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The Atlanta Fed's macroblog provides commentary and analysis on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, inflation, labor economics, and financial issues.

Authors for macroblog are Dave Altig, John Robertson, and other Atlanta Fed economists and researchers.

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February 23, 2015

Are Oil Prices "Passing Through"?

In a July 2013 macroblog post, we discussed a couple of questions we had posed to our panel of Southeast businesses to try and gauge how they respond to changes in commodity prices. At the time, we were struck by how differently firms tend to react to commodity price decreases versus increases. When materials costs jumped, respondents said they were likely to pass them on to their customers in the form of price increases. However, when raw materials prices fell, the modal response was to increase profit margins.

Now, what firms say they would do and what the market will allow aren't necessarily the same thing. But since mid-November, oil prices have plummeted by roughly 30 percent. And, as the charts below reveal, our panelists have reported sharply lower unit cost observations and much more favorable margin positions over the past three months...coincidence?



photo of Mike Bryan
By Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist,
photo of Brent Meyer
Brent Meyer, economist, and
photo of Nicholas Parker
Nicholas Parker, economic policy specialist, all in the Atlanta Fed's research department

August 12, 2014

Are We There Yet?

Editor’s note: This macroblog post was published yesterday with some content inadvertently omitted. Below is the complete post. We apologize for the error.

Anyone who has undertaken a long road trip with children will be familiar with the frequent “are we there yet?” chorus from the back seat. So, too, it might seem on the long post-2007 monetary policy road trip. When will the economy finally look like it is satisfying the Federal Open Market Committee’s (FOMC) dual mandate of price stability and full employment? The answer varies somewhat across the FOMC participants. The difference in perspectives on the distance still to travel is implicit in the range of implied liftoff dates for the FOMC’s short-term interest-rate tool in the Summary of Economic Projections (SEP).

So how might we go about assessing how close the economy truly is to meeting the FOMC’s objectives of price stability and full employment? In a speech on July 17, President James Bullard of the St. Louis Fed laid out a straightforward approach, as outlined in a press release accompanying the speech:

To measure the distance of the economy from the FOMC’s goals, Bullard used a simple function that depends on the distance of inflation from the FOMC’s long-run target and on the distance of the unemployment rate from its long-run average. This version puts equal weight on inflation and unemployment and is sometimes used to evaluate various policy options, Bullard explained.

We think that President Bullard’s quadratic-loss-function approach is a reasonable one. Chart 1 shows what you get using this approach, assuming a goal of year-over-year personal consumption expenditure inflation at 2 percent, and the headline U-3 measure of the unemployment rate at 5.4 percent. (As the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics defines unemployment, U-3 measures the total unemployed as a percent of the labor force.) This rate is about the midpoint of the central tendency of the FOMC’s longer-run estimate for unemployment from the June SEP.

Chart 1: Progress toward Objectives: U-3 Gap

Notice that the policy objective gap increased dramatically during the recession, but is currently at a low value that’s close to precrisis levels. On this basis, the economy has been on a long, uncomfortable trip but is getting pretty close to home. But other drivers of the monetary policy minivan may be assessing how far there is still to travel using an alternate road map to chart 1. For example, Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart has highlighted the role of involuntary part-time work as a signal of slack that is not captured in the U-3 unemployment rate measure. Indeed, the last FOMC statement noted that

Labor market conditions improved, with the unemployment rate declining further. However, a range of labor market indicators suggests that there remains significant underutilization of labor resources.

So, although acknowledging the decline in U-3, the Committee is also suggesting that other labor market indicators may suggest somewhat greater residual slack in the labor market. For example, suppose we used the broader U-6 measure to compute the distance left to travel based on President Bullard’s formula. The U-6 unemployment measure counts individuals who are marginally attached to the labor force as unemployed and, importantly, also counts involuntarily part-time workers as unemployed. One simple way to incorporate the U-6 gap is to compute the average difference between U-6 and U-3 prior to 2007 (excluding the 2001 recession), which was 3.9 percent, and add that to the U-3 longer-run estimate of 5.4 percent, to give an estimate of the longer-run U-6 rate of 9.3 percent. Chart 2 shows what you get if you run the numbers through President Bullard’s formula using this U-6 adjustment (scaling the U-6 gap by the ratio of the U-3 and U-6 steady-state estimates to put it on a U-3 basis).

