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September 3, 2015

Latest Posts from Economist's View

Posted: 03 Sep 2015 12:12 AM PDT
From Larry Mishel and Josh Bivens at the EPI:
Understanding the Historic Divergence Between Productivity and a Typical Worker's Pay: Why It Matters and Why It's Real, by Josh Bivens and Lawrence Mishel: Introduction and key findings Wage stagnation experienced by the vast majority of American workers has emerged as a central issue in economic policy debates, with candidates and leaders of both parties noting its importance. This is a welcome development because it means that economic inequality has become a focus of attention and that policymakers are seeing the connection between wage stagnation and inequality. Put simply, wage stagnation is how the rise in inequality has damaged the vast majority of American workers.
The Economic Policy Institute's earlier paper, Raising America's Pay: Why It's Our Central Economic Policy Challenge, presented a thorough analysis of income and wage trends, documented rising wage inequality, and provided strong evidence that wage stagnation is largely the result of policy choices that boosted the bargaining power of those with the most wealth and power (Bivens et al. 2014). As we argued, better policy choices, made with low- and moderate-wage earners in mind, can lead to more widespread wage growth and strengthen and expand the middle class.
This paper updates and explains the implications of the central component of the wage stagnation story: the growing gap between overall productivity growth and the pay of the vast majority of workers since the 1970s. A careful analysis of this gap between pay and productivity provides several important insights for the ongoing debate about how to address wage stagnation and rising inequality. First, wages did not stagnate for the vast majority because growth in productivity (or income and wealth creation) collapsed. Yes, the policy shifts that led to rising inequality were also associated with a slowdown in productivity growth, but even with this slowdown, productivity still managed to rise substantially in recent decades. But essentially none of this productivity growth flowed into the paychecks of typical American workers. Second, pay failed to track productivity primarily due to two key dynamics representing rising inequality: the rising inequality of compensation (more wage and salary income accumulating at the very top of the pay scale) and the shift in the share of overall national income going to owners of capital and away from the pay of employees. Third, although boosting productivity growth is an important long-run goal, this will not lead to broad-based wage gains unless we pursue policies that reconnect productivity growth and the pay of the vast majority.
Ever since EPI first drew attention to the decoupling of pay and productivity (Mishel and Bernstein 1994), our work has been widely cited in economic analyses and by policymakers. It has also attracted criticisms from those looking to deny the facts of inequality. Thus in this paper we not only provide an updated analysis of the productivity–pay disconnect and the factors behind it, we also explain why the measurement choices we have made are the correct ones. As we demonstrate, the data series and methods we use to construct our graph of the growing gap between productivity and typical worker pay best capture how income generated in an average hour of work in the U.S. economy has not trickled down to raise hourly pay for typical workers. ...
Key findings from the paper include:
  • For decades following the end of World War II, inflation-adjusted hourly compensation (including employer-provided benefits as well as wages) for the vast majority of American workers rose in line with increases in economy-wide productivity. Thus hourly pay became the primary mechanism that transmitted economy-wide productivity growth into broad-based increases in living standards.
  • Since 1973, hourly compensation of the vast majority of American workers has not risen in line with economy-wide productivity. In fact, hourly compensation has almost stopped rising at all. Net productivity grew 72.2 percent between 1973 and 2014. Yet inflation-adjusted hourly compensation of the median worker rose just 8.7 percent, or 0.20 percent annually, over this same period, with essentially all of the growth occurring between 1995 and 2002. Another measure of the pay of the typical worker, real hourly compensation of production, nonsupervisory workers, who make up 80 percent of the workforce, also shows pay stagnation for most of the period since 1973, rising 9.2 percent between 1973 and 2014. Again, the lion's share of this growth occurred between 1995 and 2002.
  • Net productivity grew 1.33 percent each year between 1973 and 2014, faster than the meager 0.20 percent annual rise in median hourly compensation. In essence, about 15 percent of productivity growth between 1973 and 2014 translated into higher hourly wages and benefits for the typical American worker. Since 2000, the gap between productivity and pay has risen even faster. The net productivity growth of 21.6 percent from 2000 to 2014 translated into just a 1.8 percent rise in inflation-adjusted compensation for the median worker (just 8 percent of net productivity growth).
  • Since 2000, more than 80 percent of the divergence between a typical (median) worker's pay growth and overall net productivity growth has been driven by rising inequality (specifically, greater inequality of compensation and a falling share of income going to workers relative to capital owners). Over the entire 1973–2014 period, rising inequality explains over two-thirds of the productivity–pay divergence.
  • If the hourly pay of typical American workers had kept pace with productivity growth since the 1970s, then there would have been no rise in income inequality during that period. Instead, productivity growth that did not accrue to typical workers' pay concentrated at the very top of the pay scale (in inflated CEO pay, for example) and boosted incomes accruing to owners of capital.
  • These trends indicate that while rising productivity in recent decades provided the potential for a substantial growth in the pay for the vast majority of workers, this potential was squandered due to rising inequality putting a wedge between potential and actual pay growth for these workers.
  • Policies to spur widespread wage growth, therefore, must not only encourage productivity growth (via full employment, education, innovation, and public investment) but also restore the link between growing productivity and the typical worker's pay.
  • Finally, the economic evidence indicates that the rising gap between productivity and pay for the vast majority likely has nothing to do with any stagnation in the typical worker's individual productivity. For example, even the lowest-paid American workers have made considerable gains in educational attainment and experience in recent decades, which should have raised their productivity.
...
Posted: 03 Sep 2015 12:06 AM PDT
Posted: 02 Sep 2015 12:07 PM PDT
In response to Paul Krugman's recent post, "The Triumph of Backward-Looking Economics" -- no surprise here -- there is  disagreement from Steve Williamson. So let me offer this from Blanchard and Johnson's intermediate macroeconomics text discussing this issue. But first, a brief review of the controversy. Krugman says:
... What did orthodox salt-water macroeconomists believe about disinflation on the eve of the Volcker contraction? As it happens, we have an excellent source document: James Tobin's "Stabilization Policy Ten Years After," presented at Brookings in early 1980. Among other things, Tobin laid out a hypothetical disinflation scenario based on the kind of Keynesian model people like him were using at the time (which was also the model laid out in the Dornbusch-Fischer and Gordon textbooks). These models included an expectations-augmented Phillips curve, with no long-run tradeoff between inflation and unemployment — but expectations were assumed to adjust gradually based on experience, rather than changing rapidly via forward-looking assessments of Fed policy.
This was, of course, the kind of model the Chicago School dismissed scathingly as worthy of nothing but ridicule, and which was more or less driven out of the academic literature, even as it continued to be the basis of a lot of policy analysis. ...
Krugman goes on to claim that the Chicago School was wrong. Williamson says:
... Tobin is using what he thinks is a conventional macroeconometric model. It's got adaptive expectations and a Phillips curve with what people then would have called a "high sacrifice ratio." You have to suffer a lot of unemployment to get a small reduction in inflation. Of course, Tobin's simulation looks nothing like what happened. ...
He is focused on whether a particular set of assertions by Tobin are correct, and he claims they do not fully fit the evidence. But there is a larger issue here that goes far beyond the particulars of Tobin's paper (and a broad view of the evidence is supportive of Krugman's view of the Volcker disinflation). Blanchard and Johnson:
... Fighting inflation implied tightening monetary policy, decreasing output growth, and thus accepting higher unemployment for some time. The question arose of how much unemployment, and for how long, would likely be needed to achieve a lower level of inflation, say 4%-which is the rate Volcker wanted to achieve. Some economists argued that such a disinflation would likely be very costly. .....
