Archive for the ‘monetary policy’ Category

Declare victory and taper?

19 December 2013

Wednesday the Federal Open Market Committee did the expected, by announcing a “tapering” off of its $85 billion monthly purchases of long-term Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities (MBS’s), citing “the cumulative progress toward maximum employment.” Thursday the BLS announced that weekly jobless claims rose to their highest level in nine months. Ouch.

Granted, the spike in jobless claims might not mean much, as they can be volatile, especially around holiday time, and indeed the four-week average of jobless claims “only” rose to its highest level in one month. Even so, the “progress toward maximum employment” has been glacial, if it can be called progress at all. The media have trumpeted the good news in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) latest employment report, which found that the standard unemployment rate fell from 7.3% to 7.0%, its lowest level in five years, and employers added 203,000 jobs. That’s fine, but it’s also just one month. Let’s look at the past year, from Nov 2012 to Nov 2013, using the Households Survey numbers in the employment report.

In the past year the adult US population grew by almost 2.4 million. The number of people “Not in labor force” (neither employed nor actively looking for a job) also grew by slightly more than 2.4 million. The total US labor force actually fell by 25,000, and the employment-to-population ratio also fell slightly, from 58.7% to 58.6%. While it’s good news that total employment rose by 1.1 million and unemployment (and people who say they currently want a job) fell by 1.1. million, the biggest growth sector by far is “Not in labor force,” again with 2.4 million. The employment/population ratio is exactly the same now as it was four years ago, in Nov 2009. This is not progress.

I wouldn’t be an economist if I never said “On the other hand,” however, and on that hand we have the “Establishments Survey” that furnishes the other half of the BLS report. The unemployment and employment/population rates come from the Households Survey; the payroll numbers (e.g., 203,000 jobs added) come from the Establishments Survey. Average monthly payroll growth for the past year was 191,000 jobs, or more than double the puny job growth in the Households Survey (1.1 million / 12 months = 92,000 jobs per month).

What would victory look like on the jobs front? I would say 5% unemployment, which the economy had for 35 straight months in the mid-2000s, or less. (And I would want the reduction to come from job growth and not from people leaving the labor force.) How far are we from 5% unemployment? The Atlanta Fed’s handy jobs calculator has the answer. If the economy keeps on adding 191,000 jobs per month, we return to 5% unemployment in three years. If it adds just 92,000 jobs per month, we never get back to 5% unemployment, unless the labor force does a whole lot of shrinking. If we split the difference and figure the correct figure is right in the middle at 141,500, then we get there in seven and a half years, in early 2021.

Back to the taper. The labor data suggest a need for more, not less, monetary stimulus, but how much stimulus were those emergency bond-buying programs providing? All we know is that they created $85 billion in new bank reserves each month. For the programs to work, banks needed to loan out those reserves. Not much of that has been happening:



Real estate and consumer loans are flat. Business loans are rising but not fast enough to return to their trend level. (Which, by the way, is true of just about every other macro aggregate — household consumption, business investment, etc.) Just as the fastest-growing occupational category is Not In Labor Force (NILF?), the most dramatic growth on bank balance sheets is excess reserves:


This is what pushing on a string looks like. Maybe the taper is causing the volume of loans, however meager, to be larger than it otherwise would be, but it’s hard to believe it’s making a world of difference. An oft-cited study published by the Brookings Institution found that the MBS purchases had managed to lower mortgage rates but that the Treasury bond purchases had not lowered long-term Treasury rates. And lowering long-term interest rates, as the bond buying is supposed to do, is only part of the game. Banks have to make loans at those rates. As we saw in the first graph, not nearly enough of that is happening. And the economy probably has to improve a lot more before banks are eager to lend and people are eager to borrow. Catch-22, yes.

