Fed Focus

The Return of the String

It’s been a while since we’ve read about the FOMC pushing on a string, but that string is getting renewed attention. Although there is broad consensus that monetary expansions lead to increased output and contractions lead to decreased output, in their new paper, “Gaussian Mixture Approximations of Impulse Responses and the Nonlinear Effects of Monetary Shocks,” Christian Matthes of the Richmond Fed and Regis Barnichon of Universitat Pompeu note there is little agreement on asymmetric and non-linear effects of monetary policy. (link below) That leaves two key questions unanswered. For the first, they employ the string metaphor—is a contractionary shock, pulling the string, more effective than an expansionary one, pushing the string? Second, how much does the state of the business cycle change the effectiveness of monetary policy?

The authors note that the standard approach to answering such questions, the use of Vector Autoregessions (VARS), is inherently flawed; such models are linear and cannot answer questions about asymmetrical shocks. Replacing VARS with Gaussian approximations (GMAs) the authors are able to estimate a moving average for the economy directly from the data, and then apply Gaussian basis functions in order to capture non-linear responses. Testing the GMA model against VAR results shows the former detects nonlinearities and estimates their magnitudes well.

And the string has it. On average, no matter how they identify monetary shocks, the contractionary ones have a “strong adverse” effect on unemployment, while expansionary ones have “little” effect. And the state of the business cycle does indeed play a role: when there is slack in the labor market, an expansionary shock has an expansionary effect, but in a tight labor market, an expansionary shock has no significant effect on unemployment, causing instead a “burst” on inflation. If the unemployment rate is 4%, an expansionary shock increases inflation by twice that suggested by VAR estimates. If the unemployment rate is 8%, there is no effect on inflation, probably because of downward wage rigidities. They note this is in line with the Keynesian narrative where a monetary authority working to expand an economy already operating above potential would achieve only higher inflation. (We discussed problems with how we measure potential, and its weak trajectory, in our last issue: we’re moving toward potential because the bar keeps falling.)

The authors suggest we employ their models to ascertain nonlinear effects of fiscal policy shocks. Indeed. A coherent fiscal policy would be such a shock in itself it might blow out the Gaussian models. But, joking aside, monetary policy has been pushing that lonesome string for a long time now, and if we want a more vibrant economy and the higher rates that come with that territory, we’d better try something else, something with some real pull.


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St. Louis Fed’s James Bullard: Enter the Regime

To paraphrase a wise friend, there are three things we can know about the economy: what people say it is, what we each believe it could be, and what it is. The world is too much with us on the first two, while St. Louis Fed President James Bullard et al. are reframing the third in their recent paper, “The St. Louis Fed’s new characterization of the outlook for the economy.” As was picked up by the media, the new frame suggests interest rates far lower than the conventional models.

This clear nine-page paper invited, and received, a lot of criticism. Some labeled it pessimistic, and used its publication to call for higher interest rates, while others quibbled with the veracity of the inflation scales, and used its publication to call for higher rates. The paper is clear that there are risks to the outlook, which takes the steam out of the biggest criticism, that things could change. Indeed.

But Bullard and the SL Fed are outlining a new framework for our economy and how we understand it. After a performance review, they abandoned the idea that the economy will return to a recognizable steady state and their models built on such a state, which they believe have outlived their usefulness. They now see a series of regimes that are persistent and cannot be forecast. In abandoning the single steady state, they are more in line with current cosmological thought, probably a good thing, and in replacing that state with regimes that cannot be forecast, they are moving closer to what we see all around us. In limiting the horizon to two years they are echoing CBO’s Larry Ozanne’s belief that in many cases forecasting out more than two years is a waste of taxpayers’ money.

They are making this switch now because they believe real output, unemployment, and inflation are close to the “mean outcome of the current regime.” Since they cannot predict when the track will switch, they are “forecasting” that the current regime will persist and policy will be set as is appropriate to that.

In the current regime weak productivity produces weak output, as is surely the case, and real rates remain low, as do returns on short-term government debt. Here the authors make an important distinction. Noting that the real return to capital has not “declined meaningfully,” they attribute low rates on government debt to an “abnormally large” liquidity premium, their fundamental factor, not to low real returns throughout the economy. Full disclosureperhaps we think that’s important because it’s close to what we’ve been calling a missed opportunity recently: capital investment is weak, even though it currently carries a higher return than financial assets, and that weakness flows through the economy. We’ve long argued that if we want higher rates we need more capital investment, job training, and the like.

Shifting the Fed’s dependency to regimes instead of data suggests a more coherent communication. Recently some of the secondary data streams have become more important to the FOMC’s thinking than the primary, and that needs to be evaluated in a bigger context, in this case a regime. Of course, we’re going to have to wait to find out what it all means.

