the Fed’s next move

The highest economic policy objective of the US is achieving maximum sustainable growth in the economy consistent with annual inflation around 2%.

If growth deviates from this desired path, either through overheating or recession, the government has two tools it can use to nudge the economy back toward trend:

monetary policy, controlled by the Federal Reserve, which can relatively quickly alter the rate of growth of the money supply and thereby either energize or cool down activity

fiscal policy–government taxing and spending–controlled by the administration and Congress, and which may be thought of as more strategic than tactical, since there are typically long lags between need and any legislative action.

As a matter of fact, the Fed has been calling for fiscal stimulus from Congress and the administration for several years–worrying that continuing monetary stimulus is increasingly less effective and even potentially harmful to the economy.  Its pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

The Fed has been using two methods to keep rates low:

–it has kept the Federal Funds rate, the interest rate it sets for overnight bank deposits, at/near zero, and

–it has taken the unconventional step of putting downward pressure on rates of long-maturity instruments by buying a total of $4 trillion+ of government securities in the open market.  This is called quantitative easing.

Donald Trump was the only candidate to address the problem of fiscal policy inaction, by promising giant fiscal stimulus through lower corporate tax rates plus a massive spending program to repair/improve infrastructure.

After Mr. Trump’s surprise win last November, the Fed seems to have breathed a sigh of relief and aanounced a series of interest rate hikes that would begin to return monetary policy closer to a normal amount of stimulus–based on the idea that Washington would also provide serious fiscal policy stimlus in 2017.

We’re now in month nine since the election, without the slightest sign of any action on the fiscal front, despite the fact that the Republicans hold the Oval Office and both houses of Congress.  Senator Pat Toomey (R-Pa) remarked last week that this is because no one expected Mr. Trump to win, so Congress made no plans to implement his platform.   It hasn’t helped that, despite his campaign rhetoric, Mr. Trump has shown little grasp of, or interest in, the issue.

This leaves the Fed in an awkward position.

I think its solution will be to shift from raising the Fed funds rate to slowing down or stopping its purchases of securities farther along the yield curve.  Although in a sense the Fed is already no longer buying new government bonds, it is taking the money it receives in interest payments and principal return from its current holdings and reinvesting that in new securities.

Its first step will be to reduce or eliminate such reinvestment–which will presumably nudge longer-term interest rates upward.  Since the process is being so well advertised in advance by the Fed, it’s likely that most of the upward movement in rates will have occurred before the Fed begins to act.  The most likely date for the Fed to more is in September.

 

calling for higher inflation

Last week a group of prominent economists wrote an open letter to the Federal Reserve arguing that the current Fed target of 2% annual inflation is too low.

Their basic view is:

–circumstances have changed a lot in the US since 2% became the economists’ consensus for the right level of inflation a quarter-century ago, so it isn’t necessarily the right number anymore, and

–the lack of oomph in the US economy is a result of maintaining an inflation target that’s too low.  So let’s try 3% instead.

Having a 3% inflation target instead of 2% isn’t a new idea.  I heard it for the first time about 20 years ago, from an economist at the then Swiss Bank Corp.  Her argument was that getting from 3% to 2% inflation would require an enormous amount of effort without any obvious payoff.  The whole idea of inflation targeting is to eliminate the possibility of the kind of runaway inflation–and associated crazy economic choices–of the kind the US had begun to experience in the late 1970s.  Whether actual inflation is 3% or 2% matters little, just as long as the current level is not the launching pad for a progression of 4%, 6% 9%…

Another way of looking at this would be to say that the nominal figures matter much more than academic economists realize, and that 4% nominal GDP growth (2% trend economic growth + 2% inflation) feels too much like stagnation.  Therefore, it undermines the entrepreneurial tendencies of ordinary people.

 

How to create 3% inflation?  …slower interest rate increases and/or increased government stimulus (meaning tax cuts and infrastructure spending).

 

The letter certainly won’t affect the Fed’s thinking about a rate rise in June.  But it seems to me that the debate on this issue can only intensify.

By the way, I think 3% inflation would be good for stocks, neutral/bad for fixed income.

 

Employment Situation, March 2017

The Bureau of Labor Statistics released its monthly Employment Situation report earlier this morning.

With an addition of +98,000 jobs, the figures were a little more than half the rate of gain or recent months.  Revisions to data from the prior two months clipped another -38,000 positions from the total.

Although the report isn’t great reading for stock market bulls, we’ve seen over the past eight years of economic recovery that bad months occasionally occur, even in the midst of a sharply upsloping trend.  In addition, although the monthly figures are seasonally adjusted, the weather during 1Q17 has been so unusual in the populated regions of the US–unusually mild in January-February, ugly in March–that the first two months probably look better than they should and March worse.

The only really eyebrow-raising aspect of this report, in my view, is that despite the unemployment rate being at a very low 4.5%, there is still no sign of acceleration in wages.  This implies no urgency for the Fed to raise interest rates aggressively.

reversing quantitative easing

US stocks were up by about 1% yesterday when the minutes of the last Fed meeting came out.  As Fed watchers saw the topic of paring down the Fed’s $4 trillion+ holdings of government bonds was mentioned, stocks (but not bonds) began to give back their gains and ultimately finished the day lower.

What’s this about?

