Fed Focus

Something old and, perhaps, something new

In January, Brookings’s Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy held a conference to identify, through agreement and disagreement, what we can learn from the pandemic. Louise Sheiner, David Wessel, and Elijah Asdourian, all of Brookings, just released their summary, “The US Labor Market Post-Covid—what has changed and what hasn’t?”

The first subhead covering the opening panel tells us one thing hasn’t changed, the ongoing debate on how to measure labor-market slack, central to the Fed’s mission. The authors note that because the unemployment rate was tracking other measures, such as the ratio of job vacancies and the number of unemployed (V/U), and the quit rate closely, it was “widely regarded” to be sufficient into 2019. Now with the unemployment rate about where it was before the pandemic, other measures suggest a tighter market, and many economists are no longer sure the rate is the “only important measure.” (And yes, many economists and analysts have never really thought that.)

As we don’t need to tell you, there was a lot of disagreement over which measures carry the most accurate information. Laurence Ball of John Hopkins offered two charts for his favored “rough and ready” indicator, one showing the unemployment rate dogging along at about 3.5% when inflation hit its highest level in decades, the other showing V/U peaking with inflation, suggesting a better match.

In their pushbacks, Julia Coronado of MacroPolicy Perspectives and others brought up what we called at the time the “mysterious rise” in job openings that began in 2008, a trend that cannot really be separated from the more recent period. Former BLS commissioner Erica Groshen added that digitation makes posting so easy that openings are up “across the board.” She likened that to the compounding number of college applications. “When I applied to college, my high school told us, ‘You can apply to five colleges….’ My kids were told twelve colleges, because it was electronic, and I think the next generation is being told something like twenty.”  Coronado suggested the unemployment rate, the employment/population ratio (EPOP) of prime-aged workers, and UI claims are the winning trio.

The next subhead, which asks if measuring labor slack is important to understanding inflation, suggests something that is perhaps changing. Going beyond questions about the value of the unemployment rate on its own, the panel pointed out it is unclear that the “intuition” underlying the Phillips Curve, the trade-off between inflation and slack, is still viable. Noting that inflation is currently moderating without a “material weakening” in the labor market, Coronado calls the focus on V/U “dangerously misleading,” as to her it increases the chance the US will miss out on “a whole lot of employment.”

Her top-tier indications, the above plus sentiment surveys, indicate a labor market close to full employment, with signs of softening, as do her second, the gap between U-3 and U-6 unemployment rates (which captures those working part-time against their wishes, and those marginally attached to the labor force), unemployment rates by ethnicity and race compared to the white rate, hourly wages of production workers, and hires and quits rates. Looking beyond the summary to her details,  she noted AI has “led firms to harvest resumes to train algorithms,” and that the openings rate is the only indicator suggesting a job market stronger than it as in the late 1990s. She believes analysts often focus too heavily on the effect of aging boomers, without paying enough attention to women’s “much stronger and more cyclical” attachment, and the issuance of work-eligible VISAs, which both show labor supply to be more “resilient, flexible and abundant than expected.”

Former Fed Vice Chair Don Kohn argued the two sides of the dual mandate should “feed each other,” and apparently most attendees were in the middle, questioning the vacancy rate, but in ‘fundamental agreement” that a “hot economy” with little slack can lead to inflation.

In a discussion of the Beveridge Curve’s, Aysegul Sahin, UTAustin, noted the surge in quits during the pandemic momentarily elevated job switching, and Justin Bloesch, Cornell, tagged a short-term deterioration in job-matching. Anton Cheremukhin, Dallas Fed, noted that early explanations of the Beveridge curve’s shift included all things Covid—isolation, fear, remote work, mismatches, and federal supports. But since they were largely gone by 2024, why does the inefficiency persist? He suggested, as he has before, that the trend in unemployment was typical for a short recession, while the trend in vacancies was abnormal even before the pandemic, driven by poaching, not so much efforts to engage the unemployed.

We’ve linked to his paper with Paulina Restrepo-Echavarria on that subject.  Here it is again.

Although most argue that wage inflation leads price inflation, apparently a number of attendees suggested wage growth lags prices. Adam Shapiro of the SF Fed used CPI and ECI, both productivity-adjusted and raw, to demonstrate a better correlation between current inflation and future, rather than past, wage growth. He noted that when wages rise quickly they can inflate prices of non-housing services, but the increase is small, 0.15pp for each 1% increase in wages, and develops over four years. He suggested that when wage rates are following inflation, looking at quit rates and unemployment would be a more accurate measure of the Fed’s fight against inflation than wages themselves.

Kohn “expressed surprise” at this, and called easing rates with wages on the rise would be a “gutsy move.”