All in all, the slight taper, from $85 billion to $75 billion a month, is unlikely to do noticeable harm, since the bond-buying program doesn’t seem to be making a big difference in the first place. Declaring victory, or even declaring substantial progress, on the employment front is foolish, but tapering is another story. Alternative policies, like ending the payment of interest (currently 0.25%) on bank reserves, might be preferable to the long-term bond-buying, but it’s clear from the last few years that Fed cannot be the main driver on the road to recovery. Congress could, through fiscal policy, but won’t, preferring austerity to stimulus, when it isn’t shutting down the government entirely. It looks like we’ll have to cross our fingers and hope for the “natural forces of recovery” to work their magic.


Companies love misery

22 October 2013

“Dow up on optimism tepid jobs report keeps Fed stimulus going”
headline, CNBC, today

In other words, a lousy labor market is good QE-bait.

Like I said before.

Dammit Janet, I love you!*

9 October 2013

I am very pleased with the president’s nomination of Janet Yellen to be the next Federal Reserve Chair. Ms. Yellen has impeccable credentials, the best economic forecasting record of any recent Fed official, and appears to take the regulator part of the Fed Chair job seriously.

This last part is important. Larry Summers, the original front-runner for the job, helped push through the key deregulation of the late Clinton years, has dismissed the idea that it contributed to the bubble or crash, and has basically never admitted a mistake in this area. Alan Greenspan was essentially hostile to financial regulation, and bears as much responsibility as anyone for the housing bubble of the 2000s. Ben Bernanke has acknowledged that the Fed failed as a regulator during the housing bubble, but he was a Fed governor for most of that bubble and Chair for the last two years of it. Economist Bill Black finds Bernanke to have been sorely lacking as a regulator. The Fed’s main regulatory task is to try to detect and reduce systemic risk, i.e., risky activities that threaten the larger financial system and economy. Granted, Yellen told the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission in 2010 that she failed to see several of those risks (securitization, credit rating agencies, Special Investment Vehicles) when she was San Francisco Fed President in 2004-2010, but on the other hand she was among the first at the Fed to publicly call attention to the housing bubble

Granted, monetary policy, not financial regulation, is the main part of the job. I agree with those who have said she will probably be very similar to Bernanke as far as that goes, and I’d call that a good thing. The Fed needs to do what it can to pull us out of this Little Depression, and since interest rates cannot fall below zero, additional measures like buying long-term bonds and mortgage-backed securities (i.e., quantitative easing, or QE) make sense, as long as they work. Yellen is often stereotyped as a “dove” because in recent years she favored expansionary policy and did not state that inflation was an imminent risk, but those recent years were the Little Depression that began in 2008. When unemployment is not the nation’s biggest problem, Yellen is more concerned about inflation. Such as in the roaring 1990s, when Yellen was Clinton’s Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers and then a Fed governor. With unemployment down to its lowest levels in decades, Yellen was an inflation “hawk,” as Matthew O’Brien details.

Whether the Senate is capable of that much nuance as it considers her nomination remains to be seen. I expect she’ll win majority support, including a handful of Republicans, and that Republicans will resist the temptation to filibuster her nomination. The right-leaning American Enterprise Institute offers several reasons why an anti-Yellen filibuster would be a disaster. Then again, flirting with disaster seems to be the Congressional Republicans’ game plan of late.

PS Here is a recent (Nov 2012) interview with Janet Yellen.

* Title stolen from EconoMonitor, who of course got it from Rocky Horror:

7.4%: Good news you can’t use

4 August 2013

Another first Friday, another BLS employment report, and the headline news is pretty good: In July the official unemployment rate fell to its lowest level, 7.4%, since 2008. If you were a White House publicist that morning, you could have noted that fact and also that the comprehensive U-6 unemployment rate (which includes discouraged job-seekers and involuntary part-timers) also fell, from 14.3% to 14.0%. And then you could have taken the rest of the day off.

The improvement in the U-6 unemployment rate was not enough to cancel out the previous month’s 0.5% point jump. The U-6 rate was below 14% in March, April, and May. The improvement in the official (U-3) rate was exactly counterbalanced by an 0.1% point drop in the labor force participation rate (to 63.4%). The employment/population ratio was unchanged (at 58.7% for all adults, and 75.9% for prime-age (25-54) year-old adults). The decline in participation defies easy explanation, as it involves three distinct subgroups — adult white males, white teenagers, and adult black females — but not others. (A notable recent trend, by the way, is for fewer people, especially young women, to not enter the work force.)

