Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Fed: Prepping the Markets
“This is Ground Control to Major Tom” are lyrics from David Bowie’s classic “Space Oddity.” In Bowie’s song, the astronaut responds to Ground Control: “This is Major Tom to Ground Control / I'm stepping through the door / And I'm floating / in a most peculiar way / And the stars look very different today.” Bond investors have recently had this lost-in-space experience.

Fed officials at Ground Control have been preparing the markets for lift-off, i.e., the first rate hike during the current economic expansion. Bond yields aren’t waiting; They’ve already blasted off. However, they are likely to orbit at their current altitude for a while even when the federal funds rate finally gets off the ground. That’s because Fed officials have said that once they start raising rates, they will do so very gradually. That’s especially likely if the recent backup in bond yields and mortgage rates slows economic growth.

One-and-done is an increasingly likely scenario for Fed policy this year, which means that the federal funds rate won’t be any higher than 0.50% by the end of the year. In other words, investors can expect that Fed policy will remain in inner space rather than go to outer space.

Since the FOMC’s latest meeting on April 28-29, three top Fed officials have spoken publicly and indicated that investors should prepare for lift-off, i.e., “take your protein pills and put your helmet on,” as the song says. A fourth one is still in no rush to lift interest rates. Let’s review:

(1) Yellen. On May 6, Fed Chair Yellen sat down with IMF Chief Christine Lagarde for a discussion at a conference in Washington. As I noted in Monday’s Morning Briefing, Yellen is obviously trying to do her best to prepare the financial markets for the start of Fed rate hikes:
We need to be attentive, and are to the possibility that when the Fed decides it's time to begin raising rates, these term premiums could move up and we could see a sharp jump in long-term rates. So we're trying to, you know, as I've repeatedly said, communicate as clearly about our monetary policy so we don't take markets by surprise.
(2) Dudley. On Tuesday, FRB-NY President William Dudley spoke at a conference in Zurich. In his prepared remarks, he commented on the timing of normalization:
To be as direct as possible: I don’t know when this will occur. The timing of lift-off will depend on how the economic outlook evolves. Since the economic outlook is uncertain, this means the timing of liftoff must also be uncertain.

At the same time, though, I can be clear about what conditions are needed for normalization to begin. If the improvement in the U.S. labor market continues and the FOMC is ‘reasonably confident’ that inflation will move back to our 2 percent objective over the medium-term, then it would be appropriate to begin to normalize interest rates.

Because the conditions necessary for liftoff are well-specified, market participants should be able to think right along with policymakers, adjusting their views about the prospects for normalization in response to the incoming data. This implies that liftoff should not be a big surprise when it finally occurs, which should help mitigate the degree of market turbulence engendered by lift-off.

Nevertheless, I think it would be naïve not to expect some impact. After more than six years at the zero lower bound, lift-off will signal a regime shift even though policy would only be slightly less accommodative after lift-off than it is before.
(3) Williams. Dudley had company this week. FRB-SF President John Williams echoed similar sentiments in a discussion on CNBC. He forecasted:
A year from now, yes, we will have unemployment below 5%. Broader measures of unemployment or underemployment will be down to more normal levels like we've seen in other good economic times. Inflation will be heading back to 2% and yes rates will be moving up.
Regarding the specific timing of rate hikes this year, Williams said:
My personal preference is that we don't have the most telegraphed policy decisions in history like we did in 2004. I do believe that the data dependence is what we should be doing. We should be coming together every six weeks discussing what the outlook looks like and what the right appropriate policy decisions at that meeting are and then adjusting policy going forward.
(4) Evans. On the other hand, FRB-Chicago President Charles Evans still thinks that the economy isn’t ready for rate hikes just yet. His research staff posted a paper on May 8 entitled “Changing Labor Force Composition and the Natural Rate of Unemployment,” obviously supporting the uber-dovish stance of their boss. Contrary to the Fed’s consensus view of a 5.0%-5.2% range for the natural rate of unemployment, the authors claim that the rate should be at or below 5.0%!

On May 4, Evans concluded a speech to the Columbus Economic Development Board as follows:
In summary, I think we should be cautious in the timing of the first rate hike and our pace of policy normalization thereafter. My current view is that my economic outlook and my assessment of the balance of risks will evolve in such a way that I likely will not feel confident enough to begin to raise rates until early next year. But there is no prescribed timeline that must be adhered to, and no preset script to follow, other than that we should let economic conditions and risks to the outlook be our guides. Given uncomfortably low inflation and uncertainties about the economic environment, I see significant risks, but few benefits, to increasing interest rates prematurely.
(Based on an excerpt from YRI Morning Briefing)

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