Tim Duy's Five Questions for Janet Yellen: The Honest Broker


A very nice piece here from the very-sharp Tim Duy:

Tim Duy: Five Questions for Janet Yellen

Next week's meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) includes a press conference with Chair Janet Yellen. These are five questions I would ask if I had the opportunity to do so in light of recent events.

(1) 1. What's the deal with labor market conditions? You advocated for the creation of the Federal Reserve's Labor Market Conditions Index (LMCI) to serve as a broader measure of the labor market and as an alternative to a narrow measure such as the unemployment rate. The LMCI declined for five consecutive months through May, the most recent release.... On June 6, however, you said that:

the job market has strengthened substantially, and I believe we are now close to eliminating the slack that has weighed on the labor market since the recession.

The LCMI signals that although the economy may be operating near full employment, it is now moving further away from that goal. Is it appropriate for the Fed to still be considering interest rate hikes when your measure is moving away from the goal of full employment? Or have you determined the LMCI is not a useful measure of labor market conditions?

(2) Has the effect of QE been underestimated? Since the Fed began and completed the process of ending quantitative easing (QE), the dollar has risen in value, the stock market rally has stalled, the yield curve has flattened, broader economic activity has slowed, and now we are experiencing a slowing in labor market activity. These are all traditionally signs of tighter monetary policy, but you have insisted that tapering is not tightening and that policy remains accommodative. Given these signs, is it possible or even likely that you have underestimated the effectiveness of QE and hence are now overestimating the level of financial accommodation?

(3) Optimal control or no? The Fed appears determined to hit its inflation target from below. In other words, the central bank is positioning policy to tighten despite inflation currently running below the 2 percent target in order to avoid an overshoot at a later date. In the past, however, you argued for an 'optimal control' approach that anticipated an explicit overshooting of the inflation target in order to more rapidly meet the Fed's mandate of full employment. Under optimal control, it seems that given stalled progress on reducing underemployment, coupled with deteriorating labor market conditions, the Fed should now be explicitly aiming to overshoot the inflation target by keeping policy loose. Do you believe the optimal control approach you previously advocated is wrong? If so, what caused you to change your mind?

(4) An Evans Rule for all? Chicago Federal Reserve President Charles Evans remains concerned about asymmetric policy risks. Persistently below target inflation risks undermining the public's belief that the Fed is committed to reaching its target. Such a loss of credibility hampers the ability to subsequently meet the central bank's target. In contrast, the well-known effectiveness of traditional policy tools means there is less upside risk to inflation. Consequently, he argues for an updated version of the Evans Rule (or an earlier commitment to not hike rates as long as unemployment exceeded 6.5 percent and inflation was below 2.5 percent). Specifically, Evans said:

In order to ensure confidence that the U.S. will get to 2 percent inflation, it may be best to hold off raising interest rates until core inflation is actually at 2 percent. The downside inflation risks seem big — losing credibility on the downside would make it all that more difficult to ever reach our inflation target. The upside risks on inflation seem smaller.

Recall that in your most recent speech you indicated unease with inflation expectations and — at least implicitly — recognized the asymmetry of policy risks:

It is unclear whether these indicators point to a true decline in those inflation expectations that are relevant for price setting; for example, the financial market measures may reflect changing attitudes toward inflation risk more than actual inflation expectations. But the indicators have moved enough to get my close attention. If inflation expectations really are moving lower, that could call into question whether inflation will move back to 2 percent as quickly as I expect.

This — especially when combined with your past support for an optimal control approach to policy — suggests that you should be amenable to adopting Evans' position. Do you support Evans' proposal that the Fed should stand down from rate hikes until the inflation target is reached? Why or why not?

(5) Just how much do you care about the rest of the world? Earlier this year, Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard suggested that the many developed economies operating at or below zero percent interest rates reduces the central bank's capacity for raising rates:

'Financial tightening associated with cross-border spillovers may be limiting the extent to which U.S. policy diverges from major economies...

At last September's FOMC press conference, you said that you thought the global forces were insufficient to restrain the path of U.S. monetary policy. In response to a question about 'global interconnectedness' preventing the U.S. from ever moving away from zero percent interest rates, you said:

I would be very surprised if that's the case. That is not the way I see the outlook or the way the Committee sees the outlook. Can I completely rule it out? I can't completely rule it out. But, really, that's an extreme downside risk that in no way is near the center of my outlook.