The unemployment rates come from the BLS’s survey of households. The BLS’s other survey, of employers (the “payroll survey”), is disappointing relative to the previous month’s. June’s report showed the economy with net job growth of 195,000, plus upward revisions of 70,000 jobs to the previous two months. July’s report has net job growth of 162,000, and downward revisions of 26,000 to the previous two months. At this month’s pace, it would take us a year longer to get back to 6% unemployment than at last month’s pace (using the handy Jobs Calculator of the Atlanta Fed).

The stock and bond markets seem to have gotten this report about right. The stock market barely budged, and the 10-year Treasury bond rate actually fell somewhat, from 2.72% to 2.60%, despite the improvement in the official unemployment rate. Both markets watch the employment reports with an eye toward the Fed’s next move on interest rates and “quantitative easing” (“QE”; special purchases of long-term bonds and mortgage-backed securities), all the more so after the Fed recently announced that it would start “tapering” off QE when unemployment falls to about 7.0% and start raising its key interest rate when unemployment falls to about 6.5%. While we’re a notch closer to those rates now, the trend does not look good. Treading water is about all this labor market is doing, and the markets seem to get that.

Fed talk is anything but cheap

24 June 2013

After last Wednesday, I bet Ben Bernanke can relate to this observation by George Carlin about his Catholic upbringing:

If you woke up in the morning and said, “I’m going down to 42nd street and commit a mortal sin!” Save your car fare; you did it, man!

It’s the thought that counts! The Fed didn’t “do” anything last Tuesday and Wednesday at its Federal Open Market Committee meeting. Bernanke’s concluding comments about the continuing slump were not much more specific than “This too shall pass, someday,” combined with the obvious point that normal times will bring normal monetary policies. The main news was that he thought normal times would come sooner than many people expected. But that was enough. Evidently, the bond market was expecting the economy to be flat on its back for most of the next decade: 10-year Treasury bond rates had lately been in the range of 2.1-2.2%, whereas the recent historical norm is about 5%. After Bernanke’s remarks, the rate jumped by 30 basis points (0.30% point) to a Friday close of about 2.5%. It jumped further this morning to 2.6%.

Two observations:

(1) Just as in Carlin’s church, Bernanke doesn’t actually have to do anything to tank the long-term bond market. Just thinking about it aloud is enough.

(2) The long-term bond market is really not the economy’s friend. What tanked the bond market is the prospect of interest rates rising a bit sooner and faster than expected, on account of the Fed reacting to a stronger economy. So in a weird sense the spike in bond rates is good news: Bernanke said better times were coming, the markets believed him, and they acted accordingly. Not to say that their action was malicious, just that it was predictable: if you are expecting interest rates to rise in the future, you should buy bonds in the future, not now.

The wizard of oz.

9 March 2013

This weekend’s opening of the Disney blockbuster “Oz the Great and Powerful” is my opening for a little shameless self-promotion. My nearest claim to fame is a book I co-wrote called The Historian’s Wizard of Oz: Reading L. Frank Baum’s Classic as a Political and Monetary Allegory. My “co-author” is L. Frank Baum himself, as the book includes all of the first Oz book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, with about 65 footnotes that I put in to point out various alleged symbolism. The supposed symbols have to do with the political and economic landscape of the 1890s, when Baum wrote the book.

There are several versions of Oz as a political or monetary allegory, but almost all of them focus on farm distress (opening gloom in Kansas, a hotbed of “prairie populism”), the gold standard (yellow brick road), bimetallism (silver shoes (not ruby slippers in the book) on a yellow brick road),  quest for the political power center of the nation (Emerald City), supposedly dim farmers who turn out to be quite clever (scarecrow), supposedly all-powerful president who turns out to be a “humbug” (wizard), and so on. The original allegorical interpretation, Henry Littlefield’s “The Wizard of Oz: Parable of Populism” (1964), had a symbol for seemingly every major character and incident in the book, including the name Oz as an allusion to “oz.,” the abbreviation for an ounce of gold or silver. A later version by economist Hugh Rockoff (“The Wizard of Oz as a Monetary Allegory,” 1990) added many more symbols.