In this context, the authors peg the “appropriate regime-dependent policy rate path” (get used to writing that) at 63 basis points, and the Dallas Fed’s trimmed mean inflation, their preferred measure, at 2% over their horizon. Solving a one-year Fisher equation (0.63 less 2.0%), pegs the real rate on short-term government debt at -137 basis points. That’s now r† (r dagger) to distinguish the government rate from r*. Their main difference between the prior and current outlooks: in the old all components “trended” toward values in line with the assumed steady-state outcome. Specifically, the policy rate would be 350 bps above today’s level. He notes that if the FOMC adds 25bps a year, it would take 14 years to get there.

Taking the steady-state economy off the table makes sense to us as well. That steady state was supported by such old-fashioned things as long-term capital investment, job churn, new business formation, and productivity growth, the facets of a vibrant economy. If you take the legs off a chair, you can’t expect it to stand.

It’s a relief to have the uncertainty of our world accepted, and to hear those three little words, “We don’t know,” coming through. As Janet Yellen put it recently, “I am describing the outlook that I see as most likely, but based on many years of economic projections, I can assure you that any specific projection I write down will turn out to be wrong, perhaps markedly so.”

You could argue that it’s scary to hear those with such power express such uncertainty, but it sure beats hearing full confidence from those who were deeply wrong about what was to come, as we did in the years leading up to the crisis.

We have long expected Bullard to come up with some original thinking and, whether you like what the SL Fed is saying or not, we have that in spades. We’ve joked that we have a soft spot for him because we believe he was the first to use “Halloweenish” in an official Fed communiqué. Sometimes you don’t know what you want until it falls into your lap.

Honk if you now know you’ve always wanted to see such a word in Fed print.

Philippa Dunne & Doug Henwood




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The Dart Lands on 2%

How did that 2% inflation rate get sanctified? Neil Irwin of the New York Times once traced the origins of the totem back to Dan Brash, a former kiwi farmer who became governor of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand in 1988. Shortly after Brash took office, the NZ parliament mandated that the central bank pick an inflation target and granted it the political independence to meet it. Working with the nation’s finance minister David Caygill (successor to the legendary Roger Douglas, whose policy of aggressive market liberalization had worldwide influence), Brash settled on 2%. The idea spread to central bankers around the world.

Should there be such a target? The consensus of those who matter for such things seems to be yes, but one important dissenter was the current chair of the Fed, Janet Yellen. At FOMC meetings in 1995 and 1996, Yellen argued strongly against adopting a formal inflation target. In January 1995, she denounced a single-minded focus on inflation at the expense of real outcomes like employment and income growth. Underscoring the point, the said that “a wise and humane policy is occasionally to let inflation rise even when inflation is running above target.” Further, the costs of inflation targeting could be high: “Each percentage point reduction in inflation costs on the order of 4.4 percent of gross domestic product…and entails about 2.2 percentage-point-years of unemployment in excess of the natural rate.” For her, there was no proof that keeping inflation low improved economic performance, making those costs not worth paying.

She developed the point a year-and-a-half later, at the July 1996 meeting of the FOMC. She reiterated that very low inflation has no demonstrable economic benefit, other than perhaps reducing tax distortions, and those problems could be addressed legislatively without incurring the economic costs of disinflation. She also touted the flexibility afforded by slightly higher inflation: it made it easier for real interest rates to go negative when the economy needs stimulus, and it also disguised real wage cuts that might be necessary in response to demand shocks or to balance labor supply and demand across sectors. Of course, inflation in 1995 and 1996 was around 3%; she thought lowering that to 2% wouldn’t hurt much, but anything beyond that would be uselessly painful. But now even 2% might seem constraining with the ZLB having become a fact of life, and one that might endure.

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Stanley Fischer on the ZLB

In a speech to the American Economics Association’s annual meeting, Fed vice chair Stanley Fischer asked some important questions and provided few explicit answers. (He admits this himself; it’s not a reader’s uncharitable judgment.) Much of it is inspired by the zero lower bound (ZLB), but Fischer’s attention roams widely around from that starting point.

His first stop is the possibility that we’re moving towards a world with a “permanently lower long-run equilibrium interest rate,” aka r*. We’ve always been skeptical of that concept, for a number of reasons. You can’t see it, and every attempt to estimate it statistically winds up with different results. Maybe there are several points of equilibrium—a high-employment and a low-employment equilibrium, for example. Or maybe something as turbulent as a modern capitalist economy has no point that’s durably stable enough to deserve the name equilibrium.

But we don’t have seats on the FOMC, so we must bracket these concerns. A number of recent empirical efforts have found that r* is close to zero, and this empirical work has found theoretical support in Lawrence Summers’ argument that we are in a state of secular stagnation. When combined with low inflation, interest rates will spend a lot of time at or near the zero line, which makes life very difficult for central bankers.

What to do? One option is to raise the inflation target from the semi-official 2% to some unspecified higher level. To Fischer, this is risky business, and it seems to hold little appeal for him. Another possibility is to adopt negative interest rates—a strategy that some European countries have experimented with—but Fischer also finds this problematic, at least in the short term.