The natural conclusion was that it would make sense to go slowly, so as not to increase unemployment by too much in a given year. Some economists argued that disinflation might in fact be much less costly. In what has become known as the Lucas critique, Lucas pointed out that when trying to predict the effects of a major policy change-like the change considered by the Fed at the time-it could be very misleading to take as given the relations estimated from past data. In the case of the Phillips curve, taking equation (8.10) [note: this is the backward looking Phillips curve specified below] as given was equivalent to assuming that wage setters would keep expecting inflation in the future to be the same as it was in the past, that the way wage setters formed their expectations would not change in response to the change in policy. This was an unwarranted assumption, Lucas argued: Why shouldn't wage setters take policy changes directly into account? If wage setters believed that the Fed was committed to lower inflation, they might well expect inflation to be lower in the future than in the past. ...
Lucas did not believe that disinflation could really take place without some increase in unemployment. But Thomas Sargent, looking at the historical evidence on the end of several very high inflations, concluded that the increase in unemployment could be small. The essential ingredient of successful disinflation, he argued, was credibility of monetary policy-the belief by wage setters that the central bank was truly committed to reducing inflation. Only credibility would cause wage setters to change the way they formed their expectations. Furthermore, he argued, a clear and quick disinflation program was more likely to be credible than a protracted one that offered plenty of opportunities for reversal and political infighting along the way.
Who turned out to be right? In September 1979, Paul Volcker started increasing the interest rate so as to slow down the economy and reduce inflation. From 9% in 1979, the three-month Treasury bill rate was increased to 15% in August 1981. The effects on inflation, output growth, and unemployment are shown in Table 8-1. The table makes clear that there was no credibility miracle: Disinflation was associated with a sharp recession, with negative growth in both 1980 and 1982, and with a large and long-lasting increase in unemployment.
Does this settle the issue of how much credibility matters? Not really. Those who argued before the fact that credibility would help argued after the fact that Volcker had not been fully credible. After increasing the interest rate from September 1979 to April 1980 and inducing a sharp decrease in growth, he appeared to have second thoughts, reversing course and sharply decreasing the interest rate from April to September, only to increase it again in 1981. This lack of consistency, some argued, reduced his credibility and increased the unemployment cost of the disinflation. A larger lesson still stands: The behavior of inflation depends very much on how people and firms form expectations. The Lucas critique still stands: The past relation between unemployment and inflation may be a poor guide to what happens when policy changes. ...
They are saying that a Phillips curve of the form π = πe - α(U - Un), where πe  at time t equals πt-1 is a good model of the Volcker era (that is, expectations were backward looking), and that was reasonable at the time. However, as expectations formation changes with experience this may no longer hold true -- the tradeoff could change as expectations are more responsive to Fed announcements. Krugman is arguing that recent experience lends credence to the idea that a backward looking model (or a model with a linear combination of past and rationally expected inflation, i.e. a model with persistence in unemployment in response to policy changes) continues to hold.
Posted: 02 Sep 2015 09:30 AM PDT
This is a question I have wanted to see an answer to for a long time. What is the minimum efficient scale for financial institutions? This is an important question with respect to breaking up large banks into smaller entities. Some have argued, based on very little compelling evidence as far as I can tell, that breaking up big banks would be costly because large banks are able to exploit economies of scale. Others disagree, but again evidence for either point of view is unclear. I don't mean there is no evidence at all, the existing research is described in the introduction to this paper, but the results do not point strongly in any particular direction. Hopefully, more work on the topic will shift the weight of the evidence in one direction or another:
The Evolution of Scale Economies in U.S. Banking, by David C. Wheelock and Paul W. Wilson, August 2015: Abstract Continued consolidation of the U.S. banking industry and general increase in the size of banks has prompted some policymakers to consider policies to discourage banks from getting larger, including explicit caps on bank size. However, limits on the size of banks could entail economic costs if they prevent banks from achieving economies of scale. The extent of scale economies in banking remains unclear. This paper presents new estimates of returns to scale for U.S. commercial banks based on nonparametric, local-linear estimation of bank cost, revenue and pro t functions. We present estimates for both 2006 and 2012 to compare the extent of scale economies in banking some four years after the financial crisis and two years after enactment of the Dodd-Frank Act with scale economies prior to the crisis. We find that most banks faced increasing returns to scale in cost in both years, though results for the very largest banks in 2012 are somewhat sensitive to specification. Further, most banks faced decreasing returns in revenue in both years, though nearly all banks could still increase revenue and pro t by becoming larger.
[As I've written many, many times, I do not think that breaking up big banks will do a lot to reduce our susceptibility to bank crises. After all, we had a financial crisis about every 20 years in the 1800s, and this continued through the Great Depression, and at that time banks were relatively small. Thus, it seems that crises have more to do with the diversity of activity and connectedness than bank size. I favor breaking up the biggest banks to reduce their political power, which I believe is excessive, and to reduce their economic power. If the above results had shown that the minimum efficient scale was much smaller than the typical large, systemically important bank, breaking them up would be an easy call. But that's not what the results imply. Thus, in this case, there is a tradeoff between the benefit or reducing political and economic power versus losing economies of scale (not sure how steep the cost function is at the existing size -- if it's relatively flat the loss of scale economies could be small). The other alternative is to treat them along the lines of a public utility. We allow them to be large to exploit scale economies, then regulate pricing and other behavior. However, this is where the political power of the large banks matters, and it's not clear that a policy of "large but with regulatory oversight" is the best option to pursue.]
Posted: 02 Sep 2015 08:57 AM PDT
Simon Wren-Lewis says:
Corbyn, QE and financial interests: ... I want to talk about Quantitative Easing (QE). The basic idea behind QE is that by buying long term assets at a time when their price is high (interest rates are low) to make their price even higher (interest rates even lower) in the short term, and selling them back later when asset prices are lower (and interest rates higher), you could stimulate additional demand. At first sight it seems not too dissimilar to a central bank's normal activities in changing short rates. There are however two major differences....
After discussing the differences, and some of the problems with QE, he continues with:
That should mean that everyone is looking around for a better way of doing things when short rates hit their lower bound. Fiscal stimulus is the obvious candidate, but we know the political problems there. ...
In the absence of an appropriate government fiscal policy, I find the logic for helicopter money compelling and the arguments against it pretty weak. But just as with fiscal policy, just because something makes good macroeconomic sense does not mean it will happen. I have always been reluctant to pay too much attention to the distributional impact of monetary policy, because it seemed like one of those occasions when even well meaning attention to distribution can mess up good policy. Yet in terms of the political economy of replacing QE, perhaps we should.
It is more likely than not that QE will lead to central bank losses. ... After all, they are buying high, and selling low. That is integral to the policy. Who gains from these losses. Where does the money permanently created because of these losses go? To the financial sector, and the owners of financial assets (who are selling to the central bank high, and buying back low). In that sense, likely losses on QE will involve a transfer from the public to the financial sector.
If QE was the only means of stabilizing the economy in a liquidity trap, because fiscal policy was out of bounds for political reasons, then so be it. The social benefits would far outweigh any distributional costs, even if the latter could not be undone elsewhere. But if QE is a highly ineffective instrument, and there are better instruments available, you have to ask in whose interest is it that we stick with QE?