The annotations in my book draw on Littlefield’s and Rockoff’s interpretations, as well as those of several others, and add a few of my own. I also have chapters on understanding the gold standard, the “Populist” farm-protest movement, and the inevitable question of whether Baum intended the book to be in any way a commentary on politics or economics. I reach a definite conclusion on that one, but I’m not going to give it away here. Besides my book, I have a freely available article in Essays in Economic & Business History that says all I have to say on the subject.

The ZIRP walk

12 December 2012

Today’s news from the Fed is that they will continue their zero interest rate policy (ZIRP) until the unemployment rate falls to 6.5%. To be precise, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) announced that they believe the current 0 – 0.25% range for the federal funds rate “will be appropriate at least as long as the unemployment rate remains above 6-1/2 percent, inflation between one and two years ahead is projected to be no more than a half percentage point above the Committee’s 2 percent longer-run goal, and longer-term inflation expectations continue to be well anchored.”

This replaces the Fed’s statement from six weeks ago, which was that they expected to continue the ZIRP “for a considerable time after the economic recovery strengthens” and said they thought the ZIRP would continue at least through mid-2015.

I think the new policy is better, first of all because it’s specific. Of course they’re going to raise rates when the economy’s better, but how do they define better? They just told us — 6.5% unemployment (it’s now 7.7%).

The new statement also is better because it’s a fairly clear policy rule, tied to an actual, observable number, as opposed to a prediction about when the ZIRP medicine will no longer be needed. Including a date like mid-2015 is problematic partly because predictions have a way of being wrong, but also because they have a way of creating bubbles. “Through mid-2015” was widely reported not as a prediction but as a fixed commitment by the Fed, which it wasn’t. If enough people in the financial community believe the Fed will keep rates low through mid-2015, there could be a problem. Because if they know that short-term interest rates will be low for the next three years, then they may be more likely to borrow massively in the short-term money market and invest it in longer-term risky assets while rolling over their short-term debts for the next three years. (Some people say we’re already in a stock-market bubble right now, thanks to today’s low interest rates.) Granted, “borrowing short and lending long” is what banks do, but usually it’s without the certainty of near-zero interest rates for the next three years. (more…)


3 December 2011

The euro has always struck me as Germany’s final success at dominating Europe. What two world wars couldn’t accomplish, the Bundesbank could. By the 1990s, Germany looked like such a model of economic rectitude that eleven of its neighbors and near-neighbors (now 16, not counting principalities) were happy to formally link their currencies to Germany, their monetary policies to a European Central Bank that was a continental version of the Bundesbank, and their fiscal policies to a treaty that said deficits and debt should be under 3% and 60% of GDP (which seemed to reflect German fiscal conservatism).

Fiscal conservatism hasn’t fared well since recession began in late 2007. Even without the countercyclical tax cuts and spending increases that many governments enacted, falling GDP has caused most countries’ debt/GDP ratios to skyrocket. Even Germany’s is now over 80%. (And contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s just not true that the European economies now facing debt crises, with the exception of Greece, were running up huge deficits and debt prior to the recession; c.f. Krugman and Dean Baker.)

The news for much of this year has been of sovereign debt crises in Greece and the other “PIIGS” countries (from the “BAFFLING PIGS” mnemonic for the first 12 euro members), Portugal, Ireland, Italy, and Spain. But the most shocking economic news for me this year was the recent report that they held a German bond auction and “nobody” came. Not really nobody, but the German government was only able sell three-fifths of the “bunds” they intended to sell. To be sure, they’d have sold more if they’d been willing to accept lower bids; these bonds were supposed to pay just 2% interest, and that’s about where the yields ended up. The linked article quotes some observers who say the weak auction was due to investor concerns that Germany might be left holding the bag for PIIGS and other euro countries that can’t pay their debts. Others have said it was mostly about currency risk, i.e., the risk that the euro might massively depreciate or even crack up over the 1o-year lifetime of the bonds.

