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April 5, 2014

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Posted: 05 Apr 2014 12:06 AM PDT

Fed Watch: One For the Doves

Posted: 04 Apr 2014 11:01 AM PDT

Tim Duy:

One For the Doves, by Tim Duy: The March employment report came in pretty much in line with expectations. Nonfarm payrolls gained by 192k, and January and February were both revised higher. If you can discern any meaningful change in the underlying pace of economic activity from the nonfarm payrolls numbers, you have sharper eyes than me:

NFPa040413

You could almost draw that twelve month trend with a ruler. The unemployment rate moved sideways:

UNEMP040413

In the past, sharp declines in the unemployment rate have been followed by periods of relative stability. I suspect we are currently in one such period.
The internals of the household report were generally positive. The labor force rose by 503k, pushing the participation rate up by 0.2 percentage points. And the labor market appeared to absorb those new participants nicely, with employment rise by 476k while the ranks of unemployed grew by just 27k. Measures of underemployment remain consistent with recent trends:

NFPb040413

As might be expected if there remains plenty of slack in labor markets, wage growth remained largely unchanged:

WAGES040414

I would say that on average, this report fits nicely with the view outlined by Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen earlier this week. The labor market continues to improve at a moderate pace, a pace that remains insufficient to rapidly alleviate the issues of underemployment and low wage growth. Indeed, combined with the readings on inflation:

PCE033114

PCEa033114

I think the real policy question should be why is the Fed engaged in reducing policy accommodation in the first place? If Yellen is as concerned about the plight of labor as she purports to be, and if she and her colleagues are as committed to the 2% inflation target as they purport to be, then it seems like there is a strong argument for slowing the pace of the taper and using a rules based approach to taket the risk of earlier-than-anticipated rate hikes off the table. In short, there seems to be a disconnect between the Fed's rhetoric and the general policy direction. They seem to have lost interest in speeding the pace of the recovery.

Persistently low inflation, however, may push them into action. St. Louis Federal Reserve President James Bullard opened up the door to slowing the taper if inflation does not prove to be bottoming. Via Bloomberg:

"I still think it is important to defend the inflation target from the low side," Bullard, who doesn't vote on policy this year, said today in a Bloomberg Radio interview with Kathleen Hays and Vonnie Quinn in St. Louis. "If inflation takes another step down, that will put heavy pressure" on policy makers "to take further action."

That said, take this in context of a Fed that fundamentally wants out of the asset purchase business. Moreover, this is not Bullard's baseline forecast. Via Reuters:

"Mine is in the first quarter of 2015, as far as liftoff for the funds rate," St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank President James Bullard told Reuters Insider television, when asked for his view on when the U.S. central bank should make its first rate hike since 2006.

"You have to keep in mind I tend to be a more optimistic member of the committee," he said. "I have a probably, a somewhat stronger forecast and a view about policy that suggests that maybe we should get up a bit faster than what some of the other members have."

This labor report, however, is not exactly consistent with such a view, but that is also still a year away. In contrast San Franscisco President John Williams reiterated his view, which is much more consistent with the general consensus. Via Reuters:

"Given the economic outlook, and given also my view that we need accommodative policy relative to historical norms, we need to have relatively low levels of interest rates for quite some time," San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank President John Williams told Reuters. "My own view is it makes sense to start raising rates in the second half of 2015."

But the pace of rate increases, in Williams' view, should be extremely slow, with rates ending 2016 well below the historical norm of 4 percent, "with the first digit being a '2,'" he said.

Of course, the second half of 2015 is a fairly big window, and I suspect that any conditions that draw the first rate hike to the front end of that forecast, and certainly to Bullard's forecast, will be followed by a more rapid pace of tightening than currently anticipated. But that again is a matter for the data to decide. That and financial stability concerns; such concerns seem to be having a bigger impact on policy than officials like to admit.

Bottom Line: The doves win this round. One wonders, however, why, if they hold such a strong hand, they have been unable or unwilling to stop the systematic reduction in accommodation that began with the tapering talk of last year?

'The Legitimacy of High Frequency Trading'

Posted: 04 Apr 2014 08:34 AM PDT

Tim Johnson on high frequency trading:

The Legitimacy of High Frequency Trading: Mark Thoma brought my attention to a post by Dean Baker, High Speed Trading and Slow-Witted Economic Policy. High Frequency Trading, or more generically Computer Based Trading, is proving problematic because it is a general term involving a variety of different techniques, some of which appear uncontroversial, others appear very dubious.

