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September 23, 2014

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Fed Watch: Fisher on Wages

Posted: 23 Sep 2014 12:24 AM PDT

Tim Duy:

Fisher on Wages, by Tim Duy: Dallas Federal Reserve President Richard Fisher said Friday the US economy was threatend by higher wages. Via Reuters:
Fisher said on Friday he worries that further declines in unemployment nationally could lead to broader wage inflation. To head that off, and also to address what he called rising excesses in financial markets, Fisher said he prefers to raise rates by springtime, sooner than many investors currently anticipate.
After a snarky tweet, I wondered if he was not misquoted or misinterpreted. But he definitely warns that wage growth is set to accelerate in his Fox News interview (begin at the 3:50 mark). The crux of his argument is that wage growth accelerates when unemployment hits 6.1% and he uses strong wage growth in Texas as an example. He seems genuinely concerned that wage growth is negative outcome - that wage growth in Texas is a precursor to a terrible outcome for the US economy as a whole.
His entire tone is odd, and I feel compelled to clean up his argument, at least as much as is possible.
Fisher says that he presented evidence at the last FOMC meeting that 6.1% was the tipping point for wage acceleration. I can't disagree - I said as much this past March. The updated chart:

FISHER092214

Another version:

FISHERa092214

It is reasonable to expect that wage growth will accelerate as unemployment moves below 6%. I believe this is something of a test of the hypothesis that alternative measures of under-utilization more accurately convey information about the degree of slack. If that hypothesis is correct, then wage growth should not accelerate.
That said, why should Fisher fear wage growth? I don't see how one can expect real wages to rise in the absence of nominal wage growth in excess of inflation. And once you accept the possibility of real wage growth, you recognize the link between wage growth and inflation could be very weak. And so it is:

FISHERb092214

Note the period of disinflation that pulls inflation down to it's range since the mid-90s across a wide-variety of wage growth rates. The past 20 years give no reason to believe that 4% wage inflation cannot happily coexist with 2% price inflation.
So if wage inflation does not necessarily translate into price inflation, why worry at all? Why is Fisher even worried about wages? The key is really just this quote:
This is like duck hunting, you shot ahead of the mallard rather than try to get it from behind, otherwise you can't hit it.
It is all about the timing. I think his argument might be more effective is he said this:
  • The reason low unemployment does not cause inflation - or, essentially, why the Phillips curve is now flat - is that policymakers remove financial accommodation ahead of actual inflation. This is implicit in the Summary of Economic Projections. The reason inflation stabilizes near target is because unemployment settles near its natural rate, guided there by higher interest rates.
  • To judge the appropriate timing and magnitude of financial market accommodation, the Federal Reserve traditionally used the unemployment rate as a key indicator of slack in the economy. Accommodation would be reduced as the unemployment rate moved close to its natural rate, and conditions tightened has unemployment moved below the natural rate.
  • The Texas experience suggests that these traditional measures remain relevant - this should be his key point. Low unemployment rates stoke wage inflation as firms compete for workers, just as it has in the past.
  • Rather than act disgusted by higher wage growth, he should say that the Fed needs to ensure that such growth translates into real wage growth, and the Fed accomplishes this by adjusting accommodation to maintain its price inflation target. The Fed wants to hold unemployment in a zone consistent with both real wage growth and low and stable inflation. This requires nominal wage growth in excess of 2%.
  • It follows then that given the unemployment rate is already near 6%, it is not reasonable for the Fed to suggest that the first rate hike is a "considerable period" off in the future. The Fed traditionally moves ahead of inflation, and higher wage growth, which will soon be at hand, will be evidence that the first rate hike needs to be pulled forward.
Stated like this, I suspect a large portion of the FOMC would be sympathetic. For example, recall San Francisco Federal Reserve President John Williams from this past March:
"At that point if we don't start to adjust monetary policy there'd be a risk of overshooting," he said. "You don't wait until you're at full employment before you start to raise interest rates from zero."
That said, most members lack Fisher's certainty that wages gains are set to accelerate and indicate that labor market slack has dwindled to the point that it is appropriate to remove financial accommodation. There remains the concern that the unemployment rate is not the best measure of labor market slack. They would prefer to wait until they have firm evidence of the absence of labor market slack and risk a small overshoot of inflation.
Moreover, as we now know, showing their anti-inflationary resolve did not do the Fed any favors in 2006 and 2007. As a whole, the Fed is acutely aware of this result. It has not gone unnoticed that the while the economy has suffered from repeated recessions since the great Moderation began, it has not suffered from a bout of inflation. It is reasonable to thus conclude that on average, the Fed has been too tight, not too loose. Hence again why the FOMC is willing to be patient in the normalization process.
Bottom Line: Fisher suggests that wage inflation by itself is a concern and needs to be brought to a halt. This is of course incorrect. Fisher sees an inflation threat in any and all data. Indeed, there could really be no other reason to be concerned about wage inflation. I suspect that Fisher has pivoted to concerns about wage inflation because his much feared price inflation has never emerged. That said, there is an element of truth here as well. Unemployment is nearing a range that is typically associated with faster wage growth. The Fed will respond to reduced slack in labor markets with less accommodation, and they will see accelerating wage growth as a signal that slack has largely been eliminated. But they are in no rush to do so any faster than necessary. Hence the slow taper and the subsequent delay in hiking rates. The balance of risks may be in the direction of tighter than expected policy, but the Fed needs to see more convincing data before they actually move in that direction.