Could a euro crack-up happen? Some experts think it actually will happen, perhaps soon. Peter Boone & Simon Johnson:

‘The path of the euro zone is becoming clear. As conditions in Europe worsen, there will be fewer euro-denominated assets that investors can safely buy. Bank runs and large-scale capital flight out of Europe are likely.

‘Devaluation can help growth but the associated inflation hurts many people and the debt restructurings, if not handled properly, could be immensely disruptive. Some nations will need to leave the euro zone. There is no painless solution.

‘Ultimately, an integrated currency area may remain in Europe, albeit with fewer countries and more fiscal centralization. The Germans will force the weaker countries out of the euro area or, more likely, Germany and some others will leave the euro to form their own currency. The euro zone could be expanded again later, but only after much deeper political, economic and fiscal integration.’

At least the run on the euro is off to a slow start. The euro has had a rough November, but its decline against the dollar was only four and a half cents, or about a penny per week. The euro’s price against the dollar is still higher now than it was in most of 2005-2006.

As has been noted, euro membership has arguably gone from a privilege to a bane for these weaker countries, and possibly for all of them. Before the recession, their governments and firms could borrow cheaply on the international market, as the relatively stable euro provided insurance for the lenders, against getting repaid in devalued currency. But now euro membership takes away two key stabilization tools for them: monetary stimulus from their own central bank, and currency adjustment (a devaluation could help GDP through increased net exports).

The messy euro situation looks like the big wild card for the U.S. economy. (Here the conventional wisdom is actually correct, in my view.) Although the blow to U.S. exports from a double-dip European recession could theoretically be offset by more expansionary fiscal policy, the political prospects for additional stimulus have been dim for a long time. Things would have to get a whole lot worse here before any new stimulus could get past the Republicans in Congress, and maybe not even then.

How do you do it?

16 November 2011

Count me among the skeptics who believe the Fed has pretty much already done all it can to pull the economy out of the deep hole that it’s in. Zero short-term interest rates, purchases of longer-term bonds to keep long-term rates at historic lows, backstopping various asset markets, emergency loans to banks, etc. It’s helped avert a Second Great Depression, which is nothing to sneeze at. Some economists who I usually agree with are convinced that aggressive new policies could pull us out of the current Little Depression, too. They’re smarter than I am, but they have yet to convince me that these policies could work.

The tonic du jour is nominal GDP targeting, by which the Fed would try to reach a certain level of nominal GDP — say, $16. 3 trillion (the current level of potential GDP assuming that, as I’ve read, current GDP is 7% below its potential. Do the math and that’s a $1.1 trillion gap between current and potential GDP). Christina Romer, Obama’s first head of the Council of Economic Advisors, recently backed this approach in a New York Times op-ed. Scott Sumner has been pushing it all along, and there’s now a whole new school of macroeconomics, “market monetarism,” which revolves around nominal GDP targeting. (Economists: see here for Ed Dolan’s helpful explanation of how nominal GDP targeting is a form of Milton Friedman-style monetarism.)

Now, once the Fed announces this new target, how does it actually get there? Romer provides the clearest answer I’ve seen yet:

‘Though announcing the new framework would help, it probably wouldn’t be enough to close the nominal G.D.P. gap anytime soon. The Fed would need to take additional steps. These might include further quantitative easing, more forceful promises about short-term interest rates, and perhaps moves to lower the exchange rate. . . .’

‘Nominal G.D.P. targeting would make it more likely that the Fed would take these aggressive actions.’