September 2, 2015

Latest Posts from Economist's View

Posted: 02 Sep 2015 12:06 AM PDT
Posted: 01 Sep 2015 11:53 AM PDT
This is from "Has the U.S. Economy Become Less Interest Rate Sensitive?," by Jonathan L. Willis and Guangye Cao of the KC Fed:
... IV. Conclusion Although monetary policy is an important tool for promoting price and economic stability, its efficacy can change over time. This article investigates the interest rate channel of monetary policy and, more specifically, the response of employment to changes in the federal funds rate. Analytical results suggest the interest sensitivity of employment has declined in recent decades for nearly all industries and for the overall economy. The article tests three possible explanations for the observed change in interest sensitivity. First, changes in the conduct of monetary policy do not appear to be responsible for the shift in interest sensitivity. Second, linkages between the short end and the long end of the yield curve along with linkages between financial markets and the overall economy have become protracted. Third, structural shifts have altered how employment changes at the industry level feed back to the aggregate economy. Overall, the findings suggest that the decline in the interest sensitivity of the economy is not due to changes in the conduct of monetary policy, but rather to structural changes in industries and financial markets. Future research should investigate whether and how monetary policy should adapt in response to these changes.
Posted: 01 Sep 2015 09:25 AM PDT
The conclusion to "Leveraged bubbles," by Òscar Jordà, Moritz Schularick, and Alan Taylor:
... In this column, we turned to economic history for the first comprehensive assessment of the economic risks of asset price bubbles. We provide evidence about which types of bubbles matter and how their economic costs differ. Our historical analysis shows that not all bubbles are created equal. When credit growth fuels asset price bubbles, the dangers for the financial sector and the real economy are much more substantial. The damage done to the economy by the bursting of credit boom bubbles is significant and long lasting.
In the past decades, central banks typically have taken a hands-off approach to asset price bubbles and credit booms. This way of thinking has been criticised by some institutions, such as the BIS, that took a less rosy view of the self-equilibrating tendencies of financial markets and warned of the potentially grave consequences of leveraged asset price bubbles. The findings presented here can inform ongoing efforts to devise better macro-financial theory and real-world applications at a time when policymakers are still searching for new approaches in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

September 1, 2015

Latest Posts from Economist's View

Posted: 01 Sep 2015 01:17 AM PDT
Everyone seems to be posting the syllabus for the graduate courses they are teaching this fall. Mine is simple. In my Monetary Theory and Policy course we are going to go through this book by Jordi Gali (don't tell anyone I actually know this stuff):
Front Cover
Blurb: This revised second edition of Monetary Policy, Inflation, and the Business Cycle provides a rigorous graduate-level introduction to the New Keynesian framework and its applications to monetary policy. The New Keynesian framework is the workhorse for the analysis of monetary policy and its implications for inflation, economic fluctuations, and welfare. A backbone of the new generation of medium-scale models under development at major central banks and international policy institutions, the framework provides the theoretical underpinnings for the price stability–oriented strategies adopted by most central banks in the industrialized world.
Using a canonical version of the New Keynesian model as a reference, Jordi Galí explores various issues pertaining to monetary policy's design, including optimal monetary policy and the desirability of simple policy rules. He analyzes several extensions of the baseline model, allowing for cost-push shocks, nominal wage rigidities, and open economy factors. In each case, the effects on monetary policy are addressed, with emphasis on the desirability of inflation-targeting policies. New material includes the zero lower bound on nominal interest rates and an analysis of unemployment's significance for monetary policy.
  • The most up-to-date introduction to the New Keynesian framework available
  • A single benchmark model used throughout
  • New materials and exercises included
  • An ideal resource for graduate students, researchers, and market analysts
I'm looking forward to it. The revised version has lots of new, up to date material, and I really like the fact that he uses variations on a core model throughout the text (it makes the math and intuition a bit easier since you don't have to redo everything with each new topic). I'm a bit torn to move away from Carl Walsh's book, both books have their advantages and I'll still draw quite from the Walsh text. But my focus this quarter is Gali.
Posted: 01 Sep 2015 01:11 AM PDT
In response to this from Paul Romer:
The Clinical-Bench Science Distinction in Macro: I had hoped to find time to offer a more thoughtful response to Simon Wren Lewis's most recent comments on the way forward in macroeconomics...
For now, I'll go ahead with what I hope is a suggestion that could encourage some kind of consensus:
Perhaps the discussion about macro would benefit from a distinction like the one in biomedicine between bench science and clinical work.
In my interpretation, what Lucas and Sargent were trying to do in the 1970s was to develop the bench science side of macroeconomics. ...
Lucas (1972) got things off to a very promising start. It offered both a technical advance–a tractable way to introduce uncertainty and expectations–and an initial conjecture about the fundamental imperfection–incomplete information. It also boasted prematurely about new insights into policy. If at this time, we had already established the distinction between bench science and clinical practice, this might have been recognized as harmless obiter dicta.
Assuming the profession can get back to generally sensible bench science inquiry into the basic scientific questions of macroeconomics (and of course, there were economists who kept doing good bench science on macro questions far away from the RBC reality distortion field), we could copy the quid-pro-quo that prevails in biomedicine: Bench scientists get the freedom to explore any question they want. In return, when they get a result that they think might have implications for clinical practice, the bench-scientists can't just try to pull rank and order the clinicians to change to some new clinical protocol.
The bench scientists have to persuade other bench scientists first. Then the bench scientists together have to persuade the clinicians, and this will not in general, be an easy task. For every important bench-science insight (e.g. that clinicians should wash their hands, or that you can treat ulcers with antibiotics) there are countless episodes in which the bench scientists persuaded each other that they were onto something really big that turned out to be a whimper or simply wrong. ...
So the clinicians are going to be appropriately skeptical. This will irritate the bench scientists, but so what. ...
I'll offer this old Reuters column of mine, A great divide holds back the relevance of economists, on the same topic (from 2011, with links to responses by Summers, Krugman, Hamilton, and Baker among others -- they don't all agree -- full list of responses here). My point, in part, was that causality shouldn't run only from "bench scientists" to practitioners (who then, according to the above, should be free to accept or reject the advice of theorists). The "bench research" should also be informed by the needs of practitioners. That increases the likelihood that theorists will address the most important questions faced by the practitioners, and hence that the research will be useful. That doesn't mean that theorists shouldn't entertain questions with no obvious application, some important discoveries are made in that way. But the theorists should at least consider the needs of the practitioners when deciding which questions are the most important, and most in need of answers.
Posted: 01 Sep 2015 12:24 AM PDT
From Vox EU:
Dynasties and development, by Jan Frederick P. Cruz and Ronald U Mendoza: The possibility of a showdown between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush in the US Presidential polls may have some political pundits salivating, but perhaps many more Americans wondering. Is political power becoming too concentrated in the US? A Bush or a Clinton was President or Vice President in the US for almost 30 years between 1981 and 2009, a dynastic run that may yet be extended by the 2016 elections. ...
In the end, political dynasties in today's modern and developing democracies are a reminder of how personalities still dominate the political landscape, be it in Washington, DC or in Bombay and Manila. Democracies do not necessarily reflect a level playing field, when certain political clans wield disproportionately large influence and control over public resources. And in the worst cases, all that political power is not wielded to advance development or reduce poverty. They appear, instead, to be linked to underdevelopment and rising inequality, particularly in countries and regions with relatively weaker democratic institutions.