Participants agreed that although the pandemic caused a “substantial” tightening of the disparity between incomes of the bottom and top deciles, it did little for median-income workers, who also have been losing to the top decile for decades. They also pointed out that earnings compression of the pandemic was atypical — generally low-wage earners’ incomes improve because they work longer hours in strong economies, without the benefit of wage increases. Most were pessimistic gains among lower earners will be stable, without an assist from federal minimum wages, although some states are pegging minimum wages to inflation.

Upton Institute’s Brad Hershbein noted that although wages of the lowest decile grew most quickly, so did inflation pain, which dampens the wage effect.  Participants were confused by the broad weakness in wage gains in the current labor market. Ball suggested supply-shock inflation might not have pressured wages, while others suggested the benefits of remote work may have stood in for higher wages and the recent increase of immigration is taking the pressure off as well.

There’s more. Slides and all else here, and worth a look.

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Levy Institute: Climate Change and the Ethical Obligation to Know

“The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the other way around.” Herman Daly

In his presentation at the Levy Institute’s recent panel on central banks and climate change, William Oman outlined major views on the role of central banks and financial supervisors in an age of ecological threats and climate change, referencing a chapter he and co-authors Mathilde Salin and Romain Svartzman contributed to “The Future of Central Banking.” The intense debates of recent years target two issues in particular: growing  ecological threats to price and financial stability, and the evolving redefinition of the role of central banks and financial supervisors (CBFS), especially concerning large asset purchases and liquidity provision, in what scientists know to be a climate emergency.

Photo credit Robert Kraus, but where was it taken?

Oman identified three main normative approaches. The first, considered the least active response, is risk-based and would limit responses of CBSFs to cases of direct risks to monetary or financial stability. In the second, CBFSs would more proactively address climate change. The third, which Oman calls an evolutionary perspective, focuses on the context in which central banks operate, a constantly evolving role that would undergo change once thought incomprehensible, in our changing world. That would need to work in concert with broad institutional transformation.

Oman also mentioned the less common belief that central bankers should refocus on their “narrow core” mission of price stability and that the “first best” solution to climate change is carbon pricing.

Of course, all approaches are driven by very different visions of the world, of money, finance, the role of the state in the economy, and different theories of value. Historically and ideologically situated, they all raise questions regarding the development of central bank mandates, and the profound ways in which they matter.

The first view assumes central banks and supervisors are “guardians of financial stability,” that money is neutral, markets are stable, and the state has a role in righting capsized markets. Since financial systems are vulnerable to extreme climate events that in turn limit central bankers’ ability to manage inflation, addressing climate change falls within central bank mandates. Under this outlook, CBFSs could contribute to the green transition by measuring climate-related risks, with forward-looking climate stress tests—already underway—and lay out the outlines of how climate change could affect the structure of monetary regimes. Through their actions central bankers contribute to climate risks both directly and indirectly, and so have double materiality. This view is limited both by the fact that climate risks are hard to measure, and even good measurement would not insure responsible capital allocation, all making it unclear that  central banks may not be able to carry out their stability/price mandate as climate extremes intensify.

The second and more pro-active view assumes money is not-neutral, and has long-term impacts on the economy, especially in production; financial markets are not efficient and regularly misallocate capital; and the state has both a market creating and shaping role. CBFSs have “significant power” over finance, which in turn has significant power over the economy, while the radical uncertainty engendered by climate change means that worst case scenarios, catastrophic for human civilization, cannot be excluded. Central proposals include requiring regulated institutions to submit transition plans, provide financing at low interest rates for low-carbon activities, and a “green QE” under which banks would purchase publicly issued low-carbon bonds. A major drawback to this outlook is political, central banks would be taking on social issues that should fall to elected governments, filling that void. Another is practical, even pro-active central banks cannot succeed on their own. Goals could clash, and greenflation will almost certainly cause instability—to put it mildly!—in certain sectors. Again it’s not clear inflation mandates can be managed under this approach, and a change of mandate could be necessary. (Oman et al. do not endorse any one approach. Theirs is more of a public-service piece.)

The third view is the most expansive, framing money as a social institution, finance as unstable, and the state as a key coordinator. Here, central banks have to act on ideas coming through the first and second outlooks, but cannot make up for weak efforts of fiscal authorities or poor industrial policy.

Here Green Swans swim into view. In a Forbes interview, John Elkington distinguishes green swans from black by noting that black swans often take you where you don’t want to go, and green swans where you do want to go, but with the intense and unpredictable risks that travel with disruptive technologies. Such risks can lead to irreversible losses in certain sectors that can’t be hedged or insured against by individual agents. Managing green swans calls for broad policy coordination and suggests the role of central banks would have to be profoundly changed, part of a broader systemic reshuffling.

