Wednesday, April 27, 2016

FOMC Report April 26-27, 2016; Financial Market Calm With Unimpressive Growth

Executive Summary:  No reason to expect policy change at the April FOMC meeting.  Shifts in assessment of recent economic growth and global financial stability and will offer insight into how the Fed currently sees itself proceeding in June.  In order to bolster a case for a June policy move, the Committee may reinsert its balance of risk statement indicating a ‘nearly balanced’ appraisal.  Otherwise, even a possible descent by Kansas City Fed President George will not surprise Fed watchers.


Global financial and economic conditions were overriding sources for concern when the FOMC in March decided to delay subsequent monetary policy normalization initiative.  Having first raised policy rates in December without much time having elapsed the August market turmoil, few expected the Fed to adjust policy rates again following a repeat of market disquiet earlier this year.  While calmer financial markets welcome the April FOMC meeting, economic performance does not itself provide ample justification for hurried Fed response. 

Economic reports indicate a good likelihood that economic growth since the start of the year has been less than 1 percent.  If Fed officials hope to move forward even with the dramatically curtailed normalization plans of 2016, they still need more than reduced financial market volatility as a basis for proceeding.  Slowly evolving inflationary conditions moving the benchmark nearer to the two percent target within the medium term would provide some support for keeping a rate hike in the not so distant future on the table.  However, without stronger real economic growth, the likelihood for higher inflation moving forward is diminished and a return of financial market strain would be of greater concern.   
For the Fed to return to any recognizable ‘path’ for policy rates, acceptable levels of financial market stability must remain and economic performance must return at least nearer to its modest two percent projected potential.  It would be difficult otherwise to expect economic agents to envision any additional policy normalization in the near term, let alone a succession of policy responses that might be viewed as a ‘policy path’. 

Without greater predictability of intermediate term monetary policy directive, economic agents will require longer periods of sustained economic growth and more lasting financial market stability before accepting greater levels of risk in the implementation of their business plans.  The Fed has repeatedly advised that it is on a gradual pace for normalization and that it will be ‘data dependent’ in its application therein.  Even though it has promised otherwise, at this stage the Fed would delight if their primary problem was an economy that was growing at such a steady pace and inflation was so solidly rising toward its objective that a series of successive or skip-meeting successive policy moves might be necessary to prevent an overheated economic condition. 

Such a scenario may have been envisioned as a policy problem late last year when at the December FOMC meeting, the median forecast was for four policy responses (100 basis points) of accommodation removal within this year.  Unfortunately, concerns for how the Fed might orchestrate four rate hikes this year without appearing to have entered a too predictable policy path has for now passed.    

Weaker growth in China has been a source of stress on financial markets over the last months, contributing to the weakness in commodity prices.  Oil is one such commodity that was impacted by China weakness.  Oil prices (WTI), having already fallen from above $100 in mid-2014 to nearly $40 by August of last year, experienced another sharp decline into mid-January as weaker China and European growth seemed to threaten prospects for global growth more fully.

There had been growing concern that lower oil prices might trigger additional financial market strain through the failure of leveraged borrowers in oil production, especially newer forms of fracking which had attracted aggressive financing techniques.  Unmet financial obligations due to weaker oil prices it was expected might impact credit conditions more broadly, having adverse effects on lending activity more generally and further hampering already modest economic growth prospects. 

Monetary Policy Theory

One of the lesser understood monetary policy theories might be that the application of monetary policy when overwhelmingly understood or predictable, is apt to provide an inducement for economic agents to take on greater levels of risk, all else equal, than would have been assumed without that confidence in understanding the path for monetary policy.  This is an easy enough notion to digest when discussion revolves around easy monetary policy regimes where the support from Fed transparency is more universally appreciated. 

However, just as greater monetary policy ‘visibility’ [i] lends itself to greater levels of risk assumption during weaker economic times and the absence of animal spirits; the same forces are at play when the Fed provides predictable policy roadmaps during the removal of policy accommodation.  As it is, present conditions beg for this dynamic to be better understood.  Currently economic conditions appear somewhat fragile and policy rates are so close to the zero bound they prompt policymakers to take excessive caution in firming policy conditions because of concerns for having little room to reverse course without running over the zero bound. 

This is why financial stability is so very important at this stage.  It gives the Fed some level of confidence that they might provide economic agents some policy path for the return to more normal policy rates.  Economic agents too are more inclined to regard successive policy rate hikes as appropriate policy, should financial stability prove longer lasting here.  Instead, there remains a strong difference between what the Fed has indicated they plan and what the market has priced in rate hike expectations.

Greater financial market stability at this stage could shape economic agent expectations closer toward harmony with the Fed’s interest in raising the policy rate, thus creating an environment for self-sustaining growth through the add-on benefit of policy path visibility.  Fed officials should expect that even though policy rates would be moving higher, economic agents responding to a greater surety for a ‘policy path’ would increase their level of risk taking in accordance with still modest policy rates, though greater visibility in the policy path.

It is therefore more important at this stage for financial market stability than it is for stronger economic performance because the former begets the latter, while the latter may come and go without the former.  In the present context for the April FOMC statement therefore, the Fed will likely want to emphasize strengthened financial market conditions since the last meeting and downplay the implications of a repeat in the annual underperformance in Q1 growth (a near-annual event since 2010). 

