reduce our balance sheet, we will have to continue to monitor market developments and expectations carefully.
Separately, Kansas City Federal Reserve President Esther George argued for continued rate hikes despite choppy data:
Overall, I am encouraged by the start of the normalization process and want to see it continue. Resisting the temptation to react to near-term fluctuations in the data will be necessary. Looking ahead, we should expect inflation to move up and down around 2 percent. A modest decline in inflation or an overshoot may not necessarily warrant the monetary policy normalization process to slow or accelerate. Such attempts at monetary fine-tuning can easily backfire, so a more forward looking view of inflation is needed.
And as part of that process, she would like to see balance sheet reduction placed on auto pilot mode:
Balance sheet adjustments will need to be gradual and smooth, which is an approach that carries the least risk in terms of a strategy to normalize its size. Importantly, once the process begins, it should continue without reconsideration at each subsequent FOMC meeting. In other words, the process should be on autopilot and not necessarily vary with moderate movements in the economic data. To do otherwise would amount to using the balance sheet as an active tool of policy outside of periods of severe financial or economic stress, and would increase uncertainty rather than reduce it.
She also argues against deliberately overshooting the inflation rate. Her key reason is an often forgotten point. Not all goods and services have the same inflation rate, and a higher overall inflation rate may exacerbate inflation differences across the economy. Those differences would be expected to force a restructuring of the economy that could be costly. Her example is that housing costs may accelerate even faster if the Fed were to push for above target inflation:
Such concentration and persistently rising prices in one area suggests the economy is struggling to reallocate resources. For housing, it could reflect several factors such as tight lending standards faced by home builders and scarcity of skilled craftsmen needed to construct homes. I expect the market to eventually solve for, or at least adapt to, such factors. Using monetary policy however to compensate for them could easily end up hurting the population the policy is intended to help.
So count George as a "no" when it comes to any discussion of raising the Fed's inflation target.
Meanwhile, the Trump trade in bonds is reversing course; ten-year yields are below 2.2 percent as I write. Also, odds of a Fed rate hike in June have fallen below 50 percent. Market participants are reasonably starting to think that the normalization process may take a bit longer than the Fed anticipates. It will be interesting to see if the Fed agrees. I expect that on average Fedspeak will stick with a fairly hawkish story as policymakers largely dismiss the choppy data of late. We will see if any of George's colleagues share her conviction that policy should not react to recent noise. I tend to think it is a small group, but I argued that Federal Reserve Chair Yellen sounded fairly complacent about the economy last week. Given that the Fed doesn't like to surprise, expect policymakers to speak out forcefully if they feel market participants just don't get it.