Fed Focus

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 layout 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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Fact Checking with James Bullard

Saint Louis Fed President James Bullard has been speaking out a lot recently. He recently proposed a new interest rate regime that, instead of focusing on models, uses a very intuitive decision tree to determine if raising rates is appropriate. He gave a speech at the end of last week that asked three questions: would the US see GDP growth greater than 2% in the coming year, would inflation hit the Fed’s 2% inflation target and would wages increase as unemployment decreases. His answer to all three was, “Probably not.” And in a break from tradition, he relies on incoming data rather than models to support his conclusions.

Bullard first observes that U.S. growth since the end of the great recession has converged to 2%. The following graph illustrates his point:

Since the third quarter of 2009, the average Y/Y growth rate has been 2.1% while the median growth rate has been 2%. There is little reason to project anything but moderate growth in the third quarter. Industrial production and real retail sales have both slowed. The three-month average payroll job growth is 185,000 per month -a solid rate but not one that warrants robust growth projections. Real income excluding transfer payments continues to increase but at a slower rate. The New York Fed’s Nowcast for third quarter GDP growth is 1.46% while the Atlanta Fed is calling for 2.8% growth The average of these two projections is 2.1%, which happens to be the approximate average of the blue chip forecasting consensus. The preceding information supports Bullard’s argument that there is a low probability of anything but more moderate growth.

Bullard moves on to inflation, arguing that it is doubtful that inflation, as measured by the personal consumption expenditure price index, will broach the Feds 2% target. The following data supports his conclusion:

The BEA breaks PCE price data into three components: services, and durable and non-durable goods. Durable prices (in red, 10% of the index) have been subtracting from price pressures for the last 10 years. And their negative impact is pretty high: these prices have been contracting around 2% for the last year. Non-durable prices (in green, 20% of the index) are weak; they subtracted from inflation for all of 2015 and most of 2016, only recently adding any upward pressure. Their latest reading was for a 1.3% year-over-year rate of growthhardly anything to be concerned about. That leaves services (in red, 70% of the index) to create all the upward pressure that the Fed needs for PCE inflation to hit 2%. Statistically, that’s very difficult to do.

Several Fed governors have advanced different theories to explain why inflation is so weak. Some have argued that global supply chains allow producers to purchase products from low-cost areas, keeping internal price pressures low. Others have argued that real-time access to price information allows consumers to buy at the lowest cost, which continually squeezes retailers’ margins. Another theory states that an aging populationsuch as that in Japan, the EU, and the United Statesspends less, leading to lower demand, which translates into less demand-pull price pressures. Also consider that commodity prices are weak across the board, keeping input price pressures at bay. The real answer probably encompasses pieces of all these theories along with others that haven’t been considered yet. But regardless of the cause, it’s difficult to see why people continue to assert that inflation will return to 2% in the intermediate term. The data simply do not support that conclusion.

Bullard final point is that the Phillips curve is exceedingly flat. He offers the following table culled from academic research:

Clearly the unemployment rate/inflation rate relationship has weakened a lot. Minnesota Fed President Neel Kashkari, who was again the lone dissenter on June’s rate increase, offers the most logical explanation of this disengagement. To get around retirement issues and the like, he considers prime-age workers, and notes that their participation rate and employment/population ratio indicate there is more slack in the labor market than before the crash, and therefore there is room for improvement

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