Given the events of the past six months — especially the refusal of longer-term U.S. Treasury yields to rise despite repeated hints of monetary tightening — have you reassessed your opinion? Do you view the risks of such an outcome as greater or lower than your assessment made last September?

Bottom Line: Most of these questions try to push Yellen to explain her past positions in light of the current data and actions. I think understanding how and why her positions change is critical to understanding how the Fed reacts to the conditions facing it. Making the so-called 'reaction function' clear remains the most important piece of the Fed's communication strategy.

These five questions--"What's the deal with labor market conditions?... Has the effect of QE been underestimated?... Optimal control or no?... An Evans Rule for all?... Just how much do you care about the rest of the world?"--are the right questions to ask. And Tim's bottom line--"Push Yellen to explain her past positions in light of the current data and actions. I think understanding how and why her positions change is critical.... Making the so-called 'reaction function' clear remains the most important piece of the Fed's communication strategy"--is the right bottom line.

After all, does this look like an economy crossing the line of potential output in an upward direction with growing and substantial gathering inflationary pressures to you?

Change in Labor Market Conditions Index FRED St Louis FedNewImage NewImage NewImage NewImage

The Federal Reserve is simply not doing a good job of communicating its reaction function. It is not doing a good job of linking its model of the economy to current data and past events. Inflation, production, and employment (but not the unemployment rate) have been disappointingly low relative to Federal Reserve expectations for each of the past nine years. These events should have led to substantial rethinking by the Federal Reserve of its model of the economy. And yet the model set forward by Yellen and Fischer (but not Evans and Brainard) appears to be very much the model they held to in the late 1990s, which was the model they believed in in the early 1980s: very strong gearing between recent-past inflation and expected inflation, and a Phillips Curve with a pronounced slope, even with inflation very low.

Unless my Visualization of the Cosmic All is grossly wrong along the relevant dimensions, this is not the right model of the current economy. There was never good reason to think that the bulk of the runup in inflation in the 1970s was due to excessive demand pressure and unemployment below the natural rate--it was, more probably, mostly due to supply shocks plus the lack of anchored expectations. Only if you highball the estimate of the Phillips Curve's slope for the 1970s can you understand the fall in inflation in the early 1980s as due overwhelmingly to slack, rather than ascribing a component to the reanchoring of inflation expectations. Thus the way to bet is that the economy on its current trajectory will produce less upward pressure on current inflation and also on inflation expectations than the Federal Reserve currently projects.

But how will it react when the data once again disappoints Federal Reserve expectations--as it has? In June 2013, the Fed was predicting that annual GDP growth during the 2013-2015 period would average 2.9%, with longer-run growth of real potential GDP averaging 2.4%. Instead, annual growth has averaged 2.3% (or 2.2%, if estimates for the first half of 2016 are correct). Nor did it perform better on other measures. The Fed predicted an annual inflation rate, based on the personal consumption expenditures index, of 1.9% for 2015. The true number was 1.5%. Similarly, its average projection of the federal funds rate for 2015 was 1.5%. The figure is currently 0.25%. This three-year period, starting in 2013, in which the economy undershot the Fed’s expectations, follows a three-year period in which the economy likewise fell short of the Fed’s forecast. And that period followed a three-year period, starting in 2007, in which the Fed massively understated downside deflationary risks.

Yet the prevailing model does appear to be the model of the early 1980s. It continues to gear inflation expectations at unrealistically high levels based on past inflation. And it continues to rely on the unemployment rate as a stand-in for the state of the labor market, at the expense of other indicators. So the big questions are: Will that commitment break? What would make them revise their models of the economy? And how will those model revisions affect their policy reaction function map from data to interest rates?

In an environment of economic volatility like the one in which we find ourselves today, a prudent central bank should do everything it can to raise expected and actual inflation, in order to gain the ability to stabilize the economy in any direction. If interest rates were well above zero, the Fed would have scope to raise them further in case of overheating or to lower them in response to adverse demand shocks. But the Fed continues to neglect asymmetry, considering it only a second- or third-order phenomenon. It is not pushing for inflation at or above its target, even as optimal-control doctrines that themselves neglect asymmetry call for such a trajectory. Instead, by tightening policy by an amount that it cannot reliably gauge, it is narrowing its room for maneuver.

