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January 15, 2014

Evans on the Outlook for Monetary Policy

Chicago Fed president Charlie Evans on what is likely to happen to the federal funds rate as the unemployment rate crosses the 6.5% thresshold:
Back in December 2012, the FOMC introduced conditional forward guidance by saying it would hold the funds rate at exceptionally low levels at least as long as the unemployment rate remains above 6-1/2 percent and the projection for inflation between one and two years ahead is less than 2-1/2 percent and longer-term inflation expectations remain well anchored. Let me emphasize the “at least.” As we often stated, the 6-1/2 percent unemployment number was a threshold and not a trigger. Crossing 6-1/2 percent would not automatically result in an increase in the funds rate. Exactly when we would begin to raise the funds rate once we hit 6-1/2 percent depends critically on whether we are expecting continued improvements in the labor market and on what the outlook for inflation is relative to our 2 percent target.
When evaluating the situation at our meeting this past December, we reasoned that conditions had evolved in a way that meant we could — and should — provide more specificity on what might happen with the federal funds rate when the economy reached this threshold. Importantly, in my mind, the low readings for inflation by themselves now suggest that it likely will be appropriate to keep the funds rate at its current level for quite some time. So I supported our change in language to say that the federal funds rate likely will remain in its current range “well past the time that the unemployment rate declines below 6-1/2 percent, especially if projected inflation continues to run below the Committee’s 2 percent longer-run goal.”[2] This elaboration of our forward guidance should more strongly communicate that we are in no hurry to raise rates: We will not prematurely reduce accommodation in an economy with elevated unemployment and very low inflation pressures.
If that's the case, then why taper QE?:
When the Committee met this past December, with the unemployment rate at 7 percent and other labor market indicators showing improvement, we decided that the cumulative improvement to that point met the criteria for first scaling back purchases. This decision does not, however, mean we thought the economy needed less overall policy accommodation. Rather, the Committee agreed it was time to rebalance the mix of monetary policy. Large-scale asset purchases have been effective in stimulating activity, and their effects have shown more through to top-line gross domestic product (GDP) growth now that the most restrictive fiscal influences in the first half of 2013 have waned some. Nevertheless, QE3 is a nontraditional policy instrument. If in fact monetary policy and the recovery are now gaining better traction, it makes sense to rely more on our traditional short-term interest rate policy tool, the federal funds rate. We have a much better understanding of how changes in the funds rate affect the economy than we do of the benefits and potential costs associated with large-scale asset purchases, largely because we simply have more experience with the former policy tool.
In order to clarify that overall monetary policy will remain highly accommodative as long as necessary, we also decided to strengthen the forward guidance in our policy statement concerning the economic conditions likely to prevail when we might eventually first increase the federal funds rate.
Part of the problem is that fiscal policy has been a "powerful headwind":
Theme 1: Fiscal Restraint Has Been a Powerful Headwind
Heightened fiscal austerity has been front page news in 2013. The year began with both tax hikes and automatic spending cuts known as sequestration. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that federal fiscal restraint reduced real GDP growth by about 1-1/2 percentage points last year.[3] In other words, to get to 2-1/2 percent real GDP growth, the rest of the economy had to generate 4 percentage points of growth. ...
If we look at the entire 2009 through 2013 period, real GDP increased at an average annual rate of 2.2 percent. However, excluding state, local and federal government purchases, private spending grew at a 3.2 percent pace. This isn’t the stellar rate of growth for private spending that one would hope for given the magnitude of the Great Recession, but it is a much healthier number than the 2.2 percent rate of growth for real GDP: At some level, this reflects how private sector strength supported by monetary policy accommodation offset the contraction in government purchases.
Of course, government restraint has not been the only headwind the economy has faced. The fallout from the financial crisis has been large. ... But the restraint from the federal government sector has been a self-inflicted wound, and it has been unusual relative to other historical episodes.
Let me give you an example. In 1981-82, the economy experienced a severe downturn, but it rebounded rapidly. One reason was that increases in government purchases contributed nearly a percentage point to growth, on average, in 1983 and 1984. Large tax cuts also helped fuel the recovery. Contrast that to the fiscal restraint that we’ve seen recently.
In addition to fiscal policy impetus, the Federal Reserve was able to reduce the federal funds rate as much as was necessary to get growth back on track. With the federal funds rate at nearly 15 percent in 1982, it was possible to drop the rate by 6 percentage points. However, in the current environment, monetary policy has less room to maneuver because short-term interest rates are already pushed to their lowest possible limits. We have had to work harder and turn to unconventional tools to help counteract the fiscal restraint and other forces holding back growth. This leads me to the second theme.
Theme 2: The Zero Lower Bound
Today, the federal funds rate is effectively pushed as low as it can go. It stands near zero and has been at that rate since December 2008. Central bankers refer to this as the zero lower bound. Operating near the zero lower bound has limited the Fed’s ability to use its traditional tools to offset the ferocious impediments to growth that I just outlined. We have tried to overcome this obstacle with nontraditional policies. The main two are the ones I discussed earlier — our large-scale asset purchase programs and, separately, forward guidance regarding the economic conditions under which we would consider to begin to raise rates. ...
By mitigating some of the headwinds I mentioned earlier, LSAPs and forward guidance have helped return the economy to better health. There is still a ways to go. Our two nontraditional policy tools have simply not been strong enough to overcome these headwinds and generate an early 1980s “morning in America” recovery yet.[4] Moreover, inflation remains stubbornly low.
This low inflation environment is the third theme I’d like to cover today. ...
He ends with:
In terms of monetary policy strategy, after four years of weak and inadequate growth with low inflation, we need extraordinary monetary accommodation to finish the task at hand. The public must have confidence in the Fed’s ultimate resolve to successfully address economic challenges. We need to be both bold and committed to following through. ...
We often talk about this in terms of credibility. Credibility means that we are clear about our goals, have the tools to achieve those goals and are committed to using those tools.
We have been clear about our goals. We are dedicated to achieving our statutory dual mandate of maximum employment and price stability. We certainly have turned to unprecedented actions to get the job done — near-zero short-term interest rates; strong forward guidance about keeping rates low for well after the economic recovery strengthens; and large-scale assets purchases that have boosted our balance sheet from about $800 billion to more than $4 trillion. And we must continue to be willing to use these tools to put us on a clear track back to full employment and inflation averaging our 2 percent target.
I'm not sure everyone would agree that tapering is simply a step to "rebalance the mix of monetary policy" rather than a change in overall accommodation.

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