Whoever said that during elections is the only time the vote of the richest citizen is equivalent to that of the poorest needs to start rethinking whether this still holds true...
Posted: 01 Sep 2015 12:06 AM PDT
Posted: 31 Aug 2015 08:55 AM PDT
"Those predicting Mr. Trump's imminent political demise are ignoring the lessons of recent history":
A Heckuva Job, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: ...Katrina was special in political terms because it revealed such a huge gap between image and reality. Ever since 9/11, former President George W. Bush had been posing as a strong, effective leader keeping America safe. He wasn't. But as long as he was talking tough about terrorists, it was hard for the public to see what a lousy job he was doing. It took a domestic disaster, which made his administration's cronyism and incompetence obvious to anyone with a TV set, to burst his bubble.
What we should have learned from Katrina, in other words, was that political poseurs with nothing much to offer besides bluster can nonetheless fool many people into believing that they're strong leaders. And that's a lesson we're learning all over again as the 2016 presidential race unfolds.
You probably think I'm talking about Donald Trump, and I am. But he's not the only one.
Consider, if you will, the case of Chris Christie. Not that long ago he was regarded as a strong contender for the presidency... Now Mr. Christie looks pathetic — did you hear the one about his plan to track immigrants as if they were FedEx packages? But he hasn't changed, he's just come into focus.
Or consider Jeb Bush... What happened to Jeb the smart, effective leader? He never existed.
And there's more. Remember when Scott Walker was the man to watch? Remember when Bobby Jindal was brilliant?
I know, now I'm supposed to be evenhanded, and point out equivalent figures on the Democratic side. But there really aren't any; in modern America, cults of personality built around undeserving politicians seem to be a Republican thing. ...
Which brings us back to Mr. Trump.
Both the Republican establishment and the punditocracy have been shocked by Mr. Trump's continuing appeal to the party's base. He's a ludicrous figure, they complain. His policy proposals, such as they are, are unworkable, and anyway, don't people realize the difference between actual leadership and being a star on reality TV?
But ... those predicting Mr. Trump's imminent political demise are ignoring the lessons of recent history, which tell us that poseurs with a knack for public relations can con the public for a very long time. Someday The Donald will have his Katrina moment, when voters see him for who he really is. But don't count on it happening any time soon.
Posted: 31 Aug 2015 08:55 AM PDT
Tim Duy:
Does 25bp Make A Difference?, by Tim Duy: I am often asked if 25bp really makes any difference? If not, why does it matter when the Fed makes its first move? The Fed would like you to believe that 25bp really isn't all that important. Indeed, they don't want us focused on the timing of the first move at all, reiterating that the path of rates is most important. Yet I have come to believe that the timing of the first rate hike is important for two reasons. First, it will help clarify the Fed's reaction function. Second, if the experience of Japan and others who have tried to hike rates in the current global macroeconomic environment is any example, the Fed will only get one shot at pulling the economy off the zero bound. They better get it right.
On the first point, consider that there is no widespread agreement on the timing of the Fed's first move. Odds for September have been bouncing around 50%, lower after a couple of weeks of market turmoil, but bolstered by the Fed's "stay the course" message from Jackson Hole. I think you can contribute the lack of consensus to the conflicting signals send by the Fed's dual mandate. On one hand, labor markets are improving unequivocally. The economy is adding jobs and measures of both unemployment and underemployment continue to improve. The Fed has said that only "some" further progress is necessary to meet the employment portion of the dual mandate. I would argue the Fed Vice-Chair Stanley Fischer even was kind enough to define "some" while in Jackson Hole:
In addition, the July announcement set a condition of requiring "some further improvement in the labor market." From May through July, non-farm payroll employment gains have averaged 235,000 per month. We now await the results of the August employment survey, which are due to be published on September 4.
Nonfarm payroll growth was the only labor market indicator he put a number to. He clearly intended to tie that number to the Fed statement. Basically, he said "some" further improvement is simply another month of the same pattern.
While the Fed is moving closer to the employment mandate, however, the price stability mandate is moving further from view:
PCE082815
On a year-over-year basis, core-CPI is at four year lows, and the collapse in the monthly change suggests that year-over-year trends will not soon turn in the Fed's favor. One can argue that the net effect on policy should be zero. After all, the Fed has long argued that inflation will revert to target, yet inflation has only drifted away from target. What kind of central bank tightens policy when they are moving farther from their inflation target?
Fischer, however is undeterred:
Can the Committee be "reasonably confident that inflation will move back to its 2 percent objective over the medium term"? As I have discussed, given the apparent stability of inflation expectations, there is good reason to believe that inflation will move higher as the forces holding down inflation dissipate further. While some effects of the rise in the dollar may be spread over time, some of the effects on inflation are likely already starting to fade. The same is true for last year's sharp fall in oil prices, though the further declines we have seen this summer have yet to fully show through to the consumer level. And slack in the labor market has continued to diminish, so the downward pressure on inflation from that channel should be diminishing as well.
So back to the question: What kind of central bank tightens policy when they are moving further from their inflation target? Answer: The Federal Reserve. Why? Faith in their estimate of the natural rate of unemployment. Inflation expectations hold the baseline steady, shocks cause deviations from that baseline. The shocks will all dissipate over time, including labor market shocks. The economy is approaching full employment, therefore the downward pressure from labor market slack will soon diminish and turn into upward pressure in the absence of tighter monetary policy.
Now note that, aside from the equilibrium real rate, of the four variables in a Taylor-type reaction function, only one of those variables is unobserved. The target inflation rate is defined, and unemployment and inflation are measured. The natural rate of unemployment is unobserved and needs to be estimated. How confident are policymaker's in their estimate (5.0-5.2 percent) of the natural rate of unemployment?
I would argue that the Fed will reveal a high degree of confidence in that estimate if they hike rates in the face of inflation drifting away from trend. That would be new information in defining their reaction function. I think it would be a signal that Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen has largely abandoned here concerns about underemployment, which remains unacceptably high.
The clarification of the Fed's reaction function by narrowing the confidence interval around the Fed's estimate of the natural rate of unemployment would, I think, be an important new piece of information. Moreover, I think it would be a fairly hawkish signal - remember that financial market participants, as well as the Federal Reserve staff, tend to have a more dovish outlook that FOMC participants. The sooner the Fed hikes rate, the more hawkish the signal relative to expectations.
That signal, I suspect, is more important than the actual 25bp. The latter might not mean much, but at the zero bound, the former probably means a lot.
The timing of the first hike is also important because the Fed will only get one bite at the apple. That at least is what we saw with the rush to tighten in Japan, Europe, and Sweden. The downside risks of tightening too early are thus enormous, amounting to essentially locking your economy into a subpar equilibrium. This was the Fed's staff's warning in the last set of minutes:
The risks to the forecast for real GDP and inflation were seen as tilted to the downside, reflecting the staff's assessment that neither monetary nor fiscal policy was well positioned to help the economy withstand substantial adverse shocks.
Again, Fischer seems to fear the opposite risk more. Via the New York Times:
And Mr. Fischer emphasized that Fed officials could not afford to wait until all of their questions were answered and all of their doubts resolved. "When the case is overwhelming," he said, "if you wait that long, then you've waited too long."
