the Fed’s dilemma

history

From almost my first day in the stock market, domestic macroeconomic policy has been implemented by and large by the Federal Reserve.  Two reasons:  a theoretical argument that fiscal policy is subject to long lead times–that by the time Congress acts to stimulate the economy through increased spending, circumstances will have changed enough to warrant the opposite; and ( my view), until very recently neither Democrats nor Republicans have had coherent or relevant macroeconomic platforms.

If pressed, Wall Streeters would likely say that Washington has historically represented a net drag on the country’s economic performance of, say, 1% yearly, but that it was ok with financial markets if politicians didn’t do anything crazily negative–the Smoot-Hawley tariffs of 1930, for example.

During the Volcker years (1979-87), money policy was severely restrictive because the country was struggling to control runaway inflation spawned by misguided policy decisions of the 1970s (Mr. Nixon pressuring the Fed to keep policy too loose).  Since then, the stock market has operated under the belief that the Fed’s mandate also includes mitigating stock market losses by loosening policy, the so-called Greenspan, Bernanke and Yellen “puts.”

recent past

We’ve learned that monetary policy is not the miracle cure-all that we once thought.  We could have figured this out from Japan’s experience in the 1980s.  But the message came home in spectacular fashion domestically during the financial crisis last decade.  As rates go lower and policy loosens, lots of “extra” money starts sloshing around.   Fixed income managers gravitate toward increasingly arcane and illiquid markets.  In their eagerness to not be left out of the latest fad product, they begin to take on risks they really don’t understand as  well as to forego standard protective covenants.

We could almost hear the sigh of relief from the Fed as the tax bill of 2017, which reduced payments for the ultra-rich and brought the corporate tax rate down to about the world average, passed.  Because the bill was so stimulative, it gave the Fed the chance to raise rates as an offset, meaning it could tamp down the speculative fires.

today

Enter the Trump tariffs.

Two preliminaries:

–tariffs are taxes.  Strictly speaking, importers, not foreign suppliers (as the president maintains (could it be he actually believes this?)) pay them to customs officials.  But the importer tries to ease his pain by asking for price reductions from suppliers and for selling price increases from customers.  How this all settles out depends on who has market power.  In this case,it looks like virtually all the cost will be borne by domestic parties.  Domestic economic growth will slow.  The relevant stock market question is how much of the pain consumers will bear and how much will be concentrated in a reduction of import business profits.

–I think Mr. Trump is correct that the US subsidy of NATO is excessive.  It represents the situation at the end of WWII, when the US left standing–or at best the time when the USSR began to disintegrate into today’s Russia (whose GDP = Pennsylvania + Ohio, or California/2).  I also think that China, with a population five times ours and an economy 1.25x as big as the US (using PPP), is a more serious economic rival than we have seen in decades.  It doesn’t have the post-WWII sense of obligation to us that we have seen elsewhere.  So we have to rethink our relationship.

Having written that, I don’t see that Mr. Trump has even the vaguest clue about how the country should proceed, given these insights.

To my mind, tariffs + retaliation mean both domestic and foreign companies will be reluctant to locate new operations in the US.  Tariffs on Chinese handicrafts may bring industries of the past back to the US, at the same time they force China to increase emphasis on industries of the future.  I don’t get how either of these moves should be a US strategic goal….

the dilemma

The question for the Fed:  should it enable the president’s spate of shoot-yourself-in-the-foot tariff policies by lowering rates?  …or should it let the economy slide into recession, hoping this will jar Congress into action?

 

Modern Monetary Theory (MMT)

Simply put, MMT is the idea that for a country that issues government debt in its own currency budget deficits don’t matter.   The government can simply print more money if it wants to spend more than it collects in taxes.

Although the theory has been around for a while (the first Google result I got was a critical opinion piece from almost a decade ago), it’s been revived recently by “progressive” Democrats arguing for dramatically increasing social welfare spending.  For them, the answer to the question “What about the Federal deficit?,”  is “MMT,” the government can always issue more debt/print more money.

MMT reminds me a bit of Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT), which was crafted in the 1970s and “proved” that the wild gyrations going on in world stock markets in the late 1960s and the first half of the 1970s were impossible.