Ambitious goals include radical change in our policy frameworks, coordination with other policymakers, and perhaps fiscal and industrial structures aimed at moderating consumption. CBs could support government-led transitions by keeping interest rates low, with direct financing perhaps an option. Some of the big issues include the fact that CBs have limited ability to address ecological crises, like declines in biodiversity and mass extinctions, and are vulnerable to ecological limits. Oman includes growing evidence that GDP limits could be required, at least in rich countries, which would have profound effects on central banks—need we add? And the need to coordinate between the monetary/financial and real economies may make such a project a nonstarter. This approach would also require democratic consideration to balance inflation goals and ecological objectives.

Now, on to Oman’s open questions. Sobering fact: all of these views are susceptible in “profound ways” to the possibility that we may already be in an under- or even unacknowledged climate emergency. Tim Lenton, of Exeter’s Global Systems Institute, and his colleagues have defined a climate emergency as the product of risk and urgency. Risk is defined by insurers as probability multiplied by damage, urgency as reaction time to a climate red flag divided by the time needed to offset the worst outcomes. We are in an emergency situation if both risk and urgency are high. If reaction time is longer than intervention limits, we have lost control.

Here’s the formula: E = R x U = p x D x r/T

Referencing Lars Peter Hansen’s repeated admonishments that “every model is by nature mis-specified” by the complexities of our world, and that we have to do a better job of including uncertainty in public policy, Oman stresses that those weaknesses would unravel ideas and plans, and the fact that we need to work through mis-specifications itself illustrates the limits of our body of knowledge.

Oman adds in Stanford economist/philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s idea that our great power to destabilize earth systems, which has made our civilizations possible, brings great responsibility—the ethical obligation to know. But this obligation faces “profound limits:” the structural complexities of ecosystems and their unknowable, catastrophic, tipping points; and the unpredictable limits of the new technologies, specifically our ability, or inability, to substitute increasingly scarce natural inputs with artificial. The concept of financial risk could well become less relevant since, again, there is no way to compensate for damages that are universal.

That brings Oman to his own question, do central banks need a Plan B? William White, former chief economist of the BIS, raised the idea with Oman that efforts of central banks to maintain old mandates and old monetary policy is akin to “fiddling while Rome burns” in the face of truly existential ecological dangers, and that we need to find a workable philosophical framework.

Challenge 1: The frameworks we have assume earth-system stability, which likely do longer applies. How do we determine the correct ethics for crafting a policy framework in an “age of catastrophes?” White has argued that we need to anticipate how someone in the future might judge the choices we make now. No regrets is not enough—the idea that we don’t want to spend too much if worst cases do not occur is imbedded in our thinking.

Challenge 2: What is the correct hierarchy of objectives? In the 1930s microeconomic goals were subordinated to macroeconomic goals in direct response to the Great Depression. Is it time to subordinate macroeconomic to ecological goals? Here Oman quotes economist Herman Daly, “The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the other way around.”

Challenge 3: What would an inversion for central banks look like? Would they need to pay more attention to the long-term effects of monetary policy, and to coordination with other agencies? Does the climate emergency justify a war-time financing role for central banks? And, finally, are credit controls, which will likely be a last resort in avoiding tipping points, already justified?

And, we’ll add, what would the whole, new, mess look like?

Watching William Oman and other young economists stepping forward to outline challenging new ideas in a world of inaction is indeed heart-breaking. We owe them our attention. They are the ones facing the existential dangers they so bravely describe.

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Longer & Mostly Milder, but Don’t Sneeze

Rising interest rates probably won’t help the startup series, outlined below, head northward. How does the current tightening cycle stack up against earlier instances?

Longer and mostly milder, in a phrase.

Over the last 35 months, since the tightening began in December 2015, the fed funds rate is up 196 bps. The average of the previous six cycles shown is 648 bps over 22 months, though the range in both magnitude and duration is wide.

But the current rise in rates is starting from a very low level (0.24%). The previous low starting point was 1.03% in 2004; the average, excluding the recent cycle, is 5.26%. If we look at the percentage (not percentage point) rise from the starting point, we get a very different picture. The bottom graph indexes the fed funds rate in the base month to 100. By that measure, the current cycle is the winner, with a current index value of 917. In second place is the 2004 cycle with a maximum value of 510. The average of all the previous cycles, again excluding the current one, is 277.

So, while the current round of tightening looks mild if you look at the level and change in nominal rates alone—a mildness accentuated by the slow pace of tightening—the change from record low interest rates to something more normal is nothing to sneeze at. A stumbling stock market is the least we can expect if this continues as it’s likely to.