I am not looking for an overwhelming case, just inflation that is trending toward target instead of away. Yet even that is apparently too much for Fischer as unemployment bears down on their estimate of the full employment.
You can take the central banker out of the 1970's, but you can't take the 1970's out of the central banker.
Bottom Line: I am coming around to the belief that the timing of the first rate hike is more important than Fed officials would like us to believe. The lack of consensus regarding the timing of the first hike tells me that we don't fully understand the Fed's reaction function and, importantly, their confidence in their estimates of the natural rate of unemployment. The timing of the first hike will thus define that reaction function and thus send an important signal about the Fed's overall policy intentions.

Latest Posts from Economist's View

Posted: 31 Aug 2015 12:24 AM PDT
This is a summary of new research from two of our former graduate students here at the University of Oregon, Harold Cuffe and Chris Gibbs (link to full paper):
The effect of payday lending restrictions on liquor sales – Synopsis, by Harold Cuffe and Chris Gibbs: The practice of short-term consumer financing known as payday lending remains controversial because the theoretical gains in welfare from greater credit access stand in opposition to anecdotal evidence that many borrowers are made worse off. Advocates for the industry assert that the loans fill a gap in credit access for underserved individuals facing temporary financial hardship. Opponents, who include many state legislatures and the Obama administration, argue that lenders target financially vulnerable individuals with little ability to pay down their principal, who may end up paying many times the borrowed amount in interest and fees.
Regulations restricting both payday loan and liquor access seek to minimize the potential for overuse. To justify intervention in the two markets, policy makers note a host of negative externalities associated with each product, and cite behavioral motivations underlying individuals' consumption decisions. In particular, researchers have shown that the same models of impulsivity and dynamically inconsistent decision making - hyperbolic preferences and the cue theory of consumption - used to describe the demand for alcohol, also describe patterns of payday loan usage. In these models, individuals can objectively benefit from a restricted choice set that limits their access to loans and liquor. The overlap in behavioral characteristics of over-users of both products suggests that liquor sales is a reasonable and interesting place to test the effectiveness of payday lending regulations.
To identify the causal effect of lending restrictions on liquor sales, we exploit a change in payday lending laws in the State of Washington. Leveraging lender- and liquor store-level data, we estimate a difference-in-differences model comparing Washington to the neighboring State of Oregon, which did not experience a change in payday lending laws during this time. We find that the law change leads to a significant reduction in liquor sales, with the largest decreases occurring at liquor stores located very near to payday lenders at the time the law took effect. Our results provide compelling evidence on how credit constraints affect consumer spending, suggest a behavioral mechanism that may underlie some payday loan usage, and provide evidence that the Washington's payday lending regulations reduced one form of loan misuse.
Background
Washington State enacted HB 1709 on January, 1st 2010, which introduced three new major restrictions to the payday loan industry. First the law limited the size of a payday loan to 30% of a person's monthly income or $700, whichever is less. Second the law created a state-wide database to track the issuance of payday loans in order to set a hard cap on the number of loans an individual could obtain in a twelve month period to eight, and eliminated multiple concurrent loans. This effectively prohibited the repayment of an existing loan with a new one. In the year prior to the law, the State of Washington estimated that roughly one third of all payday loan borrowers took out more than eight loans. Finally, the law mandated that borrowers were entitled to a 90 day instalment plan to pay back loans of $400 or less or 180 days for loans over $400.
The effect of the law on the industry was severe. There were 603 payday loan locations active in Washington in 2009 that were responsible for 3.24 million loans worth $1.366 billion according to Washington Division of Financial Institutions. In the year following the law change, the number of payday lenders dropped to 424, and loan volume fell to 1.09 million loans worth only $434 million. The following year the number of locations fell again to 256 with a loan volume of roughly 900,000 worth $330 million. Today there are fewer than 200 lenders in Washington and the total loan volume and value has stabilized close to the 2011 values.
A crucial feature of our estimation strategy involves accounting for potentially endogenous supply side factors that challenge efforts to separately identify changes in demand from the store response to the change. To do so, we focus on liquor control states, in which the state determines the number and location of liquor stores, the products offered, and harmonizes prices across stores to regulate and restrict liquor access. Oregon and Washington were both liquor control states until June of 2012 (Washington privatized liquor sales in June 2012).
Main Results
For this study, we use monthly store-level sales data provided by Oregon's and Washington's respective liquor control agencies from July 2008 through March 2012. Figure 4 plots estimated residuals from a regression of log liquor store sales on a set of store-by-month fixed effects, averaged over state and quarter. The graph possesses three notable features. First, prior to Washington's lending restrictions (indicated by the vertical dashed line), the states' log sales are trending in parallel, which confirming the plausibility of the ``common trends'' assumption of the DD model. Second, a persistent gap in the states' sales appears in the same quarter as the law change. This gap is the result of a relatively large downward movement in Washington's sales compared to Oregon's, consistent with a negative effect of the law on sales. Finally, the effect appears to be primarily a level shift as sales in both states maintain a common upward trend.
Fig-1
Our regression estimates indicate that the introduction of payday lending restrictions reduced liquor store sales by approximately 3.6% (statistically significant at the 1% level). As average Washington liquor sales were approximately $163,000 in the months prior to the law change, this represents a $5,900 decline per store each month. At the state level, the point estimate implies a $23.5 million dollar annual decrease in liquor sales. As Washington State reported that the law decreased payday loans by $932 million from 2009 to 2010, this decline represents approximately 2.5% of the change in total value of loans issued.
We see two primary explanations (not mutually exclusive) for the decline in Washington liquor sales in response to the law change. First, the effect may represent a wider permanent reduction in consumption as households lose their ability to cope with unforeseen negative income shocks. Alternatively, the drop in spending may indicate a more direct financing of liquor purchases by individuals with present-biased preferences. The first explanation implies that restrictions on payday lending negatively affect consumer welfare, while the second allows for a positive impact, since individuals with present-biased preferences may be made objectively better off with a restricted choice set.
Zinman (2013) highlights Laibson (2001) theory of Pavlovian cues as a particularly intriguing explanation for payday loan usage. In these models, consumer ``impulsivity'' makes instant gratification a special case during dynamic utility maximization, where exposure to a cue can explain dynamically inconsistent behavior. Indeed, Laibson uses liquor as a prime example of a consumption good thought to be influenced by cues, and subsequent experimental research on liquor uncovers evidence consistent with this hypothesis (MacKillop et al (2010)). In situations where payday lenders locate very near to liquor stores, individuals may be exposed to a cue for alcohol, and then see the lender as a means to satisfy the urge to make an immediate purchase. A lender and liquor store separated by even a brief walk may be far enough apart to allow an individual to resist the urge to obtain both the loan and liquor. Of course, cue-theory of consumption makes lender-liquor store distance relevant even in circumstances where individuals experience a cue only after borrowing. Lenders locating near liquor stores increase the likelihood that an individual exposed to a cue is financially liquid, and able to act on an impulse.
To investigate liquor store and lender proximity, we geocode the stores' and lenders' street addresses, and calculate walking distances for all liquor store-lender pairs within two kilometers of one another. We then repeatedly estimate our preferred specification with a full set of controls on an ever expanding window of liquor stores beginning with the stores that were located within a ten meter walking distance of a lender in the month prior to the law change, then within 100 meters, within 200 meters, etc., to two kilometres. These estimates are presented in Figure 5. The graph demonstrates a negative effect of 9.2% on those liquor stores that had a payday lender located within ten meters in the month before the law change (significant at the 1% levels), an effect almost three times as large as that overall.  The larger effect rapidly declines in distance suggesting that even a small degree of separation is significant. The degree of nonlinearity in the relationship between distance and liquor sales supports the behavioral explanation of demand.
