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May 28, 2014

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Fed Watch: Policy Induced Mediocrity?

Posted: 28 May 2014 12:15 AM PDT

Tim Duy:

Policy Induced Mediocrity?, by Tim Duy: Why did the Federal Reserve lean against their optimistic 2014 forecast? It seems that monetary policy over the past year can be summarized as a missed opportunity to supercharge the recovery, thereby locking the US economy into a suboptimal growth path.
Last week's speech by New York Federal Reserve President William Dudley noted the reasons monetary policymakers expected the economy to improve this year:
Since the downturn ended in mid-2009, real GDP growth has averaged only 2.2 percent per year despite a very accommodative monetary policy. This performance reflects three major factors—the significant headwinds resulting from the bursting of the housing bubble, the shift of fiscal policy from expansion toward restraint, especially in 2012 and 2013, and a series of shocks from abroad—most notably the European crisis.
The good news is that all three of these factors have abated. With respect to the headwinds resulting from the financial crisis, they are gradually becoming less severe. In particular, the sharp decline in household wealth due to the decline in housing prices and the weakness in equity prices has been largely reversed...On the fiscal side, the amount of restraint has diminished sharply. For 2014, the projected drag is about ½ percent of GDP, roughly half the level of 2013. Moreover, much of this restraint was frontloaded into the beginning of the year...In terms of the outlook abroad, the circumstances are more mixed.
The Federal Reserve could have chosen to lean into this generally upbeat forecast. Yet instead they chose to lean against it by turning to tapering and setting the stage for interest rate hikes. And the data so far suggests that once again the turn toward policy normalization was premature. The weak first quarter report is more suggestive of holding the recent pace of growth over the next year rather than an acceleration of activity. What is remarkable is that the Federal Reserve understood that their forecasts have tended toward optimism. Dudley again:
But, there remains considerable uncertainty about that forecast and, given the persistent over-optimism about the growth outlook by Federal Reserve officials and others in recent years, we shouldn't count our chickens before they hatch.
Yet they choose to act prior to data confirmation. Why? I really don't quite know. Sure, we can tell a story about the declining unemployment rate and expected subsequent inflation pressures, but ultimately the turn toward less policy accommodation never made sense in the context of the Fed's own forecasts and questions about the degree of slack in the economy. It makes me wonder how seriously the Fed is truly interested in closing the output gap:

REALPOT051114

It seems reasonable to believe that if the economy regains potential output by the end of at best 2016, it will be attributable only to further downward revisions to potential output. And I even wonder whether the Fed would act to achieve their current growth forecasts or ultimately be content to continue along the current trend. The economy appears to be already molding itself around the lower output path. Despite the housing troubles and related weak rebound in construction, and the declines in government hiring, job growth is, on average, plugging along at a rate roughly consistent to that during the housing boom:

NFP051114

With that growth labor slack gradually steadily declines by any measure, the Fed appears reasonably comfortable with the resulting path. To be sure, arguably there still remains substantial slack. The failure of wage gains to accelerate is consistent with that story. But the Fed seems content to use that story only to justify its current policy path rather than justify an even easier policy to more quickly reduce slack.
Given the generally consistent overall reaction of the labor market to the current growth path, it is reasonable to believe that the faster pace of growth in the Fed's forecast would accelerate the pace of labor utilization and thus place upward pressure on inflation forecasts. In this case, we would expect the Fed to pull forward and steepen the pace of rate hikes to moderate the pace of activity. Thus, ultimately the Fed's commitment to regaining potential output could be even less than we have come to believe.
But even more telling would be the monetary policy reaction if growth continues along its current path. The weak first quarter results already place the forecast at risk, and the housing recovery is not progressing as smoothly as initially believed. Yet neither event prevented the Fed from continuing to cut asset purchases at the last FOMC meeting. Moreover, I still can't see any reason to expect the Fed will slow the tapering process unless the economy falls decisively off its current path. It could be that by the time they are sufficiently convinced growth will continue to fall short of forecast, asset purchases will be almost complete anyway. And I think the bar to restarting asset purchases would be very high. They want out of that business.
And if neither fiscal or monetary policy makers are interested in accelerating the pace of growth, should we really expect the pace of growth to accelerate? In other words, it appears to me that monetary policy largely amounts to setting expectations that reinforce the current growth path. Which was a recent topic of Bloomberg's Rich Miller who, reporting on the Fed's diminished expectations, quotes me:
By lowering its assessment of how fast the economy can expand and conducting policy accordingly, the Fed runs the risk of locking the U.S. into a slow-growth path, said Tim Duy, a former Treasury Department economist who is now a professor at the University of Oregon in Eugene...
..."They offset fiscal austerity on the downside but then arguably also offset the upside," Duy said. "They seem to have lost interest in speeding the pace of the recovery."
Bottom Line: The Federal Reserve has set reasonably clear expectations that rates will remain low for a long time. That path, however, seems to be a consequence of doing too little now to ensure a stronger recovery. In other words, the Fed seems to be taking a lower-rate future as a given rather than as a result of insufficient policy. Instead of acting to ensure a stronger forecast, they seem more interesting in acting to lock-in the lower path of activity. And that in turn will tend to lock in a low level of long-term rates. This, I think, is the best explanation for the inability of markets to sustain higher rates. It is simply reasonable to expect that the conditions which justify higher long rates will be met with tighter policy sufficient to contain growth to something closer to the current path of output than to current estimates of potential output.