Those who would doubt the likelihood for a positive response, in terms of higher levels of risk assumption as result of the introduction of a ‘policy path’ transparency during a restrictive policy initiative, need only review the conditions and outcome of mid-2004 to mid-2006. [ii]  

Current Monetary Policy:

Financial stability has improved over the last two months, not in small part due to the rebound in oil prices.  Additional financial market stability or at least longer lasting stability is needed before the Fed again is likely to adjust higher its policy rate.  This is largely why the Fed will not move the fed funds policy rate higher at the April meeting.  The Fed could however help ready economic agents for a policy response at the June meeting. 

Although the Fed has repeatedly indicated that ‘every meeting is live’, as in they could adjust rates at any meeting, most believe that a policy move is better suited to the quarterly meeting were Chair Yellen is afforded a scheduled press conference and the Committee publishes its Summary of Economic Projections (SEP).  All else equal, and with an interest in promoting visibility and financial market stability, we should expect the Fed to prefer to make its next policy move on a scheduled quarterly meeting.  

Two variables that likely prevent the Fed from hiking rates at the April meeting is the absence of lasting financial market stability and recently weaker economic growth.  We should look with particular interest on how the Fed emphasizes these variables in its post meeting statement as it will give insight as to how prepared they are currently to move forward with a rate response in June.  If the Fed acknowledges financial market stability while downplaying Q1 slower growth levels, then we should expect the Committee is leaning toward a June policy response.  Otherwise, a show of strong disappointment in recent growth and only a modest acknowledgement to improved financial conditions would suggest the Committee is less likely to act in June.

Because additional information both in the form of strengthened economic performance and more lasting financial stability will likely be necessary if the Fed is to raise policy rates in June, it is almost a certainty that there are no assurances given in the April FOMC Statement for a policy response in June.  All else equal, the Fed would rather make the next move in June rather than in July so they are very likely to leave the door on a move wide open.  It may be enough to upgrade financial market stability and indicate global (rather than domestic) economic growth has improved to indicate an interest in raising rates in June.

Because a majority of economic agents believe he Fed more likely to adjust policy rates at quarterly meetings (March, June, September and December), it makes sense that either the Fed condition economic agents otherwise or take advantage of current perceptions and foster financial stability by delivering that which is expected.  This suggests there is a stronger chance for the Fed to move in June rather than July.  What the Fed gains by waiting till July for additional information, it gives up in stability benefit from moving on a quarterly meeting.
All else equal, the market is not currently priced for as great a chance for a June policy rate hike as we believe the Fed is likely to present.  Clearly there will need to be additional financial market stability and a return to decent domestic economic growth for a June rate hike to become a reality.  However, in the short term following the FOMC statement, markets appear more likely to price greater rather than lesser chances for a June rate hike. 

[i] ‘Visibility’ (The ability to see or be seen; the quality or state of being known to the public) as regards monetary policy is very much different from ‘transparency’ (Transparent-able to be seen through; honest and open: not secretive) in that visibility is something that can be seen whereas transparency only speaks of the lens by which reality is viewed.  Think of a windshield as providing transparency for a driver.  A clean windshield allows the driver to see clearly the road ahead.  A muddied or rain splattered windshield would limit the transparency of the window regardless of the situation ahead.  Visibility is the extent the drivers view is unobstructed beyond the windshield.  If he is on a long, straight and open road, his visibility is high.  If he is on a crowded and highly curved mountainous road, his visibility is limited. 

The Fed can more easily keep the windshield clean (muddied) as it prefers in providing information (keeping information secret) to the public than it can produce ‘visibility’.  It offers visibility when it provides believable assurances as to when and how it will adjust its monetary policy.  Currently, the Fed does not have a level of confidence in economic and financial market projections to provide much visibility outside of indicating that it does not intend to end reinvestment of interest and principal for its securities holding until policy rate normalization is well underway. 

Can you imagine any ‘policy paths’ the Fed might create that would provide additional ‘visibility’ that either do not currently exist or have been overlooked as a source for increased financial market stability?  Did you realize that the reduction of latest purchase program in incremental format was an engineered ‘visibility’-add.  Intended or not, this addition of visibility provided greater understanding to policy intent which attracted higher levels of risk assumption than would have been the case in its absence.  Note that when then-Fed Chair Ben Bernanke had in mid-2013 discussed removing or reducing the purchase program without providing a ‘policy path’ for that outcome, the market responded violently to a loss of ‘visibility’ in the purchase program that existed.  It was not until the ‘policy path’ for purchase tapering was unveiled that economic agents again had a renewed sense of policy awareness.  This of course contributed to greater economic growth than available in its absence. 

[ii] The ‘measured pace’ restrictive policy initiative was an example of how strong an influence policy ‘visibility’ can be in encouraging economic agents to take on greater levels of risk.  It was the strong sense of certainty economic agents held for their understanding of a large piece of the Fed’s policy timeline that encouraged them to take on as much risk as they did.  Without assurances that the Fed would only remove accommodation at a modest measured pace of 25 basis point increase every 6 weeks, economic agents were far less likely to accept the level of risk they assumed which drove out economically viable investment, leaving only malinvestement in its place.   

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