Fig-2
Conclusion
Our analysis provides the first empirical evidence of the connection between payday lending and spending on liquor. We uncover a clear reduction in liquor sales resulting from payday lending restrictions. In addition, we find that those liquor stores located very near to lenders at the time of the law change experience declines in sales almost three times as large as the overall average.
This finding is significant because it highlights that a segment of borrowers may be willing to assume significant risk by borrowing in order to engage in alcohol consumption - an activity which carries significant personal risk of its own. The connection between payday lending restrictions and reduced liquor purchases, therefore, suggests that the benefits to payday lending restrictions extend beyond personal finance and may be large.
Effective payday loan regulation should recognize the potential for greater credit access to help or harm consumers. As Carrell and Zinman (2014) highlight, heterogeneity likely exists within the pool of payday loan users, and external factors will influence the ratio of ``productive and counter-productive borrowers.'' Lending restrictions can seek to reduce the proportion of counterproductive borrowers through the prohibition of practices known to harm consumers, including those that rely upon leveraging behavioral responses such as addiction and impulsivity. The behavioral overlap identified in the literature between counterproductive payday loan borrowers and heavy alcohol users suggests that there exists a link between the two markets. The decline in liquor sales documented here provides evidence that these regulations may be effective in promoting productive borrowing.
References
1. Carrell, Scott and Jonathan Zinman, "In harm's way? Payday loan access and military personnel performance," Review of Financial Studies, 2014, 27(9), 2805-2840.
2. Laibson, David, "A cue-theory of consumption," Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2001, pp. 81-119.
3. MacKillop, James, Sean O'Hagen, Stephen A Lisman, James G Murphy, Lara A Ray, Jennifer W Tidey, John E McGeary, and Peter M Monti, "Behavioral economic analysis of cue-elicited craving for alcohol," Addiction, 2010, 105 (9), 1599-1607.
4. Zinman, Jonathan, "Consumer Credit: Too Much or Too Little (or Just Right)?," Working Paper 19682, National Bureau of Economic Research November 2013.
Posted: 31 Aug 2015 12:06 AM PDT
Posted: 30 Aug 2015 09:41 AM PDT
If you can't get enough on China, here's more from Cecchetti & Schoenholtz:
Is China's devaluation a game changer?: Since 1978, China has engaged in an unprecedented and wildly successful experiment, moving gradually from a command economy to one based on markets; in small steps transforming a system where administrators controlled the goods that were produced to one where prices allocate resources. There were surely miscalculations along the way. But, even big blunders could largely be concealed. Until now!
What has changed in recent months? The day has come for China to become more closely integrated into the global financial system, and this has a number of implications. The most important is that as prices and quantities of financial assets (rather than goods) are determined in markets, bureaucrats lose a great deal of control. But, as recent events very clearly demonstrate, Chinese authorities are reluctant to let go.
Last August, we posted our most popular blog piece to date: China's Capital Controls and the Exchange Rate Regime. In it, we explained how capital controls make it possible for China to maintain a fixed exchange rate while policymakers could adjust interest rates to stabilize their domestic economy. We also highlighted how these same capital controls are incompatible with the objectives of making Shanghai a global financial center and the renminbi (RMB) a leading international currency. Given the risks inherent in freeing cross-border capital flows, we concluded that the process of financial liberalization (both domestically and externally) would remain gradual. Yet, having seen China develop in unprecedented ways in the past, we have been watching to see if China could also alter conventional paradigms of finance and monetary policy. Could China do what no one else has done?
Well, it turns out that the "impossible trinity" or "trilemma" – which compels policymakers to choose only two of three from among free capital flows, discretionary monetary policy, and a fixed exchange rate – may be more like a physical law than nearly any economic principle we know. And policymakers in China look to be quite unhappy about the constraints this is creating. (For more on the impossible trinity, see here and here.)
Here's what has happened. ...
After a detailed discussion of the issue, they conclude with:
... For a country that wishes its currency to join the ranks of the reserve currencies, the reputational costs of a modest devaluation would seem to sharply exceed any possible economic benefits. Ultimately, a true reserve currency is one that is reliably available to provide liquidity insurance internationally even in tough times. As our friend and colleague William Silber notes in his book on the financial upheavals that accompanied World War I, this is one reason staying on the gold standard propelled the U.S. dollar to the reserve status it still maintains today. Imagine, instead, that American officials in 1914 had chosen to leave the gold standard in order to achieve a depreciation of 3%!
The Chinese authorities' newly demonstrated lack of confidence in financial markets – whether the RMB or equities – undermines their promise to increase reliance on market forces. So, while the IMF welcomed the RMB "regime shift," no one anticipates a floating currency regime anytime soon. Similarly, the government's clumsy equity market interventions have encouraged investors to push back the expected timing for including China's domestic equities in key international benchmarks, and at least temporarily dampened hopes for Shanghai to become an international financial center. But, without a system in which foreign exchange and equity prices are market determined, global integration of China's financial system as well as reserve status for its currency will remain beyond the country's grasp.
The bottom line: Today, China is the world's largest economy on a purchasing-power parity basis. And it still has the second largest equity market (by trading volume and capitalization). If and when market forces clearly become the dominant factor in currency and equity price determination, the RMB and China's financial assets will gain sharply in global importance, as will China's domestic financial markets. Yet, by this standard, China's 3% devaluation is no game changer. If anything, the recent actions by the government have delayed its achievement of these aims.

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Posted: 30 Aug 2015 03:33 AM PDT
Daniel Little:
The case for realism in the social realm, Understanding Society: The case for scientific realism in the case of physics, microbiology, and chemistry is a strong one. The theories of physics, biology, and chemistry postulate unobservable entities, forces, and properties. These hypotheses are specified in a fair degree of precision. They are not individually testable, because we cannot directly observe or measure the properties of the hypothetical entities. But the theories as wholes have a great deal of predictive and descriptive power, and they permit us to explain and predict a wide range of physical phenomena. And the best explanation of the success of these theories is that they are true: that the world consists of entities and forces approximately similar to those hypothesized in physical theory. So realism is an inference to the best explanation, based on the engineering and observational successes of physics, chemistry, and biology. (In the diagram above we might hypothesize that the foraging strategies of the albatross have evolved towards a combination of random walk and orderly search pattern through a process of natural selection; this hypothesis can be empirically investigated in a variety of ways.)
If we lived in a more chaotic physical world, with a larger number of more variable forces at work, our physical theories would be greatly less successful at representing the behavior of observable physical systems, and we would have much less confidence in the idea that various snippets of our physical theories are "true" of the world. If space were more like a pudding with abrupt variations in curvature and gravitational force, and were in addition subject to a numerous other factors and forces, our confidence in the science of mechanics would be greatly undermined. We would never know even approximately where the fly ball will go.