For example, a technique I would consider legitimate derives from Robert Almgren and Neil Chriss' work on optimal order execution: how do you structure a large trade such that it has minimal negative price impact and low transaction costs. There are firms that now specialise in performing these trades on behalf of institutions and I don't think there is an issue with how they innovate in order to generate profits.

The technique that is most widely regarded as illegitimate is order, or quote, stuffing. The technique involves placing orders and within a tenth of a second or less, cancelling them if they are not executed. I suspect this is the process that Baker refers to that enables HFTs to 'front run' the market. Baker regards the process as illegitimate...

The problem I have with Baker's argument is that I do not think it is robust. ... [explains why] ...

The substantive question is whether I can come up with a more robust argument than Baker's, and I offer an argument at the bottom of this piece. ...

'Economy Adds 192,000 Jobs in March, Unemployment Rate Unchanged'

Posted: 04 Apr 2014 07:51 AM PDT

Dean Baker (see also "Comments on Employment Report" by Calculated Risk):

Economy Adds 192,000 Jobs in March, Unemployment Rate Unchanged: The ACA appears to be allowing workers to opt for part-time jobs and older workers to retire early.
The economy added 192,000 jobs in March, bringing the average over the last three months to 178,000. The unemployment rate was unchanged at 6.7 percent. The employment-to-population ratio (EPOP) edged up to 58.9 percent. This is the highest of the recovery, but still four full percentage points below its pre-recession level.
This report answered several questions that had come up based on the prior two reports. First, it appears the weakness in prior months was in fact largely the result of the weather. The three month average of 178,000 is probably close to the economy's underlying trend at this point. It was also encouraging to see a jump of 0.2 hours in the length of the average workweek to 34.5 hours. This completely wipes out the decline in average hours worked that many were attributing to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and other measures.
The average hourly wage for production workers also fell slightly last month. While this is not good news, it does show that the concerns raised by many about a tight labor market leading to excessive wage growth, and that this would trigger inflation, were completely unfounded. Over the last year, wages for production and non-supervisory workers have risen by 2.2 percent. That's up slightly from 1.9 percent over the prior twelve months, but still below the 2.3 percent rate of increase in the 12 months from March of 2009 to 2010. Basically, wage growth in this series has hovered near 2.0 percent for the last five years.
There is some evidence in this report that the ACA is having its predicted impact on the labor market. The number of employed people over age 55 fell by 133,000 in March. Since August, employment among people in this age group has risen by just 125,000. It had risen by an average of 1,150,000 annually over the prior four years, accounting for almost all of employment growth over this period. It is possible that the ACA is allowing many of these workers to retire early now that they can get health care insurance outside of employment. Workers in the 25-34 age group seem to be filling the gap, with an increase in employment of over 680,000 (2.2 percent) over the last seven months. However these numbers are erratic, so it is too early to make too much of this pattern.
The other area where we may be seeing the effect of the ACA is the rising number of people opting for part-time employment. The number of people who are voluntarily working part-time is up 415,000 (2.2 percent) from its year-ago level and is at its highest point since Lehman. (Involuntary part-time also rose, but is still below last fall's levels.) At this point there is little evidence of more people opting for self-employment, as the number fell slightly in March, although it is still 262,000 (3.1 percent) above the year-ago level.

Unincorporated Self-employed Workers as Percent of Employed, 2007 - 2014

The job growth in March was heavily concentrated in employment services (42,000), restaurants (30,400), retail (21,300), and health care (19,400). The growth in retail is somewhat of a bounce-back after two months of declining employment. Manufacturing employment edged down by 1,000, its first drop since July. The decline was due to a drop in non-durable employment as the durable sector added 8,000 jobs. With overtime hours for production workers in the durable goods sector at their highest level since November of 2005, there may be more rapid hiring in the months ahead. Employment in the government sector was unchanged as a loss of 9,000 federal jobs and 2,000 state government jobs was offset by an increase in employment of 11,000 at the local level. Construction added 19,000 jobs, raising employment in the sector to 48,000 above the year-ago level.
With population growth implying labor force growth in the neighborhood of 90,000, the economy is cutting into the backlog of unemployed workers at the rate of 90,000 a month. With the economy still down close to 7 million jobs from trend levels, this would imply that we would reach full employment some time in 2020.

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