Links for 9-23-14

Posted: 23 Sep 2014 12:06 AM PDT

'Forecasting with the FRBNY DSGE Model'

Posted: 22 Sep 2014 09:58 AM PDT

The NY Fed hopes that someday the FRBNY DSGE model will be useful for forecasting. Presently, the model has "huge margins for improvement. The list of flaws is long..." (first in a five-part series):

Forecasting with the FRBNY DSGE Model, by Marco Del Negro, Bianca De Paoli, Stefano Eusepi, Marc Giannoni, Argia Sbordone, and Andrea Tambalotti, Liberty Economics, FRBNY: The Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY) has built a DSGE model as part of its efforts to forecast the U.S. economy. On Liberty Street Economics, we are publishing a weeklong series to provide some background on the model and its use for policy analysis and forecasting, as well as its forecasting performance. In this post, we briefly discuss what DSGE models are, explain their usefulness as a forecasting tool, and preview the forthcoming pieces in this series.
The term DSGE, which stands for dynamic stochastic general equilibrium, encompasses a very broad class of macro models, from the standard real business cycle (RBC) model of Nobel prizewinners Kydland and Prescott to New Keynesian monetary models like the one of Christiano, Eichenbaum, and Evans. What distinguishes these models is that rules describing how economic agents behave are obtained by solving intertemporal optimization problems, given assumptions about the underlying environment, including the prevailing fiscal and monetary policy regime. One of the benefits of DSGE models is that they can deliver a lens for understanding the economy's behavior. The third post in this series will show an example of this role with a discussion of the forces behind the Great Recession and the following slow recovery.
DSGE models are also quite abstract representations of reality, however, which in the past severely limited their empirical appeal and forecasting performance. This started to change with work by Schorfheide and Smets and Wouters. First, they popularized estimation (especially Bayesian estimation) of these models, with parameters chosen in a way that increased the ability of these models to describe the time series behavior of economic variables. Second, these models were enriched with both endogenous and exogenous propagation mechanisms that allowed them to better capture patterns in the data. For this reason, estimated DSGE models are increasingly used within the Federal Reserve System (the Board of Governors and the Reserve Banks of Chicago and Philadelphia have versions) and by central banks around the world (including the New Area-Wide Model developed at the European Central Bank, and models at the Norges Bank and the Sveriges Riksbank). The FRBNY DSGE model is a medium-scale model in the tradition of Christiano, Eichenbaum, and Evans and Smets and Wouters that also includes credit frictions as in the financial accelerator model developed by Bernanke, Gertler, and Gilchrist and further investigated by Christiano, Motto, and Rostagno. The second post in this series elaborates on what DSGE models are and discusses the features of the FRBNY model.
Perhaps some progress was made in the past twenty years toward empirical fit, but is it enough to give forecasts from DSGE models any credence? Aren't there many critics out there (here is one) telling us these models are a failure? As it happens, not many people seem to have actually checked the extent to which these model forecasts are off the mark. Del Negro and Schorfheide do undertake such an exercise in a chapter of the recent Handbook of Economic Forecasting. Their analysis compares the real-time forecast accuracy of DSGE models that were available prior to the Great Recession (such as the Smets and Wouters model) to that of the Blue Chip consensus forecasts, using a period that includes the Great Recession. They find that, for nowcasting (forecasting current quarter variables) and short-run forecasting, DSGE models are at a disadvantage compared with professional forecasts. Over the medium- and long-run terms, however, DSGE model forecasts for both output and inflation become competitive with—if not superior to—professional forecasts. They also find that including timely information from financial markets such as credit spreads can dramatically improve the models' forecasts, especially in the Great Recession period.
These results are based on what forecasters call "pseudo-out-of-sample" forecasts. These are not truly "real time" forecasts, because they were not produced at the time. (To our knowledge, there is little record of truly real time DSGE forecasts for the United States, partly because these models were only developed in the mid-2000s.) For this reason, in the fourth post of this series, we report forecasts produced in real time using the FRBNY DSGE model since 2010. These forecasts have been included in internal New York Fed documents, but were not previously made public. Although the sample is admittedly short, these forecasts show that while consensus forecasts were predicting a relatively rapid recovery from the Great Recession, the DSGE model was correctly forecasting a more sluggish recovery.
The last post in the series shows the current FRBNY DSGE forecasts for output growth and inflation and discusses the main economic forces driving the predictions. Bear in mind that these forecasts are not the official New York Fed staff forecasts; the DSGE model is only one of many tools employed for prediction and policy analysis at the Bank.
DSGE models in general and the FRBNY model in particular have huge margins for improvement. The list of flaws is long, ranging from the lack of heterogeneity (the models assume a representative household) to the crude representation of financial markets (the models have no term premia). Nevertheless, we are sticking our necks out and showing our forecasts, not because we think we have a "good" model of the economy, but because we want to have a public record of the model's successes and failures. In doing so, we can learn from both our past performance and readers' criticism. The model is a work in progress. Hopefully, it can be improved over time, guided by current economic and policy questions and benefiting from developments in economic theory and econometric tools.

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