That’s clear, but so is weak tea. None of these actions sound all that different from what the Fed is already doing. Proponents of nominal GDP targeting seem to be counting on a huge “announcement effect,” i.e., that people will hear about the Fed’s commitment to raising GDP and will assume that Fed will make it happen. Yet the Fed’s goals already include maximum sustainable employment, which is the employment rate you’d have at potential GDP, so why should this change the public’s behavior? (Although there is a difference between monetary policy goals, like low unemployment, and targets, which now include interest rates, it’s a rather subtle one. I don’t see why it would move markets.)

Another popular tonic is a higher inflation target. Right now the Fed’s unofficial but almost universally acknowledged inflation target is 2%, and for the past few years the core inflation rate has been below or near 2%. When inflation is very low, real interest rates (nominal interest rates minus inflation) can still be high even when nominal rates are also low. In the U.S. in the early 1930s, for example, nominal rates plunged toward 0%, but deflation was raging, so real interest rates were actually quite high. Economic historian Nick Crafts, in a Financial Times op-ed, says that Britain’s recovery from the Great Depression was greatly aided by a combination of low nominal interest rates and rising inflation rates — i.e., negative real interest rates — which promoted homebuilding. Crafts says targeting a higher inflation rate — say, 4% — could do the trick today.

Again, I just don’t see how you get there. Would I like to see lower real interest rates? Sure. But for 4% inflation to happen, a lot of other things have to happen first. Banks need to loan out their excess reserves, people and businesses need to buy stuff with those loans, the money needs to be redeposited in banks,  more loans need to be made, etc. That’s how monetary policy works — when it works. Right now, the banks have over a trillion dollars in excess reserves that they’re just sitting on. Banks are not eager to lend, and businesses and households are not eager to borrow. Classic liquidity trap.

Nominal GDP targeting and higher inflation targets sound radical, but are they? Chicago Fed President Charles Evans said in a speech this week that he viewed the 2% inflation target as a medium-run target, not a short-run target, saying that as long as inflation averaged out to 2% over a multi-year period, higher inflation rates would be acceptable in the short term. That statement is consistent with either a nominal GDP target (shoot for low inflation when real GDP is high, tolerate higher inflation when real GDP is low) or an inflation target (let inflation rise when unemployment is high), which suggests that neither of those policies is all that new. Both seem to promise much more than they could ever deliver.

We’re caught in a trap

15 November 2011

This just in: The Federal Reserve does not control the universe.

Stated differently: The economy is in a liquidity trap (macroeconomists). Or, monetary policy has shot its wad (Pres. Obama to economic adviser Christina Romer in their first meeting, according to Ron Suskind’s Confidence Men). Krugman has been saying this for three years now, and so have a lot of other economists. But until today, I had yet to hear it from a Fed official. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has called for Congress to pursue a more expansionary policy fiscal policy, thus implying but not explicitly saying that the Fed has done just about all it can. But in a speech today, Chicago Fed President and Federal Open Market Committee member Charles Evans had the guts to state the obvious:

I largely agree with economists such as Paul Krugman, Mike Woodford and others who see the economy as being in a liquidity trap: Short-term nominal interest rates are stuck near zero, even while desired saving still exceeds desired investment. This situation is the natural result of the abundance of caution exercised by many households and businesses that still worry that they have inadequate buffers of assets to cushion against unexpected shocks. Such caution holds back spending below the levels of our productive capacity. For example, I regularly hear from business contacts that they do not want to risk hiring new workers until they actually see an uptick in demand for their products. Most businesses do not appear to be cutting back further at the moment, but they would rather sit on cash than take the risk of further expansion.”

Evans went on to suggest a number of measures the Fed should still take, like buying up more mortgage-backed securities to get the housing market going (I’m still on the fence on that one — yes, this is the economy’s weakest sector, but how do you do this without reinflating the housing bubble?), while keeping mum on the subject of whether this would do anything more than just nudge the economy forward, as opposed to bringing us anywhere near full employment. I suppose the question is moot, as long as nobody else is willing to act. Congress is not only unwilling to consider fiscal stimulus but seems to be on the verge of massive budget cuts, either by following the “super committee’s” blueprint or letting an autopilot crash the plane.

Hat tip to Judith Osofsky for today’s video: