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June 30, 2015

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Posted: 30 Jun 2015 12:06 AM PDT

Fed Watch: Events Continue to Conspire Against the Fed

Posted: 29 Jun 2015 03:00 PM PDT

Tim Duy:

Events Continue to Conspire Against the Fed, by Tim Duy: Federal Reserve policymakers just can't catch a break lately. Riding on the back of strong data in the second half of last year, they were positioning themselves to declare victory and begin the process of policy normalization, AKA "raising interest rates." Then the bottom fell out. Data in the first half of the year turned sloppy. Although policymakers on average - and Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen in particular - could reasonably believe the underlying momentum of the economy had not changed, that the data reflected largely temporary factors, the case for a rate hike by mid-year evaporated all the same. The risk of being wrong was simply more than they were willing to bear in the absence of clear inflation pressures.

The story was clearly shifting by the end of June. Key data on jobs and the consumer firmed as expected, raising the possibility that September was in play. Salvation from ZIRP, finally. Federal Reserve Governor Jerome Powell called it a coin toss. Via Bloomberg:

Speaking at a Wall Street Journal event in Washington Tuesday, Powell said he forecast stronger growth than in the first half of 2015, growth in the labor market and a "greater basis for confidence" in inflation returning to 2 percent.

"If those things are realized, I feel that it is time, it will be time, potentially as soon as September," he said. "I don't think the odds are 100 percent. I think they're probably in the 50-50 range that we will realize those conditions, but that's my forecast."

Earlier, San Francisco Federal Reserve President John Williams said he expected two rate hikes this year. Via Reuters:

"Definitely my own forecast would be having us raise rates two times this year, but that would depend on the data," San Francisco Fed President John Williams told reporters at the bank's headquarters.

Rate increases of a quarter percentage point each would be reasonable, he said, with little point in making rate increases any smaller.

Given that we have basically written off the possibility of a rate hike in October (Fed not positioning for a rate hike every meeting and no one expects October for a first hike in the absence of the press conference), that leaves September and December for hikes.

Over the weekend, New York Federal Reserve President William Dudley also raised the possibility of September in an interview with the Financial Times:

A Federal Reserve interest-rate hike will be "very much in play" at the central bank's September meeting if the recent strengthening of the US economy continues, according to one of America's top central bankers.

William Dudley, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, said recent evidence of accelerating wage gains, improving incomes, and growing household spending had alleviated some of his concerns about the sustainability of momentum in America's jobs market.

Former Federal Reserve Governor Laurence Meyer expects Yellen to also be comfortable with two rate hikes in 2015 by the time September rolls around. Via Bloomberg:

"We expect the incoming data between now and the September meeting to help ease concerns about the growth outlook, prompting Chair Yellen and a majority of the FOMC to see two hikes this year as appropriate," Meyer said in a note to clients.

No, September was not a sure bet, but you could see how the data evolved to get you there. But then came Greece. Greece - will it never end? Financial markets were roiled as Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras abandoned the latest round of bailout negotiations with the EU, IMF, and ECB and instead pursued a national referendum on the last version of the bailout proposal. Most of you know the story from that point on - run on Greek banks, the ECB ends further ELA extensions, a bank holiday is declared, likely missing a payment to the IMF etc., etc.

At this juncture, everything in Greece is now in flux. Greece will be holding a referendum on a deal that apparently no longer exists, so it is not clear what negotiations would happen even if it passes. Moreover, it seems likely that the economic damage that will occur in the next week or longer will almost certainly require an even bigger give on the part of Greece's creditors. Is that going to happen? There is no exit plan to force Greece out of the Euro. What if Greece refuses to leave? How does Europe respond to a growing humanitarian crisis Greece as the economy collapsed? This could drag on and on and on.

As would be reasonably expected, the jump in risk sank equities across the globe, in the process stripping away US stock gains for 2015. Not that there was much to give - it only took a little over 2% on the SP500. Yields on Treasuries sank in a safe-haven bid, and market participants pushed Federal Reserve rate hike expectations out beyond 2015.

At this moment, there is obviously little to confirm that 2015 is off the table. To be sure, we know the Fed is watching the situation closely. Back to the FT and Dudley:

That said, Mr Dudley warned that the financial market implications of a Greek exit from the euro could be graver than many investors seemed to believe, because it would set a "huge precedent" indicating that euro membership was reversible.

People "underestimate all the different channels in terms of how contagion works", the central banker said. "We saw that in the financial crisis. People did not anticipate that the Lehman failure was going to affect the economy and financial markets to the degree that it did."

At the risk of being guilty of underestimating contagion, I am optimistic that the ring fencing around Greece will hold. This will be a political disaster for Europe, and a humanitarian disaster for Greece, but I expect will ultimately prove to have limited impact beyond those borders.

Famous last words.

Of course, even if that is correct, we don't know it to be correct, and thus the Fed will again proceed cautiously, just like they did in the face of the weak first quarter. Hence, all else equal, pushing out the timing of the first hike is reasonable. September, though, is a long ways off, and plenty can happen between now and then. So what will the Fed be watching?

First is the data, as they have emphasized again and again. We have three labor reports between now and September, beginning this week. Strong monthly gains coupled with falling unemployment rates and further evidence of wage growth would go a long way to supporting a rate hike. All would give the Fed the faith that inflation will soon be heading toward target. This is especially the case if recent consumer spending and housing numbers hold and if business investment picks up. And it would be further helpful if the global economy did not sink under the weight of Greece. Essentially, the Fed wants to be confident that the first quarter was a fluke and thus the economy is in fact fairly resilient.

Second is the financial fallout from Greece. Mostly, they will be carefully watching to see if the Greece crisis impacts domestic credit markets and banking. Do interest rate spreads widen? Do lenders tighten underwriting conditions? Does interbank lending proceed without impediments? If they see conditions emerge like this, I would expect them to match market expectations and just stay out of the rate hike business until the fallout from Greece is clear. This likely holds even in the face of solid US data. There will (or at least should) recognize that periods of substantial unrest in credit markets are not the time to be raising rates.

Bottom Line: The Fed was already approaching the first rate hike cautiously, wary of even dipping their toes in the water. The crisis in Greece will make them even more cautious. Like their response to the first quarter data, until they see a clear path, they will be on the sidelines. That said, given the plethora of warnings not to underestimate the global impact of the crisis in Greece, one should be watching the opposite side of the story. Solid data and limited Greece impact would leave December at a minimum, and even September, in play.

Stiglitz: Troika has 'Kind of Criminal Responsibility'

Posted: 29 Jun 2015 11:21 AM PDT

From Time:

Joseph Stiglitz to Greece's Creditors: Abandon Austerity Or Face Global Fallout: ... "They have criminal responsibility," he says of the so-called troika of financial institutions that bailed out the Greek economy in 2010, namely the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank. "It's a kind of criminal responsibility for causing a major recession," Stiglitz tells TIME in a phone interview.
Along with a growing number of the world's most influential economists, Stiglitz has begun to urge the troika to forgive Greece's debt – estimated to be worth close to $300 billion in bailouts – and to offer the stimulus money that two successive Greek governments have been requesting.
Failure to do so, Stiglitz argues, would not only worsen the recession in Greece – already deeper and more prolonged than the Great Depression in the U.S. – it would also wreck the credibility of Europe's common currency, the euro, and put the global economy at risk of contagion. ...

