Thursday, November 19, 2015

Going All Natural at the Fed

Has the market-clearing or 'natural' short-run  interest rate been negative over the past seven years? The answer to this question would go a long ways in ending much confusion about Fed policy. If the answer is yes, then the Fed has not been 'artificially' suppressing interesting rates as many have claimed. If the answer is no, then then Fed has been keeping monetary policy too loose. In other words, one cannot use interest rates to talk about the stance of monetary policy unless one compares them to their natural rate level.

There is a problem, however, in making this comparison. The natural interest rate is not directly observable, it has to be estimated. Michael Darda, chief economist of MKM Partners, provides one estimate of it and is reproduced in the figure below. Darda's estimate illustrates how knowing both the actual interest rate and the natural interest rate allows us to think more clearly about the stance of monetary policy. It shows that the Fed was a bit too easy during the boom period (the actual interest rate was less than the natural rate) and too tight during bust period (the actual interest rate was above the natural rate). Darda's estimates also shows that the gap between the actual and natural has only slowly converged since 2009, a pattern consistent with the slow recovery from the Great Recession. Other estimates tell similar stories such as the one from Robert Barsky et al (2014) published in the American Economic Review.

While these estimates are nice, it would be immensely helpful if the Federal Reserve published its own monthly estimate of the short-run natural interest rate. The Fed has a huge research staff, lots of resources, and is capable of providing this important information. It would be in the Fed's own best interest if it did so. Imagine if the Fed could point to a figure like the one above whenever someone accused it of artificially suppressing interest rates. It would make everyone's life much easier. 

Well, today we learned from the October 2015 FOMC minutes that this information is being produced by the board of governors staff (my bold):
The staff presented several briefings regarding the concept  of an equilibrium real interest rate—sometimes labeled the “neutral” or “natural” real interest rate, or “r*”—that can serve as a benchmark to help gauge the stance of monetary policy. Various concepts of r* were discussed. According to one definition, short-run r* is the level of the real short-term interest rate that, if obtained currently, would result in the economy operating at full employment or, in some simple models of the economy, at full employment and price stability. The staff summarized the behavior of estimates of the shortrun equilibrium real rate over recent business cycles as well as longer-run trends in real interest rates and key factors that influence those trends. Estimates derived using a variety of empirical models of the U.S. economy and a range of econometric techniques indicated that short-run r* fell sharply with the onset of the 2008–09 financial crisis and recession, quite likely to negative levels. Short-run r* was estimated to have recovered only partially and to be close to zero currently, still well below levels that prevailed during recent economic expansions when the unemployment rate was close to estimates of its longer-run normal level.
The Fed staffers are producing estimates of the short-run natural interest rate so why not share it with the public? Why not add it to Fed's collection of statistics that publishes on its website?  It sounds like the Fed has a range of estimates so it could report point estimates along with confidence intervals surrounding it. So how about it Janet Yellen? Why not go all natural at the Fed?


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

How to Trigger a Panic Attack at the Fed

What does it take to create a panic attack at the Fed? How about a large credit and housing boom that wreaks havoc on household balance sheets? Nope, been there, done that with no loss of sleep. What about experiencing the sharpest recession since the Great Depression? Sorry, that too is a real yawner for the FOMC. How about the national tragedy of the long-term unemployed? Boring. Okay, what about that dramatic expansion of the Fed's balance sheet and complications it makes for the normalization of monetary policy. No worries here either. Well, how about the Fed leaks that led to insider trading? Lame, nothing to see, move along. There is not much the ruffles the Fed's feathers.

But ask the Fed to set its own benchmark rule against which it and others can evaluate FOMC decisions in a non-binding manner and suddenly this happens to Fed officials:

Yes, Janet Yellen and the Fed have finally found something to freak out about, the Fed Oversight and Modernization (FORM) Act.  In various media accounts, Yellen "slammed" the bill, "warns loud against it", and has "stepped up opposition" to it. What is so freakworthy about this bill? Janet Yellen explains in a letter to congress (my bold):
I am writing regarding the House of Representative’s consideration of H.R. 3189, the Fed Oversight Reform and Modernization (FORM) Act. The FORM Act would severely impair the Federal Reserve’s ability to carry out its congressional mandate to foster maximum employment and stable prices and would undermine our ability to implement policies that are in the best interest of American businesses and consumers.This legislation would severely damage the U.S. economy were it to become law.
There are a number of harmful provisions in the FORM Act, but the provisions concerning the conduct of monetary policy are especially troubling. Section 2 of the bill would require the Federal Reserve to establish a mathematical formula or “directive policy rule” that would dictate how the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) adjusts the stance of monetary policy at every FOMC meeting. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) would be responsible for determining whether the rule adopted by the FOMC met all the criteria in the legislation. Any time the FOMC was judged not to be in compliance with the GAO-approved rule, the GAO would be required to conduct a full review of monetary policy and submit a report to the Congress. 
Does this really warrant a Fed panic attack? To answer this question, let's recap the highlights of section 2 in the bill, some of which are missing in Janet Yellen's letter.
  • First, the bill requires the Fed to chose on its own a "directive policy rule", a reaction function that prescribes how it would respond to different economic scenarios. In other words, congress would not be forcing a specific rule on the Fed, only asking it to set up a benchmark rule based on the Fed's own preferences. The Fed could change this rule over time. 
  • Second, the bill requires the Fed to explain and justify how its preferred rule is different than the "reference policy rule", which happens to be the 1993 Taylor Rule.
  • Third, the GAO would report to congress whether the Fed was following its own rule and whether it changed the rule. This is the 'audit' part, since it would require the GAO to investigate why the Fed deviated from or changed the rule.
  • Fourth, the Fed chair could be summoned before congress to discuss the GAO findings. 
Sorry folks, but this is definitely not freakworthy. The bill does not change the dual mandate and it does not prescribe how the Fed should conduct monetary policy. All it does is ask the Fed to set a benchmark approach for monetary policy that can be used to evaluate monetary policy in retrospect. The Fed can still deviate from it, it just has to explain why. 

I don't see how this would politicize Fed policy any more than it is already. Janet Yellen already testifies before congress and meets with political activists. If anything, having a benchmark rule would make congressional hearings on the Fed more intelligible. Both the chair and congress would be speaking from the same reference point.

This could actually help the Fed since it chooses the benchmark rule under this law. It could easily adopt a Taylor Rule where the equilibrium real rate part is not constant, but endogenous to current economic conditions. Most estimates of the Taylor Rule that take this approach show the Fed has not been easy. One of the greatest confusions over Fed policy is the belief that it has kept interest rates 'artificially' low. This bill would give the Fed a chance to show otherwise. The Fed should see this as an opportunity.

So this Fed panic attack is an overreaction. The Fed is not being constrained and, if anything, it is being given the ability to shape the conversation on monetary policy. Other countries already have quarterly reports on monetary policy that do something very similar. The Fed should get out in front of this bill and run with it. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Fact Checking the Fact Checkers

The fourth GOP debate was last night and the economy was an important part of the conversation. Much was said last night that deserves commentary, but I want to focus on one claim that really surprised me. It surprised me because it went against the standard GOP narrative about the Fed. So what was this claim and who said it?

The claim was that the Fed tightened monetary policy in the third quarter of 2008 and this tightening contributed to the Great Recession. This view implies the Fed should have done more to avert the crisis, both in late 2008 and afterwards. It came from none other than Senator Ted Cruz. Someone has done their homework. This is a subtle, but important point that many of us have been making for the past seven years. So kudos to Senator Ted Cruz for recognizing it. 

Sadly, some observers still miss this insight and this sometimes includes the fact checkers of the debate. The latest example of this is Isaac Arnsdorf of the Politico Wrongometer, which is supposed to "truth squad the Republican debate." Here is Arnsdorf's response to Cruz:
But what did the Fed do in 2008? It wasn't tightening money. The Fed actually cut rates repeatedly in 2008. Some economists have argued policy makers didn’t cut rates fast enough given the economic conditions. But that's only "tightening" if you measure it against the demand for liquidity and market expectations. It doesn't reflect the Fed's actual policy moves.
Someone is trying too hard here. Monetary policy can tighten even if the Fed does nothing. It is called a passive tightening of monetary policy. It occurs whenever the Fed passively allows total current dollar spending to fall, either through a endogenous fall in the money supply or through an unchecked decrease in velocity. The damage done by a passive tightening is no different than that of an overt tightening. 

But don't take my word for it, just ask Ben Bernanke.  Back in late 2010, he acknowledged the possibility of passive tightening and used it as a justification for stabilizing the size of the Fed's balance sheet (my bold):
Any further weakening of the economy that resulted in lower longer-term interest rates and a still-faster pace of mortgage refinancing would likely lead in turn to an even more-rapid runoff of MBS from the Fed's balance sheet. Thus, a weakening of the economy might act indirectly to increase the pace of passive policy tightening--a perverse outcome. In response to these concerns, the FOMC agreed to stabilize the quantity of securities held by the Federal Reserve by re-investing payments...By agreeing to keep constant the size of the Federal Reserve's securities portfolio, the Committee avoided an undesirable passive tightening of policy that might otherwise have occurred...
In short, the FOMC was concerned that a failure by the Fed to reinvest its mortgage receipts, which would amount to a reduction in the monetary base, would be contractionary. So for the FOMC, a passive tightening of policy is just as serious as an active one.

Okay, let's apply this notion of passive tightening to the fall of 2008. As I have noted before, both inflation expectations and nominal demand had been falling since mid-2008. Normally such actions would would lead to an easing of monetary policy. But the Fed decided against easing in its August and September 2008 FOMC meetings. By doing nothing at these meetings it was passively tightening.

The September decision not to ease was especially egregious given that the collapse of the financial system was happening at the very same time. Note only did the Fed not ease, but it indicated it was just as worried about inflation as it was about the real economy. In other words, the Fed was signaling it was just as likely to tighten policy going forward as it was to ease. This was probably the worst forward guidance the Fed ever gave.

So Senator Ted Cruz was absolutely right. There was a major tightening of monetary in mid-to-late 2008. And in my view, it was this tightening and the failure to correct it later that turned what would have been an ordinary recession into the Great Recession. This may be a new insight for some observers. It should not, though, be a new insight for a fact checker criticizing a candidate.  

PS. Yes, Senator Ted Cruz did go on to advocate a gold standard. He is, however, interested in a rules-based approach and I suspect would be open to a NGDP level target based rules framework. So let's be gracious and acknowledge the big insight on Fed policy that Cruz alone noted last night. 

PPS. Dr. Ben Carson said he was a long-time friend of Janet Yellen and likes her. He also said he wants to see the dollar tied to something. May I suggest a market-driven NGDP futures contract?