A third approach, about which Fischer says nothing negative (unlike most of his other propositions) is raising r* through expansionary fiscal policy. “In particular,” he observes, “the need for more modern infrastructure in many parts of the American economy is hard to miss. And we should not forget that additional effective investment in education also adds to the nation’s capital.” It might be possible to manipulate the yield curve, allowing short rates to rise for the sake of normal policy and money market functioning while keeping economically sensitive long rates down. That could be accomplished through continued long-term asset purchases by the Fed and a shortening of maturities by the Treasury.

Central bankers are expected to be discreet, and Fischer is well-practiced. But occupationally adjusted, he’s calling for a more stimulative fiscal policy to counter what could be a bout of long-term economic stagnation. There’s certainly room to boost public investment: as the graph on p. 5 shows, after depreciation, civilian public investment hasn’t been this low since the World War II mobilization.

Fischer stepped out of normal central bankerly discretion to endorse raising rates to prick an asset bubble, a controversial position in the trade. While he thought macro-prudential tools might be appropriate—capital requirements, or restrictions on loan-to-value ratios—the Fed doesn’t have the freedom to wield such tools that its foreign counterparts have. So, “if asset prices across the economy…are thought to be excessively high, raising the interest rate may be the appropriate step,” he concluded. One awaits the declassification of FOMC transcripts to see what Fischer is saying behind those big wooden doors—and how his colleagues are reacting.

Although Fischer said in the speech that r* was likely to stay low “for the policy-relevant future,” he disclosed on Wednesday that the markets are wrong if they’re only expecting two rate hikes this year. Of course, four quarter-point hikes would amount to just a single percentage point, which isn’t all that far from zero.

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The Richmond Fed’s Take on Unemployment and Participation Rates

In their economic brief, “Comparing Labor Markets across Recessions: A Focus on the Age Composition of the Population,” Richmond Fed researchers Marianna Kudlyak, Devin Reilly, and Steven Slivinski find that controlling for the recent decline in teenagers’ participation rate produces an unemployment rate of 11.3%, a new post-war high, and that much of the decline in the overall participation rate has been driven by the increasing percentage of workers 55 and older. Things are what they are, and you have to be careful about making this kind of adjustment, but this is Fed research and we are taking it seriously.

Setting the stage, they find that although the 2008 contraction in output was comparable to those of the 1957 and 1973 recessions (the prior record-setters), the 7% decline in employment was more severe than any other post-WWII recession. The 2% decline in weekly hours in the 2008 recession was not as severe as 1969’s 3%, or 1973’s 2.1%, but aggregating hours worked with employment produces a 9% decline, far worse than 1948’s 5.7%, the previous record.

For their next comparison, they assume that the recovery began when Nonfarm Business Sector output turned positive, Q309 for the current recovery, and find that employment growth is lagging prior recoveries.  Of the ten prior recoveries considered in the paper, employment continued to decline during the first two quarters of the recoveries following the 1957, 1960, 1991 and 2001 recessions, but percent declines were larger than the current decline (1.35%) only following the 2001 recession (1.8%) Positive note: Unlike the 2001 recession/recovery, weekly hours showed modest growth during the second quarter of the current recovery.

Noting that looking at labor indicators without adjusting for demographics, “may not be the best way to compare recessions,” they adjust for teenagers’ diminishing and the over-55 set’s growing share of the work-force. In 1982, when unemployment hit 10.7%, its post-war high, teenagers constituted 7.6% of the workforce; in 2009, their share had dropped to 4%.  This may be a good thing in the long-run as there is anecdotal evidence suggesting that teens are staying in school longer, and it is definitely a good thing for the unemployment rate. Teens have a volatile and high rate of unemployment, so Kudlyak et al. adjust the current rate by holding the teenagers’ participation rate constant since 1982, resulting in the postwar high of 11.3% mentioned above. They go on to say that the larger share of older participants in the labor force “means the ‘natural’ unemployment rate is lower than it as in 1982,” and that Q309’s 10% is “likely further” from the natural rate than was 1982’s 10.7%.

They apply the same technique to the labor force participation rate to determine how much of the current decline is cyclical and how much structural. Total participation was 58.6% in 1948, rose to 67.3% in 2000, and has declined since, hitting 64.7% in January 2010, with half of the decline occurring since December 2007. In March 2000, workers 55 and older constituted 26.8% of the working-age population, compared to 30.3% currently. Reconstructing the series using the current age composition replaces the long downward trend shown in the official series with a more modest decline that does not begin until mid-2009 and so far has only reached the level of mid-2005. Reconstructing another series that keeps 1999 participation rates constant across age groups, they show that in 2005 the official rate actually rose above what would have been predicted by demographic changes, and has only recently fallen below, suggesting that much of decline since 2000 is structural.

Their conclusions are a bit contradictory: the high unemployment rate of this cycle is “much higher in relative terms,” than those of prior recessions, meaning there is a great deal of slack in the labor force but, since there has been less of a cyclical decline in the participation rate, there may not be as many workers outside the labor force ready to step in as the recovery continues as in prior cycles.

Economic Brief with a number of graphs here: http://www.richmondfed.org/publications/research/economic_brief/2010/pdf/eb_10-04.pdf

Philippa Dunne & Doug Henwood

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