The situation in political science and sociology is quite different from astronomy, atomic theory, and mechanics. First, there are no theories in the social sciences that have the predictive and explanatory success of the physical sciences. Second, the social world is more like the fantastic and chaotic scenario just mentioned than it is an ice rink with frictionless surfaces and predictable mechanics. The social world embodies multiple heterogeneous causal and structural influences that aggregate in contingent and surprising ways. Third, sociologists and political scientists sometimes make hypotheses about unobservable or hypothetical social entities. But these hypotheses do not assume the logical role of that played by hypotheses in the natural sciences. Hypothetical social entities may be unobservable in a fairly ordinary sense -- no one can directly observe or measure a social class. But in fact, these concepts do not depend on holistic confirmation in the way that hypotheses in the natural sciences do. Rather, it is perfectly possible to further refine our ideas about "social class", "prisoners' dilemma", or "bipolar security field" and then investigate the manifold aspects of these concepts through direct social research. Sociology and political science do not consist of unified deductive systems whose empirical success depends upon a derivation of distant observational consequences; instead, it is possible to investigate essentially every sociological or political concept through various direct methods of research and inquiry. (This ability is not unique to the social sciences. The study of animal behavior likewise admits of a variety of hypotheses at various levels that can be independently studied.)
In short, the social sciences do not possess the remarkable coherence and predictive accuracy of physics, so confidence in realism is not grounded in the high level of success of the enterprise. Sociology is not like physics.
But equally, the concepts of the social sciences are not "hypothetical constructs" that depend upon their role in a developed theoretical system for application. It is therefore possible to be piecemeal realists. Again, sociology is not like physics.
So it seems that two specific ideas follow. First, the inference to the best explanation argument for realism doesn't work at all in sociology or political science. We simply don't have the extraordinary predictive successes of a theoretical system that would constitute the ground of such an argument. Social science theories and models remain heuristic and suggestive, but rarely strongly indicative of the reality of the social factors they highlight.
But second, there is a very different kind of argument for social realism that is not available in the natural sciences: the piecemeal investigation of claims and theories about social entities, properties, and forces. If we believe that class conflict is a key factor in explaining political outcomes, we can do sociological research to further articulate what we mean by class and class conflict, and we can investigate specific social and political processes to piece together the presence or absence of these kinds of factors.
So it seems that we can justify being realists about class, field, habitus, market, coalition, ideology, organization, value system, ethnic identity, institution, and charisma, without relying at all on the hypothetico-deductive model of scientific knowledge upon which the "inference to the best explanation" argument depends. We can look at sociology and political science as loose ensembles of empirically informed theories and models of meso-level social processes and mechanisms, each of which is to a large degree independently verifiable. And this implies that social realism should be focused on mid-level social mechanisms and processes that can be identified in the domains of social phenomena that we have studied rather than sweeping concepts of social structures and entities.
This perspective converges unexpectedly with some of the thinking that Peter Manicas put forward in his book on social-science realism, A Realist Philosophy of Social Science: Explanation and Understanding. What is realism, in the natural sciences, he asks? It is not a general claim to have discovered the universal laws of everything.
Rather, more modestly, theory (at least in one of its clear senses) aims to provide an understanding of the processes which jointly produce the contingent outcomes of experience. We understand why the planets move in ellipses, why materials burn, and why salt dissolves in water (if and when it does) when we have a physical theory that provides a causal mechanism. By providing the principles detailing the nature of molecules, the atomic structure of salt and water, the principles of their action, and so on, we can understand combustion and solubility – and other chemical processes. (1)
So what are the generative mechanisms in the social world? Manicas argues that these mechanisms proceed from the actions and relations of social agents:
The foregoing has also argued that persons are the dominant causal agents in society – even while, of course, they work with materials at hand. It follows, accordingly, that in the social sciences, the generative mechanisms of social outcomes are the actions of persons and no further reduction is either plausible or demanded. (75)
So his most general idea about the social world is "social mechanisms as agent-generated causal mechanisms" (2).
If this is the approach we take, then our claims about what is "real" in the social realm will be more modest that some have thought. We will understand that there are real social processes, mechanisms, and powers; that they derive from the actions and agency of actors; and that these processes can be traced out through fairly direct sociological and historical research. And we will understand too that claims about the reality of "capitalism", the world financial system, or fascism are to be understood less weightily than they first appear. Capitalism exists in a time and place; but it is understood to be an ensemble of relations and actions by the people of the time. It is not a "thing" in the way that deoxyribonucleic acid is a thing.
These thoughts should perhaps lead us to consider that the topic of realism is less important in sociology, political science, and economics than it might appear to be. Social scientists have every reason to be realist about the actions, relations, and interactions of individuals. They are justified in thinking that the practices of education and socialization that bring children to adulthood are "real" and can be empirically investigated. And they are justified in observing that there are higher-order configurations of action, power, and social relationship that are "real", insofar as they are present in the activities of the individuals who constitute them and they possess some stable characteristics over time. In other words, social scientists are justified in postulating the social reality of the social processes and institutions that they postulate and investigate. But this is a very weak and qualified conception of realism, and it suggests a fairly weak social ontology.
It will be noted that this conclusion is somewhat in tension with the argument I offered in the prior post on "flat social ontology". That's the virtue and the challenge of open-source philosophy: conclusions and arguments shift over time.
Posted: 30 Aug 2015 12:06 AM PDT
Posted: 29 Aug 2015 10:39 AM PDT
[A speech by Stanley Fischer at Jackson Hole turned into a pretend interview]
Hello, and thank you for talking with us.
 Let me start by asking if you feel like it gives the Fed a bad image to have a conference in an elite place like Jackson Hole. Why not have the conference in, say, a disadvantaged area to send the signal that you care about these problems, to provide some stimulus to the area, etc.?
I am delighted to be here in Jackson Hole in the company of such distinguished panelists and such a distinguished group of participants.
Okay then. Let me start be asking about your view of the economy. How close are we to a full recovery?:
Although the economy has continued to recover and the labor market is approaching our maximum employment objective, inflation has been persistently below 2 percent. That has been especially true recently, as the drop in oil prices over the past year, on the order of about 60 percent, has led directly to lower inflation as it feeds through to lower prices of gasoline and other energy items. As a result, 12-month changes in the overall personal consumption expenditure (PCE) price index have recently been only a little above zero (chart 1).
Why are you telling us about headline inflation? What about core inflation? Isn't that what the Fed watches?
...measures of core inflation, which are intended to help us look through such transitory price movements, have also been relatively low (return to chart 1). The PCE index excluding food and energy is up 1.2 percent over the past year. The Dallas Fed's trimmed mean measure of the PCE price index is higher, at 1.6 percent, but still somewhat below our 2 percent objective. Moreover, these measures of core inflation have been persistently below 2 percent throughout the economic recovery. That said, as with total inflation, core inflation can be somewhat variable, especially at frequencies higher than 12-month changes. Moreover, note that core inflation does not entirely "exclude" food and energy, because changes in energy prices affect firms' costs and so can pass into prices of non-energy items.
So are you saying you don't believe the numbers? Why bring up that core inflation is highly variable unless you are trying to de-emphasize this evidence? In any case, isn't there reason to believe these numbers are true, i.e. doesn't the slack in the labor market imply low inflation?
Of course, ongoing economic slack is one reason core inflation has been low. Although the economy has made great progress, we started seven years ago from an unemployment rate of 10 percent, which guaranteed a lengthy period of high unemployment. Even so, with inflation expectations apparently stable, we would have expected the gradual reduction of slack to be associated with less downward price pressure. All else equal, we might therefore have expected both headline and core inflation to be moving up more noticeably toward our 2 percent objective. Yet, we have seen no clear evidence of core inflation moving higher over the past few years. This fact helps drive home an important point: While much evidence points to at least some ongoing role for slack in helping to explain movements in inflation, this influence is typically estimated to be modest in magnitude, and can easily be masked by other factors.
