Some thoughts on US monetary policy*

The US central bank – the Federal Reserve – has trimmed its key interest rate again, marking a further step forward down a new track. Its monetary policy is now developed independently of the US economic situation, as the Fed’s strategy is dictated by worldwide uncertainty that could hit the domestic economy and push it off its current robust path. Uncertainty on world trade, the impact of the administration’s trade policy and concerns on world growth are all prompting the Fed to adjust it strategy.

In the past, the country usually adopted a more accommodative stance in response to a sharp economic slowdown. In 2007/2008, the Fed changed its policy when liquidity dried up on the money market, but this was the exception rather than the rule, with the Fed only reacting to changes in the US economy with little concern for the rest of the world. This approach was only natural as world trends at the time were dictated by the US.

Fed backtracks after rate hikes in 2018

This shift in focus raises a number of points:
The Fed is backtracking after its upward trend in 2018, when it raised its key rate four times. These were the right moves at the time as the White House had implemented a very aggressive fiscal policy at a time when the economy was close to full employment, so it was vital to keep on a lid on tension that could have surged and dented the economy.
This rearrangement in the economic policy balance was perfectly plausible given economic conditions.
However, fiscal policy was not as effective as expected, and made a smaller contribution to driving the economy than anticipated, so the Fed no longer needed to continue its monetary tightening policy.
The outlook changed when the international context became more risky, particularly as a result of US trade policy.
The combination of these two factors prompted the Fed to maintain the status quo, then start easing, with a very clear timeline: on January 30, 2019 the Fed hit the pause button, then started easing on July 31, and again on September 18. Its policy is now highly accommodative as the real Fed Funds rate is only very slightly positive.

The US policy mix is now very accommodative, while the economic cycle is at a peak

It is interesting to take a closer look at economy policy measurements. The US policy mix is now very accommodative at a time when the country is still at the peak of the economic cycle. The public deficit stands at $1,000bn (almost 5% of GDP) and the real Fed Funds rate is only just slightly positive. Well might we wonder how the Fed will steer economic policy in the event of a shock on growth – can we expect an even bigger public deficit and should we anticipate negative interest rates from the Fed?

We could well think that the Fed rushed to change its accommodative strategy due to this unfortunate combination, as the economy is still robust and does not require monetary stimulus. It is also still very closed to outside influences, with trends and activity heavily dependent on the domestic market. This means that the role of external factors in the way monetary policy is managed is too high. In 2018, the degree to which the US economy was open[1] to outside factors was slightly under 14%, which is barely above the average since 2000 i.e. 13.7% vs. 13.4% average since 2000. The economy is no more dependent on the outside world than it was 10 or 15 years ago. So why change the factors that determine monetary policy by overlooking domestic aspects and only taking on board external dynamics?

Further questions on factors driving monetary policy

Questions to Jay Powell during press conferences should seek to address this question. Does this change reflect pressure from investors to get their hands on ever higher financial valuations? Is it the result of pressure from the White House as it wants the Fed to push interest rates ever lower? Is it because Powell has not set a clear doctrine on what monetary policy should be in this topsy-turvy world? These three factors can all be taken on board, but this rushed move makes for an economic policy error.

We can find another explanation for the Fed’s strategy

World growth is weaker than everyone would like. The world looks more fragmented than before and no longer has the coordination and cooperation momentum we saw just a few years back during the period of globalization. In other words, the dynamics of our world are increasingly diverging and this leads to uncertainty and dents growth.

Meanwhile, there no longer seems to be a way to conduct coordinated fiscal policy worldwide, and stimulus initiatives undertaken in 2009 seem to belong to a very distant past. The US, China and Europe have very differing views on this issue, so we should not expect a worldwide economic stimulus program, despite the fact that it would probably provide strong and sustainable support for the economy.

Central banks are all applying very accommodative policy to avoid putting any limitations on the world economy

In light of this situation, central banks worldwide are all applying highly accommodative policies to make sure they do not put any limitations on the economy. The aim is not to spur economic growth at any cost: growth projections from the ECB and the Fed most definitely do not point to this. Rather the goal is to limit the risks on world growth, and the ECB, the Fed, the Bank of Brazil and several other emerging country central banks have taken up this strategy, which can help explain why the aspects dictating US monetary policy focus on external factors.

Waiting for impetus from fiscal or technological factors

The only problem here is that this joint effort is admittedly necessary, but collective impetus looks a bit like a last-chance strategy while waiting for fiscal or technological stimulus to change the situation on a long-term basis. So central banks’ interest rates are set to stay low for a very long time to come: in this respect, the ECB indicated that its leading rate would stay where it is for such times as inflation does not move towards 2% on a structural basis. This could take a very long time – much longer than anyone expects. The Fed still has some leeway as compared to the euro area, but this could narrow very quickly.
The central banks are giving governments time to come up with some answers, but they will not necessarily hold on for as long as many would like.


* This document was posted on LeGrandContinent website. Le Grand Continent is a French think-tank on the geopolitical backdrop See the original post here in French
[1] The degree to which an economy is open to outside factors is the ratio between half of the total of imports and exports to GDP

The Federal Reserve reduces its rate as expected

The Federal Reserve reduced its interest rate by 25 basis points. It is now moving in the 1.75 – 2.00% corridor. The median rate for 2019 remains at the current level, therefore no further rate cut is expected in December. The monetary policy stance would be stable for 2020 at the end of 2019 level The reference rate would go up (25 bp per year) in the 2.00-2.25% corridor in 2021 and 2.25-2.50% in 2022. The long-term trend in the fed funds rate would then be 2.5% as in June.