Links for 5-28-14

Posted: 28 May 2014 12:06 AM PDT

'Don't Buy the 'Sharing Economy' Hype'

Posted: 27 May 2014 09:50 AM PDT

Dean Baker:

Don't buy the 'sharing economy' hype: Airbnb and Uber are facilitating rip-offs: The "sharing economy" – typified by companies like Airbnb or Uber, both of which now have market capitalizations in the billions – is the latest fashion craze among business writers. But in their exuberance over the next big thing, many boosters have overlooked the reality that this new business model is largely based on evading regulations and breaking the law. ...

This downside of the sharing needs to be taken seriously, but that doesn't mean the current tax and regulatory structure is perfect. Many existing regulations should be changed, as they were originally designed to serve narrow interests and/or have outlived their usefulness. But it doesn't make sense to essentially exempt entire classes of business from safety regulations or taxes just because they provide their services over the Internet.

Going forward, we need to ensure that the regulatory structure allows for real innovation, but doesn't make scam-facilitators into billionaires. For example, rooms rented under Airbnb should be subject to the same taxes as hotels and motels pay. Uber drivers and cars should have to meet the same standards and carry the same level of insurance as commercial taxi fleets.

If these services are still viable when operating on a level playing field they will be providing real value to the economy. As it stands, they are hugely rewarding a small number of people for finding a creative way to cheat the system.

Agree about the level playing field, but perhaps it will serve as a catalyst for changing regulations that "were originally designed to serve narrow interests and/or have outlived their usefulness"?

'The Share of Borrowers with High Student Loan Balances is Rising'

Posted: 27 May 2014 09:03 AM PDT

We need to provide more support for education if we want it to be a vehicle for enhanced opportunity rather than a means of promoting existing inequities:

The Share of Borrowers with High Student Loan Balances is Rising, On the Economy, St. Louis Fed: It's not just the total number of student loan borrowers that is going up. The average balance per borrower is going up as well. And, in particular, the fraction of borrowers with more than $10,000 in student debt is rising.

In a recent Economic Synopses essay, Alexander Monge-Naranjo, research officer and economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, examined the recent growth in student loan debt in the U.S. over the period 2005-2012. As of March 2012, student loan debt stood at $870 billion and had surpassed total credit card debt ($693 billion) and total auto loan debt ($730 billion).

In addition, Monge-Naranjo found that the distribution of student loans by debt levels had shifted, with the share of borrowers with loan balances in excess of $10,000 increasing. Increases were greater at higher levels of debt:

  • Only 3 percent of borrowers in 2005 owed more than $100,000. By 2012, that fraction reached 6.2 percent.
  • The share of borrowers who owed between $150,000 and $175,000 rose from 1.7 percent to 3.7 percent.
  • The share who owed between $175,000 and $200,000 went up from 0.6 percent to 1.5 percent.
  • The share of those owing more than $200,000 went up from 0.2 percent to 0.6 percent.

While Monge-Naranjo noted that "high levels of student loan debt pose no problems as long as the investment in education has high returns and the loans are repaid," he also indicated that some borrowers may suffer adverse effects in the future, such as difficulty obtaining other forms of credit.

The FT is on a Roll. Not.

Posted: 27 May 2014 08:55 AM PDT

Kevin O'Rourke:

The FT is on a roll: In an otherwise unremarkable editorial about the upshot of the elections, the FT comes up with this quite remarkable statement:

The only viable path for France is to press ahead with tax cuts and spending reductions that can sustain growth.

Is the FT really saying that in a Keynesian short run, such as we find ourselves in just now, the balanced budget multiplier is negative? Really? Or that the spending multiplier is negative? Or is it perhaps denying that the Eurozone currently finds itself in such a Keynesian short run, in which a lack of demand is the key constraint on growth? (Let's not even get into the debate about the long run relationship between growth and the size of the state in Europe, although I can't help writing down one word: Scandinavia.)

And is the FT really claiming that continuing with this programme would make all those FN voters switch to the socialists and UMP?

Really?

Global Income Distribution Since 1988

Posted: 27 May 2014 08:21 AM PDT

From Vox EU:

Global income distribution: From the fall of the Berlin Wall to the Great Recession, by Christoph Lakner and Branko Milanovic, Vox EU: Since 1988, rapid growth in Asia has lifted billions out of poverty. Incomes at the very top of the world income distribution have also grown rapidly, whereas median incomes in rich countries have grown much more slowly. This column asks whether these developments, while reducing global income inequality overall, might undermine democracy in rich countries.

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