After Jackson Hole, Clear Road Ahead?

In terms of forward guidance I think the Fed Chairman’s speech provided little direction, but Friday’s precious metal price action into the close and the various sell side notes that I have seen suggest that this, at least initially, is too bearish a conclusion. The following excerpt from the speech, in particular, was taken as clear evidence of more and aggressive easing in the pipeline.

As we assess the benefits and costs of alternative policy approaches, though, we must not lose sight of the daunting economic challenges that confront our nation. The stagnation of the labor market in particular is a grave concern not only because of the enormous suffering and waste of human talent it entails, but also because persistently high levels of unemployment will wreak structural damage on our economy that could last for many years.

Great emphasis has been attached to the chairman’s use of the word “grave” as a clear tell-tell sign of more easing to come. I find this quite interesting since it is one of the first instances of such “new speak” interpretation of the Fed’s statements akin to the good old days of Trichet and the utterance of (strong) vigilance. Needless to say, next week’s jobs market report has suddenly been propelled to a key market event and every single US data point will now be watched with caution. On that note, the next ISM reading as well as consumption figures will be equally important to watch.

I think Tim Duy’s interpretation is the right one then (hat tip Calculated Risk) with my emphasis.

On net, Bernanke’s speech leads me to believe the odds of additional easing at the next FOMC meeting are somewhat higher (and above 50%) than I had previously believed. His defense of nontraditional action to date and focus on unemployment points in that direction. This is the bandwagon the financial press will jump on. Still, the backward looking nature of the speech and the obvious concern that the Fed has limited ability to offset the factors currently holding back more rapid improvement in labor markets, however, leave me wary that Bernanke remains hesitant to take additional action at this juncture. This suggests to me that additional easing is not a no-brainer, but perhaps that is just my internal bias talking.

On balance the main point for me is that the recent change in economic data clearly merits policy change on the basis of the Fed’s reaction function.

The unemployment rate in the US is sticky and the Fed has been persistently concerned about this which is indeed a strong signal to the policy bias especially as inflation expectations are well behaved. Inflation has come down significantly in the US running at 1.4% YoY and the Taylor Rule rate is now declining (though still in level terms way above 0 but that has more to do with the inputs than anything else). We have had two consecutive months of sub-50 ISM readings and consumption growth appears to be rolling over. My interpretation of the forward looking indicators is that they look better than the consensus suggests, but the Fed lives in the here and now and will act accordingly.

Another interesting point here is that despite the visible and strong recovery in the growth rates of US housing market indicators, Bernanke mentions the level of the housing market and not the change which suggest that the despite a good run of data with respect to the change in housing market indicators the level is still seen as depressed.

The bottom line is that some form of easing is coming but what I find highly uncertain is the timing and aggressiveness of such easing. The August minutes had already stipulated potential moves for the Fed in the form of an extension of the low interest rate commitment, lowering interest rates on excess reserves as well as an extension of Operation Twist or outright asset purchases (probably through MBS securities). But which of these measures will be employed and in what order?

One thing for example which I find very interesting is the glaring gap between Bernanke’s discussion of the effectiveness of unconventional monetary policy and its effect on the real economy (i.e. labour market). In that sense, it seems quite clear to me that quantitative easing can have a strong effect in the context of imminent deflation risks and strong downward pressures in asset prices. In such an environment the portfolio effect and, indeed, outright price effect from aggressive central bank action can be very effective.

However, whether quantitative easing can be effective in countering a structural and sticky unemployment rate (and indeed a structurally declining labour force participation rate) seems much more uncertain to me. Obviously, this goes back to the point that the Fed is the wrong tool for the job at hand, but it also raises the issue of what kind of easing the Fed is planning here.

Of the measures mentioned above one of the only things which would have an effect on the labour market (from a theoretical point of view) is an extension of the low interest rate commitment. This would be a signal to companies that their cost of capital would remain low and incentivise investment and thus, in theory, additional labour input. But such a process is slow and arguably a weak remedy in the context of structural labour market issues.

More generally, we must ask ourselves whether an extension of the low interest rate commitment be enough for the market Clearly not and in any case, an extension much beyond Bernanke’s term would be meaningless as the looming presidential election has created uncertainty as to how strong this commitment is, if for example Bernanke is faced with a Republican president.

What about an extension of Operation Twist then? If this is combined with an expansion of the balance sheet through purchases of MBS I think this could be an effective medicine (although in general I find it hard to see how it could meaningfully affect the labour market). However, the theoretical argument here is fair. By influencing long rates the Fed is likely to stand the greatest chance of supporting the ongoing recovery in the housing market and thus, by derivative, the US economy.

Ultimately, I see two sources of uncertainty here. Firstly, it is not clear to me that the US economy is heading into a hole in the second half of 2012 to an extent that would allow very strong Fed action. Secondly, while the Fed clearly seems committed and perhaps even pre-committed to more easing the nature of such easing and its scope is still very uncertain to me. The upside risk attached to much stronger easing is clearly there (not least because we also have the ECB coming in with policy measures soon), but the spectre of grave disappointment has not been completely extinguished in my view.

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