  1.  The Fed typically uses the Federal Funds rate for overnight loan to loosen or tighten money policy.  In doing so, it depends on the banking system to broadcast increases or declines in interest rates into the market for longer-term debt.  The problem since 2008 is that the banks had destroyed their own creditworthiness through years of unsavory and unsuccessful speculative financial markets trading.  So they were ineffective in performing this crucial rate-determining role.  Congress and the administration were–and still remain–lost in their inside-the-Beltway alternative universe, so there was no hope of help for the failing economy from that source.  The Fed’s solution was to begin “unconventional” operations, by buying huge amounts of longer-dated government debt in order to push down long-term interest rates itself.  It now holds something like $4.3 trillion worth of Treasury and government agency debt.
  2. The Fed has long since stopped making new net purchases of longer-dated bonds.  But as its existing bonds mature, it has continued to roll over the money it gets from them into new bond purchases.  The next step for the Fed in normalizing the long-term debt market will be to stop this rollover.  The consensus is that this change will happen later this year or early next.
  3. What’s “new” from yesterday is that the Fed put this thought down in writing, without specifying any details.

My take:  while the Fed announcement may have been the trigger for an intra-day selloff in stocks, the Fed minutes are not a big deal.  There is an investment issue as to how the Fed will proceed, but that will ultimately be influenced by how capable Mr. Trump will be to get Washington working again.

The President’s early performance has had two consequences:  US investors are beginning to think about shifting money to Europe.  Despite Brexit, that region is beginning to experience its own economic growth.  As well, it is having deep second thoughts about electing Trump-like figures in their own countries (we’ll learn more in the first round of the French elections on April 23rd), thereby increasing their attractiveness as an investment destination.

the Fed’s inflation target: 2% or 3%?

There seems to me to be increasing questioning recently among professional economists about whether the Fed’s official inflation target of 2% is a good thing or whether the target should be changed to, say, 3%.

The 2% number has been a canon of academic thought in macroeconomics for a long time.  But the practical issue has become whether 2% inflation and zero are meaningfully different.  Critics of 2% point out that governments around the world haven’t been able to stabilize inflation at that level.  Rather, inflation seems to want to dive either to zero or into the minus column once it gets down that low, with all the macro problems that entails.  It’s also proving exceptionally hard to get the needle moving in the upward direction from t sub-2% starting point.  My sense is that the 3% view is gaining significant momentum because of current central bank struggles.

This is not the totally wonkish topic it sounds like at first.  A 2% inflation target or 3% actually makes a lot of difference for us as stock market investors:

–If the target is 3%, Fed interest rate hikes will happen more slowly than Wall Street is now expecting.

–At the same time, the end point for normalization of rates–having cash instruments provide at least protection from inflation–is 100 basis points higher, which would be another minus for bonds (other than inflation-adjusted ones) during the normalization process.

–Over long periods of time, stocks have tended to deliver annual returns of inflation + 6%.  If inflation is 2%, nominal returns are 8% yearly; at 3% inflation, returns are 9%.  In the first case, your money doubles in 9 years, in the second, 8 years.  This doesn’t sound like much, either, although over three decades the higher rate of compounding produces a third more nominal dollars.

Yes, the real returns are the same.

But the point is that the pain of holding fixed income instruments that have negative real yields is greater with even modestly higher inflation than with lower.  So in a 3% inflation world, investors will likely be more prone to favor equities over bonds than in a 2% one.

–Inflation is a rise in prices in general.  In a 3% world, there’s more room for differentiation between winners and losers.  That’s good for you and me as stock pickers.

 

Employment Situation, December 2016

The Bureau of Labor Statistics of the Labor Department issued its monthly Employment Situation  this morning at 8:30 est.

According to the release, the economy gained 156,000 new jobs in December, more than enough to absorb new entrants into the workforce.  Revisions to October figures were -7,000 jobs, to November’s, +26,000, meaning the net revision to the prior two months’ data was +19,000 new positions.

While this is a so-so result, we should consider how much may be due to random statistical variations in the data and, more importantly, how much comes from the difficulty employers are apparently having in finding qualified candidates who are currently unemployed.

More evidence that the latter is becoming a more significant issue comes from the rising trend in average hourly wages the BLS is also reporting.  for the 12 months ending in December, wages have been increasing at an inflation-beating 2.9% rate.  If we, methodologically incorrectly, take the December wage gains alone, the year on year increase is 4.6%.

The bottom line:  good news, and evidence the Fed will likely take as prompting it to raise the Fed Funds rate again sooner rather than later.

the Employment Situation, September 2016

At 8:30 edt this morning, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released  monthly Employment Situation report for September.

The ES estimates the US economy created +156,000 new positions last month.  While enough to absorb the average number of people leaving school and entering the job market for the first time, the figure is below the average of +192,000 jobs created over the past three months.  Revisions to the prior two months’ estimates were also negative, subtracting a total of -7,000 from prior tallies.

For what it’s worth (not much, in my opinion), labor economists had been predicting the figure would come in at +172,000.

It’s important to remember, though, that the unemployment figures are the result of subtracting the number of job gainers from the number of job leavers.  The monthly figure for each is around 3.5 million; the difference between the two is statistically significant only +/- 100,000.

Positives in the report:  wages continue to rise at 2.6% annually; employment in the mining industry, which includes oil and gas, may be bottoming after two years of decline.

 

The real significance of the September ES is in its inoffensiveness.  There’s nothing in it that could even remotely be considered as a check on the Fed’s desire to raise short-term interest rates before yearend.