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Trends in FOMC projections

We thought some graphs of the FOMC’s projections and revisions would be useful as Chair Powell takes the helm. In a phrase, they’re pretty good when things are on trend, but they’re pretty bad when they’re not.

Note that they had no inkling of the 2008 recession. In fact, as late as October 2008, they were projecting 0.2% GDP growth for the year, when it turned out to be -2.8% for the year ending in 2008Q4.

Their projection for unemployment was almost a point too low. And their projection for inflation, even late in the year, was way too high.

They didn’t really begin to regain their bearings until well into 2010—but the forecasts for 2012 remained on the bullish side until late that year. More recently, they underestimated growth for 2017—though their projections for 2018 have been creeping higher.

Through most of this history, they’ve overestimated inflation. But now they’re projecting that it’s going to hang just under 2%. You have to wonder if they’ve finally figured this out just as the world is about to change.

We say this not to make fun of the Fed. Economic forecasting is a very hard job. Most forecasts just extrapolate the recent past into the indefinite future. Sometimes that’s the right thing to do—but not always.

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What Jerome Powell thinks about ‘flation

Because he was more of a regulator than economist, Governor Powell flew below many radar screens. All that changed when he became a clear contender to be the new head of the Federal Reserve, and we’ve had a lot of homework to catch-up on, reading speeches he has given over the last year or so to become acquainted with his macroeconomic outlook. On the rate front, he told us what we need to know last June in his remarks, then ignored now widely quoted, to the Economic Club in New York City: “The Committee has been patient in raising rates, and that patience has paid dividends.”

Just as importantly, it appears he is among those questioning why inflation is so low, which would also encourage a patient approach to normalizing interest rates.
Let’s start with his understanding of interest rates. The following excerpts are from a speech given on January 7. 2017:

There are also many factors other than monetary policy that are holding down long-term interest rates. Long-term nominal and real rates have been declining for over 30 years. The next slide decomposes long-term nominal yields into expected future short-term real rates, expected future inflation, and a term premium. These estimates are based on one of the Board’s workhorse term structure models. All three components have contributed to the downward trend in long-term nominal yields….
The downward trend in nominal term premiums likely reflects both lower inflation risk and the fact that, with inflation expectations anchored, nominal bonds have become an increasingly good hedge against market risk. That has made bonds a more attractive investment and reduced the term premium.4 As shown in the next slide, a regression of the 10-year term premium on measures of 10-year inflation expectations and a rolling beta of Treasury returns with respect to equity returns (to proxy for the hedging value of bonds) shows that these two factors can account for a large part of the decline in the term premium.

The accompanying slide puts this remark into perspective:

There is a large amount of research explaining why global interest rates are so low. Bernanke’s global savings glut theory,an idea that is still relevant, was the famous first attempt. Others (Brainard) argue that lowered inflation expectations support the decline. As for inflation–another component of the interest rate equation–there are a number of theories about why it is so low. These range from increased international competition to technology creating more price transparency. Finally, research by the San Francisco Fed also explains low rates using standard, economically accepted methodology.

Regardless of the underlying reason, Powell clearly understands there are fundamental reasons for low interest rates. They are not low because of some vast conspiracy. By signaling his acceptance of the underlying research, we can conclude there will be no fundamental change in the underlying market philosophy espoused by the Fed.

What about the pace of increases? Those are likely to be slow:

The healthy state of our economy and favorable outlook suggest that the FOMC should continue the process of normalizing monetary policy. The Committee has been patient in raising rates, and that patience has paid dividends. While the recent performance of the labor market might warrant a faster pace of tightening, inflation has been below target for five years and has moved up only slowly toward 2 percent, which argues for continued patience, especially if that progress slows or stalls. If the economy performs about as expected, I would view it as appropriate to continue to gradually raise rates. I would also see it as appropriate to begin the process of reducing the size of the balance sheet later this year. Of course, both decisions will depend on the performance of the economy.

Powell has noticed the weak pace of inflation increases, which was again highlighted in this week’s PCE release:

He has made no more recent comment on the topic, so we don’t know if his thinking has changed. But recent Minutes indicate the Fed is starting to look more deeply into the low inflation situation and may start to rethink their overall philosophy in this area.

The bond market is stodgy, need we add? It would react poorly to a radical change in Federal Reserve philosophy. Powell seems to be a solid, middle-of-the road candidate. While he doesn’t have academic economic training, all evidence is he has worked diligently to learn. Overall, it appears Powell will provide “steady-as-she-goes” leadership.

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