 

Four issues come to mind:

–20th century economic history–the UK, Greece, Italy, Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, lots of Latin America…   demonstrates that really bad things happen once government debt gets to the level where investors begin to suspect they won’t be repaid in full.

This has already happened three times in the US: during the Carter administration, when Washington was forced to issue Treasury bonds denominated in foreign currency; during the government debt crisis of 1987, which caused a bond market collapse that triggered, in turn, the Black Monday stock market swoon a few months later; and during the Great Bond Massacre of 1993-94.

In other words, as with MPT, the briefest glance outside through an ivory tower window would show the theory doesn’t describe reality very well

–the traditional case for gold–and, lately, for cryptocurrencies–is to hedge against the government tendency to repay debt in inflation-debased currency.  In other words, every investor’s checklist includes guarding against print-more-money governments

–excessive spending today is conventionally (and correctly, in my view) seen as leaving today’s banquet check to be picked up by one’s children or grandchildren.  In the contemporary cautionary tale of Japan, the tab in question has included massive loss of national wealth, a sharp drop in living standards and economic stagnation for a third of a century.  No wonder Japanese Millennials have a hard time dealing with their elders.

Why would the US be different?  Why are Millennial legislators, of all people, advocating this strategy?

–conventional wisdom is that the first indication that a government is losing its creditworthiness is that foreigners stop buying.  This is arguably not a big deal, since foreigners come and go; locals typically make up the heart of the market.  During the US bond market crisis of 1987, however, the biggest domestic bond market participants staged the buyers strike.  Something very similar happened in 1993-94.  I don’t see any reason to believe that the culture of the “bond vigilante” has disappeared.  So, in my opinion, the negative reaction to a policy of constant deficit spending in the US is likely to be severe and to come very quickly.

Trumponomics to date

a plan?

It’s not clear to me whether Mr. Trump’s macroeconomic policy forms a coherent whole (so far it doesn’t seem to).  I’m not sure either whether, or how well, he understands the implications of the steps he’s taking.

The major thrusts:

income taxes

Late last year, the Trump administration passed an income tax bill.  It had three main parts:

–reduction in the top corporate tax rate from 35% (highest in the world) to 21% (about average).  This should have two beneficial effects:  it will stop tax inversions, the process of reincorporating in a foreign low-tax country by cash-rich firms; and it removes the rationale for transferring US-owned intellectual property to the same tax-shelter destinations so that royalties will also be lightly taxed.

–large tax cuts for the wealthiest US earners, continuing the tradition of “trickle down” economics (which posits that this advantage will somehow be transmitted to everyone else)

–failure to eliminate special interest tax breaks, or adopting any other means for offsetting revenue lost to the IRS from the first two items.

Because of this last, the tax bill is projected to add $1 trillion + to the national debt over time.  Also, since the reductions aren’t offset by additional taxes elsewhere, the tax cuts represent a substantial net stimulus to the US economy.

This might have been very useful in 2009, when the US was in dire need of stimulus.  Today, however, with the economy at full employment and expanding at or above its long-term potential, the extra boost to the economy is potentially a bad thing,  It ups the chances of overheating.  We need only look back to the terrible experience of runaway inflation the late 1979s to see the danger–something which would require a sharp increase in interest rates to curtail.

interest rates

Arguably, the new income tax regime gives the Fed extra confidence to continue to raise interest rates back up to out-of-intensive-care levels.  More than that, the tax cut bill seems to me to demand that the Fed continue to raise rates.  Oddly–and worryingly,  Mr. Trump has begun to jawbone the Fed not to do so.  That’s even though the current Fed Funds rate is still about 100 basis points below neutral, and maybe 150 bp below what would be appropriate for an economy as strong as this.  Again this raises the specter of the political climate of the 1970s, when over-easy money policy was used for short-term political advantage  …and of the 20%+ interest rates needed in the early 1980s to undo fiscal and monetary policy mistakes.

trade

This is a real head-scratcher.

“national security”

The Constitution gives Congress control over trade, not the executive branch of government.  One exception–Congress has delegated its power to the president to act in emergency cases where national security is threatened.  Mr. Trump argues (speciously, in my view) that there can be no national security if the economy is weak.  Therefore, every trade action is a case of national security.  In other words, this emergency power gives the president complete control over all trade matters.  What’s odd about this state of affairs is that so far Congress hasn’t complained.