Looking at the current composition of the FOMC does not add to confidence:

  • On the left, Lael Brainard and Charles Evans certainly understand the situation--and have been right about almost everything they have opined on over the past eight years. Dan Tarullo shares their orientation, but these are not his issues.

  • On the right, Robert Kaplan and Patrick Harker replace hawks who were always certain, often wrong, and never open-minded--and are the products of failed searches: a job search is not supposed to choose a director of the search-consultant firm or the head of the search committee. Jeffrey Lacker and James Bullard and their staffs have been more wrong on monetary policy than the average FOMC member over the past eight years, but do not appear to have taken wrongness as a sign that their views of the economy might need a rethink. Esther George and Loretta Mester and their staffs feel the pain of a commercial banking sector in the current interest-rate environment, but I have never been convinced they understand how disastrous for commercial banks the medium- and long-term consequences of premature tightening and interest-rate liftoff would be.

  • In the neutral center, Jerome Powell does not appear to have views that differ from those of the committee as a whole. These are not Neel Kashkari's issues: he is too good a bureaucrat to want to dissent from any consensus or near consensus on issues that are not his. And I simply do not have a read on Dennis Lockhart and his staff.

  • The active center is thus composed of Janet Yellen, Stanley Fischer, Bill Dudley, Eric Rosengren, and John Williams. Market risk and confusion is generated by uncertainty about their models of the economy, uncertainty about how they will revise their models as the data comes in, and uncertainty as to how they will react in committee, with six voices to their right calling for rapid interest-rate normalization and only three voices to their left worrying about asymmetric risks and policy traction.

When I listen to this center, one vibe I get is that the asymmetries are really not that great. Janet Yellen this March:

One must be careful, however, not to overstate the asymmetries affecting monetary policy at the moment. Even if the federal funds rate were to return to near zero, the FOMC would still have considerable scope to provide additional accommodation. In particular, we could use the approaches that we and other central banks successfully employed in the wake of the financial crisis to put additional downward pressure on long-term interest rates and so support the economy--specifically, forward guidance about the future path of the federal funds rate and increases in the size or duration of our holdings of long-term securities. While these tools may entail some risks and costs that do not apply to the federal funds rate, we used them effectively to strengthen the recovery from the Great Recession, and we would do so again if needed...

Another vibe I get is more-or-less what Bernanke said back in 2009:

The public’s understanding of the Federal Reserve’s commitment to price stability helps to anchor inflation expectations and enhances the effectiveness of monetary policy, thereby contributing to stability in both prices and economic activity.... A monetary policy strategy aimed at pushing up longer-run inflation expectations in theory... could reduce real interest rates and so stimulate spending and output. However, that theoretical argument ignores the risk that such a policy could cause the public to lose confidence in the central bank’s willingness to resist further upward shifts in inflation, and so undermine the effectiveness of monetary policy going forward. The anchoring of inflation expectations is a hard-won success that has been achieved over the course of three decades, and this stability cannot be taken for granted. Therefore, the Federal Reserve’s policy actions as well as its communications have been aimed at keeping inflation expectations firmly anchored...

I cannot help but be struck by the difference between what I see as the attitude of the current Federal Reserve, anxious not to do anything to endanger its "credibility", and the Greenspan Fed of the late 1990s, which assumed that it had credibility and that because it had credibility it was free to experiment with policies that seemed likely to be optimal in the moment precisely because markets understood its long-term objective function and trusted it, and hence would not take short-run policy moves as indicative of long-run policy instability. There is a sense in which credibility is like a gold reserve: It is there to be drawn on and used in emergencies. The gold standard collapsed into the Great Depression in the 1930s in large part because both the Bank of France and the Federal Reserve believed that their gold reserves should never decline, but always either stay stable of increase.

And I cannot help but be struck by the inconsistency between the two vibes. The claim that we need not worry about asymmetry because we are willing to undertake radical policy experimentation fits very badly with the claim that we dare not rock the boat because the anchoring of inflation expectations on the upside is very fragile. Combine these with excessive confidence in the current model--with a tendency to make policy based on the center of the fan of projected outcomes with little consideration of how wide that fan actually is--and I find myself with much less confidence in today's Fed than I, four years ago, thought I would have today.