'The Stimulative Effect of Redistribution'

Posted: 29 Jun 2015 11:03 AM PDT

Bart Hobijn and Alexander Nussbacher in the SF Fed's Economic Letter:

The Stimulative Effect of Redistribution, by Bart Hobijn and Alexander Nussbacher: The idea of taking from the rich and giving to the poor goes back long before the legend of Robin Hood. This kind of redistribution sounds desirable out of a sense of fairness. However, economists often judge a policy less on whether it is fair, and more in terms of whether it is efficient or inefficient, as well as whether it stimulates or slows economic activity.
In this Economic Letter we evaluate the stimulative effect of redistributing income from rich to poor households in a few distinct steps. We first provide a simple back-of-the-envelope calculation of the potential stimulus from redistributive policies. We then review the two main assumptions behind this policy prescription. We argue that the stimulative impact of such policies is likely to be lower than the simple calculation suggests. ...

'U.S. Income Inequality Persists Amid Overall Growth in 2014'

Posted: 29 Jun 2015 09:34 AM PDT

Emmanuel Saez:

U.S. income inequality persists amid overall growth in 2014, by Emmanuel Saez, WCEG: Income inequality in the United States grew more acute in 2014, yet the bottom 99 percent of income earners registered the best real income growth (after factoring in inflation) in 15 years. The latest data from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service show that incomes for the bottom 99 percent of families grew by 3.3 percent over 2013 levels, the best annual growth rate since 1999. But incomes for those families in the top 1 percent of earners grew even faster, by 10.8 percent, over the same period. ...
More broadly, the top 1 percent of families captured 58 percent of total real income growth per family from 2009 to 2014, with the bottom 99 percent of families reaping only 42 percent. ...
The higher tax rates for top U.S. income earners enacted in 2013 as part of the Obama Administration and Congress' federal budget deal seem to have had only a fleeting impact on the outsized accumulation of pre-tax income by families in the top 1 percent and 0.1 percent of income earners.
To be sure, there was a shifting  of income among high-income earners ... as these wealthy families sought to avoid the higher rates enacted in 2013. This adjustment created a spike in the share of top incomes accumulated by the very wealthy in 2012 followed by a trough in 2013. By 2014, however, top incomes shares were back to their upward trajectory. This suggests that the higher tax rates starting in 2013, while not negligible, will not be sufficient by themselves to curb the enormous increase in pre-tax income concentration that has taken place in the United States since the 1970s.

Paul Krugman: Greece Over the Brink

Posted: 29 Jun 2015 08:10 AM PDT

Just say no:

Greece Over the Brink, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: It has been obvious for some time that the creation of the euro was a terrible mistake. Europe never had the preconditions for a successful single currency....
Leaving a currency union is, however, a much harder and more frightening decision than never entering in the first place...
But the situation in Greece has now reached what looks like a point of no return. Banks are temporarily closed and the government has imposed capital controls... It seems highly likely that the government will soon have to start paying pensions and wages in scrip, in effect creating a parallel currency. And next week the country will hold a referendum on whether to accept the demands of the "troika" ... for yet more austerity.
Greece should vote "no," and the Greek government should be ready, if necessary, to leave the euro.
To understand why I say this, you need to realize that most ... of what you've heard about Greek profligacy and irresponsibility is false. Yes, the Greek government was spending beyond its means in the late 2000s. But ... all the austerity measures ... been more than enough to eliminate the original deficit and turn it into a large surplus.
So why didn't this happen? Because the Greek economy collapsed, largely as a result of those very austerity measures, dragging revenues down with it.
And this collapse, in turn, had a lot to do with the euro, which trapped Greece in an economic straitjacket. Cases of successful austerity ... typically involve large currency devaluations... But Greece, without its own currency, didn't have that option. ...
It's easy to get lost in the details, but the essential point now is that Greece has been presented with a take-it-or-leave-it offer that is effectively indistinguishable from the policies of the past five years. ...
Don't be taken in by claims that troika officials are just technocrats explaining to the ignorant Greeks what must be done. These supposed technocrats are in fact fantasists who have disregarded everything we know about macroeconomics, and have been wrong every step of the way. This isn't about analysis, it's about power — the power of the creditors to pull the plug on the Greek economy, which persists as long as euro exit is considered unthinkable.
So it's time to put an end to this unthinkability. Otherwise Greece will face endless austerity, and a depression with no hint of an end.

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