 

More tomorrow.

 

 

trade wars

Recently President Trump announced plans to impose tariffs of 25% on imported steel and 10% on imported aluminum, citing national security reasons.  He followed this up with a Twitter comment that, for the US, trade wars are good–and easy to win.

My take:

–much of modern economics stems from study of the causes of the Great Depression of the 1930s.  The key factors:  the wrong fiscal and monetary response, world wide; and the imposition of tariffs to “protect” local industry.  These did substantial economic damage, deepening and prolonging the global slump instead.  The idea that Mr. Trump may not be aware of this is the really worrisome aspect of the current situation.

 

–the first-order effects of the proposed tariffs will, in themselves, likely be miniscule.  Domestic prices for both metals will rise.  As a result of that, and of possible tariff payments to the government, income will shift from the users of the two metals to Washington and to domestic producers of steel/aluminum.  Because of this, at least some metal fabrication will shift away from the US to other countries.  One EU-based maker of appliances has already suspended plans to increase its manufacturing capacity in the US.

–second-order effects will likely be larger.  The EU, for example, is indicating it will retaliate by placing large tariffs on several billion dollars worth of goods that it imports from the US.   Presumably, other affected countries will do so as well.

 

–there was a similar incident during the Obama administration involving Chinese-made truck tires.  Economists estimate that it resulted in the loss of 3,000 American jobs.  If there was anything good about that situation, it was that it was isolated–Washington understood this was a one-off payment to a domestic union for its political support.  Today’s concern is that, despite overwhelming economic evidence to the contrary, Mr. Trump actually believes that trade wars are good–and will continue to act on that belief.

 

 

Employment Situation, July 2017

This morning the Bureau of Labor Statistics released the latest monthly installment of its Employment Situation report, a long-standing series that monitors the state of the labor market in the US.

The report, a compilation of data from a large number of employers around the country,  estimates that a total of +209,000 new jobs were created last month (I’ve corrected a typo from an earlier version of this post).  Revisions to the prior two months’ data added another +2,000 new positions to that.

The unemployment rate came in at an ultra-low 4.3% of the workforce.  This figure is in line with recent experience, but one which would traditionally be regarded as indicating full employment plus a lot (the idea being that there’s a certain level (4.5%?) of frictional unemployment, basically people quitting one job to take another but not having yet started).

 

In the past, reaching full employment has also made itself known by accelerating wage gains, as employers bid up the price of the additional workers they need and raise wages all around for existing employees to ward off job poaching from rivals.

In perhaps the most perplexing aspect of this recovery, however, there’s still no sign of wage acceleration.  Wages are rising by a tad more than inflation but the rate of growth has remained steady at about 2.5%/year for a long time.

Although the +220,000 figure is 20% higher than the consensus guess of Wall Street economists, the stock market is regarding the ES with a shrug of the shoulders.  Only a sharp uptick in wage growth will make an impact (probably negative, at least at first) on stocks and bonds from this point on.

 

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.

 

the September 7th Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) report

The Bureau of Labor Statistics of the Labor Department released its latest JOLTS report on Wednesday.

The main results:

–nationwide job openings are now at 5.9 million, the highest figure in the 16 year history of the report.  This is substantially above the 4.5 million level of 2006-07.

–the rate of new hires has been flat for about two years at just over 5 million monthly.  While this is 5% – 10% below the rate of 2006-07, the very high number of job openings would have been consistent with an unemployment rate of 3% ten years ago.  This seems to me to be a point in favor of the idea that the main impediment to filling jobs is finding workers with needed skills.

–3 million workers are voluntarily leaving their jobs monthly.  This is a sign they’re confident of finding employment again without much difficulty.  That’s back to the pre-recession levels of 2006, and almost double the recession lows.

All of this argues that the US is at or near full employment.  On the other hand, however, there’s little sign of the upward pressure on wages that this situation would have produced in the past.

 

Whatever the reason for slow-rising wages, it seems to me there’s no reason in the employment figures for the Fed to maintain anything near the current emergency-room-low level of short-term interest rates.