The Fed and it’s chairman,Jerome Powell in his press conference, recognize that the economy is going pretty well. The central bank has marginally revised upward its growth forecast for 2019 to 2.2% against 2.1%.

The logic of the US central bank is as follows: the economy is doing well but its international environment is degraded. The decline in productive investment has thus to be perceived as evidence of the negative consequences of this uncertainty on the cycle. It is to strengthen the internal dynamics against external hazards that the Fed is loosening its monetary policy. This approach is new since generally the central bank becomes more accommodative when the economic situation is frankly weaker than currently observed.
This framework also means that in the event of a higher overall uncertainty, the Fed may not respect the rate profile derived from expectations. That’s what Powell said. Trade uncertainty and weaker global growth may create the need for lower rates to support domestic demand.

The main concern with such an approach is that the indicators of US economic policy are already very accommodative while the economy is at the peak of the cycle. The public deficit is $ 1,000 billion over one year in August and the real fed funds rate is now almost 0%. What mode of regulation will it be necessary to put in place during the economic downturn that will not fail to happen? I anticipate a sharp slowdown in the second half of 2020. Will the public deficit rise to 6 or 7% of GDP and the Fed rate land in negative territory?

Finally, we note that the measure taken does not reflect an unanimous vote . James Bullard wanted to go further while Esther George and Eric Rosengren were in favor of the status quo. As with the ECB, the measures taken no longer succeed in silencing differences. Behaviors change because the diagnosis is not so uniform.

The recession is at the corner

Investors do not see how to exit from uncertainties. They rush on non-risky assets. The recession at the corner #monetarypolicy #recession

In the past, when all market rates on the US public debt were below the fed funds rate, this was a harbinger of a recession. The current period will not escape the rule. The decline in rates reflects a strong pessimism over the next few months and the incapacity to bet on the future.

The pace of the US labor market is changing

T he US job market has really changed pace in the past six months. It stabilizes but the trend is not on the downside yet. It will be for the second half of the year.
Households have the perception that the trend is no longer improving and the number of available jobs no longer increases. As growth slows, the job market will inevitably change pace. It will be interesting just a few months before the presidential elections

The Fed cuts its rate

The #Federal Reserve drops it’s rate by 25bp to 2.00-2.25%. Reasons are too low inflation rate and global uncertainty. It’s a kind of preemptive move which is quite weird. Usually the US central bank drops it’s rate when the environment is already bleak.

One reason for that comes from the fact that we don’t know the future, neither the Fed nor us. There is therefore a risk of credibility for the Fed if there is a rebound in the economic activity of a size that has no relation with the rate cut. The other risk is associated with political pressures from the White House. It’s also a source of concern.

Solid US job report in June

The #US June #employment report shows that the drop seen in May (72 000) was temporary. The June figure was 224 000 and 191 000 for the private sector. The average for both measure is close to figures observed in 2016 and 2017. No necessity for the Fed to act rapidly. In 2017, the Fed was tightening smoothly.

On the wage side, the deceleration is rapid at 3.14% on a year (3.4% in Feb.). Graph shows that the Fed rate can manage a plateau as long as wages do not drop rapidly. This would be caused by a strong growth slowdown. It’s not the case yet. Therefore, nothing is expected on the Fed’s side in July.

Can we expect lower Fed’s rate in July ?

The possibility of a 50 basis point interest rate cut by the US Federal Reserve is on everyone’s lips. The dots chart published at the end of the June 19 meeting indicated that rates would remain at the current level in 2019, but it showed that 7 members suggested a 50 bp decrease in 2019 (stability is calculated on the median of the results).
That was all it took for observers to switch to a similarly sharp decline at the July 30-31 meeting. The explanations given are those of Donald Trump’s pressure on the central bank either through threats relayed on Twitter or by the members appointed by Trump to the FOMC.

Such an interpretation raises several questions
The first is that at the Fed, the president always has the last word. Jerome Powell’s recent comments do not give this sense of urgency about lowering rates. This implies that the July rate cut, if it were to take place, would be more than a palace revolution since its president would be outvoted.

The second point is that the macroeconomic data also do not reflect the urgency of a change in the central bank’s strategy.
To gauge the economic situation I used the CFNAI index calculated by the Chicago Fed. It includes 85 indicators of the federal economy (from industrial production to retail sales, employment and orders for durable goods). The calculated indicator is centered on 0, and a value below -0.7 (on the index on average over 3 months as shown in the graph) suggests a risk of recession.

Since 1985 (the beginning of the great moderation), I have then measured the changes in the pace of the Fed’s monetary policy. The first graph shows the fed fund rate and the points used to mark the shift towards an accommodative monetary policy.

The second graph shows the dates of monetary policy changes and the CFNAI index.
Since 1985, monetary policy changes have taken place when the CFNAI index is close to -0.7, i.e. when the risk of recession becomes clearer. The only exception is 2007 when the issue of liquidity on many financial structures was raised. This is a special case.
The current level of the index is not consistent with a decline in Fed rates unless we imagine a deep break in all US indicators for June and July. This is not our scenario.

This means that, in the absence of economic or financial justification, a reduction in the Fed’s rates and a defeat of its President would first reflect a collapse in the credibility of the US central bank due to its loss of independence. As the world’s most powerful financial institution, it is likely to cause significant turmoil in financial markets. Should we take this kind of risk? I don’t think so.