If that's true, if the decline in the slack in the labor market does not translate into a notable change in inflation, why is the Fed so anxious to raise rates based upon the notion that the labor market has almost normalized? Is there more to it than just the labor market?
...core inflation can to some extent be influenced by oil prices. However, a larger effect comes from changes in the exchange value of the dollar, and the rise in the dollar over the past year is an important reason inflation has remained low (chart 4). A higher value of the dollar passes through to lower import prices, which hold down U.S. inflation both because imports make up part of final consumption, and because lower prices for imported components hold down business costs more generally. In addition, a rise in the dollar restrains the growth of aggregate demand and overall economic activity, and so has some effect on inflation through that more indirect channel.
That argues against a rate increase, not for it. Anyway, I interrupted, please continue.
Commodity prices other than oil are also of relevance for inflation in the United States. Prices of metals and other industrial commodities, and agricultural products, are affected to a considerable extent by developments outside the United States, and the softness we've seen in these commodity prices, has in part reflected a slowing of demand from China and elsewhere. These prices likely have also been a factor in holding down inflation in the United States.
So you must believe that all of these forces holding down inflation (many of which are stripped out by core inflation measures, which are also low) that these factors are easing, and hence a spike in inflation is ahead?
The dynamics with which all these factors affect inflation depend crucially on the behavior of inflation expectations. One striking feature of the economic environment is that longer-term inflation expectations in the United States appear to have remained generally stable since the late 1990s (chart 6). ... Expectations that are not stable, but instead follow actual inflation up or down, would allow inflation to drift persistently. In the recent period, movements in inflation have tended to be transitory.
Let's see, lots of factors holding down inflation, longer-term inflation expectations have been stable throughout the recession and recovery, remarkably so, yet the Fed still thinks a rate raise ought to come fairly soon?
We should however be cautious in our assessment that inflation expectations are remaining stable. One reason is that measures of inflation compensation in the market for Treasury securities have moved down somewhat since last summer (chart 7). But these movements can be hard to interpret, as at times they may reflect factors other than inflation expectations, such as changes in demand for the unparalleled liquidity of nominal Treasury securities.
I have to be honest. That sounds like the Fed is really reaching to find a reason to justify worries about inflation and a rate increase. Let me ask this a different way. In the Press Release for the July meeting of the FOMC, the committee said it can be " reasonably confident that inflation will move back to its 2 percent objective over the medium term." Can you explain this please? Why are you "reasonably confident" in light of recent history?
Can the Committee be "reasonably confident that inflation will move back to its 2 percent objective over the medium term"? As I have discussed, given the apparent stability of inflation expectations, there is good reason to believe that inflation will move higher as the forces holding down inflation dissipate further. While some effects of the rise in the dollar may be spread over time, some of the effects on inflation are likely already starting to fade. The same is true for last year's sharp fall in oil prices, though the further declines we have seen this summer have yet to fully show through to the consumer level. And slack in the labor market has continued to diminish, so the downward pressure on inflation from that channel should be diminishing as well.
Yet when these forces were absent -- they weren't there throughout the crisis -- inflation was still stable. But this time will be different? I guess falling slack in the labor market will make all the difference? More on labor markets in a moment, but let me ask if you have more to say about inflation expectations first.
...with regard to expectations of inflation, it is possible to consult the results of the SEP, the Survey of Economic Projections, which FOMC participants complete shortly before the March, June, September, and December meetings. In the June SEP, the central tendency of FOMC participants' projections for core PCE inflation was 1.3 percent to 1.4 percent this year, 1.6 percent to 1.9 percent next year, and 1.9 percent to 2.0 percent in 2017. There will be a new SEP for the forthcoming September meeting of the FOMC.
Reflecting all these factors, the Committee has indicated in its post-meeting statements that it expects inflation to return to 2 percent. With regard to our degree of confidence in this expectation, we will need to consider all the available information and assess its implications for the economic outlook before coming to a judgment.
You will need to consider all the available information, I agree wholeheartedly with that. I just hope that information includes how poor forecasts like those just cited have been in the past, and the Fed's own eagerness to see "green shoots" again and again, far before it was time for such declarations.
What might deter the Fed from it's intention to raise rates sooner rather than later?
Of course, the FOMC's monetary policy decision is not a mechanical one, based purely on the set of numbers reported in the payroll survey and in our judgment on the degree of confidence members of the committee have about future inflation. We are interested also in aspects of the labor market beyond the simple U-3 measure of unemployment, including for example the rates of unemployment of older workers and of those working part-time for economic reasons; we are interested also in the participation rate. And in the case of the inflation rate we look beyond the rate of increase of PCE prices and define the concept of the core rate of inflation.
I find these kinds of statement difficult to square with the statement that labor markets are almost back to normal. Anyway, what, in particular, will you look at?
While thinking of different aspects of unemployment, we are concerned mainly with trying to find the right measure of the difficulties caused to current and potential participants in the labor force by their unemployment. In the case of the core rate of inflation, we are mainly looking for a good indicator of future inflation, and for better indicators than we have at present.
How do recent events in China change the outlook for policy?
In making our monetary policy decisions, we are interested more in where the U.S. economy is heading than in knowing whence it has come. That is why we need to consider the overall state of the U.S. economy as well as the influence of foreign economies on the U.S. economy as we reach our judgment on whether and how to change monetary policy. That is why we follow economic developments in the rest of the world as well as the United States in reaching our interest rate decisions. At this moment, we are following developments in the Chinese economy and their actual and potential effects on other economies even more closely than usual.
I know you won't answer this directly, but let me try anyway. When will rates go up?
The Fed has, appropriately, responded to the weak economy and low inflation in recent years by taking a highly accommodative policy stance. By committing to foster the movement of inflation toward our 2 percent objective, we are enhancing the credibility of monetary policy and supporting the continued stability of inflation expectations. To do what monetary policy can do towards meeting our goals of maximum employment and price stability, and to ensure that these goals will continue to be met as we move ahead, we will most likely need to proceed cautiously in normalizing the stance of monetary policy. For the purpose of meeting our goals, the entire path of interest rates matters more than the particular timing of the first increase.
As expected, that was pretty boilerplate. When rates do go up, how fast will they rise?
With inflation low, we can probably remove accommodation at a gradual pace. Yet, because monetary policy influences real activity with a substantial lag, we should not wait until inflation is back to 2 percent to begin tightening. Should we judge at some point in time that the economy is threatening to overheat, we will have to move appropriately rapidly to deal with that threat. The same is true should the economy unexpectedly weaken.
The Fed has said again and again that it's 2 percent inflation target is symmetric with respect to errors, i.e. it will get no more worried or upset about, say, a .5 percent overshoot of the target than it will an undershoot of the same magnitude (2.5 percent versus 1.5 percent). However, many of us suspect that the 2 percent target is actually a ceiling, not a central tendency, or that at the very least the errors are not treated symmetrically, and statements such as this do nothing to change that view.
I have quite a few more questions, and I wish we had time to hear your response to the charge that the 2 percent target is functionally a ceiling, but I know you are out of time and need to go, so let me just thank you for talking with us today. Thank you.