Chart 2: Progress toward Objectives: U-3 Gap versus U-6 Gap

What the chart says is that, up until about four years ago, it didn’t really matter at all what your preferred measure of labor market slack was; they told a similar story because they tracked each other pretty closely. But currently, your view of how close monetary policy is to its goals depends quite a bit on whether you are a fan of U-3 or of U-6—or of something in between. I think you can put the Atlanta Fed’s current position as being in that “in-between” camp, or at least not yet willing to tell the kids that home is just around the corner.

In an interview last week with the Wall Street Journal, President Lockhart effectively put some distance between his own view and those who see the economy as being close to full employment. The Journal’s Real Time Economics blog quoted Lockhart:

“I’m not ruling out” the idea the Fed may need to raise short-term interest rates earlier than many now expect, Mr. Lockhart said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. But, at the same time, “I’m a little bit cautious” about the policy outlook, and still expect that when the first interest rate hike comes, it will likely happen somewhere in the second half of next year.

“I remain one who is looking for further validation that we are on a track that is going to make the path to our mandate objectives pretty irreversible,” Mr. Lockhart said. “It’s premature, even with the good numbers that have come in ... to draw the conclusion that we are clearly on that positive path,” he said.

Mr. Lockhart said the current unemployment rate of 6.2% will likely continue to decline and tick under 6% by the end of the year. But, he said, there remains evidence of underlying softness in the job sector, and, he also said, while inflation shows signs of firming, it remains under the Fed’s official 2% target.

Our view is that the current monetary policy journey has made considerable progress toward its objectives. But the trip is not yet complete, and the road ahead remains potentially bumpy. In the meantime, I recommend these road-trip sing-along selections.

Photo of John RobertsonBy John Robertson, a vice president and senior economist in the Atlanta Fed’s research department


October 18, 2013

Why Was the Housing-Price Collapse So Painful? (And Why Is It Still?)

Foresight about the disaster to come was not the primary reason this year’s Nobel Prize in economics went to Robert Shiller (jointly with Eugene Fama and Lars Hansen). But Professor Shiller’s early claim that a housing-price bubble was full on, and his prediction that trouble was a-comin’, is arguably the primary source of his claim to fame in the public sphere.

Several years down the road, the causes and effects of the housing-price run-up, collapse, and ensuing financial crisis are still under the microscope. Consider, for example, this opinion by Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research:

...the downturn is not primarily a “financial crisis.” The story of the downturn is a simple story of a collapsed housing bubble. The $8 trillion housing bubble was driving demand in the U.S. economy in the last decade until it collapsed in 2007. When the bubble burst we lost more than 4 percentage points of GDP worth of demand due to a plunge in residential construction. We lost roughly the same amount of demand due to a falloff in consumption associated with the disappearance of $8 trillion in housing wealth.

The collapse of the bubble created a hole in annual demand equal to 8 percent of GDP, which would be $1.3 trillion in today’s economy. The central problem facing the U.S., the euro zone, and the U.K. was finding ways to fill this hole.

In part, Baker’s post relates to an ongoing pundit catfight, which Baker himself concedes is fairly uninteresting. As he says, “What matters is the underlying issues of economic policy.” Agreed, and in that light I am skeptical about dismissing the centrality of the financial crisis to the story of the downturn and, perhaps more important, to the tepid recovery that has followed.

Interpreting what Baker has in mind is important, so let me start there. I have not scoured Baker’s writings for pithy hyperlinks, but I assume that his statement cited above does not deny that the immediate post-Lehman period is best characterized as a period of panic leading to severe stress in financial markets. What I read is his assertion that the basic problem—perhaps outside the crisis period in late 2008—is a rather plain-vanilla drop in wealth that has dramatically suppressed consumer demand, and with it economic growth. An assertion that the decline in wealth is what led us into the recession, is what accounts for the depth and duration of the recession, and is what’s responsible for the shallow recovery since.

With respect to the pace of recovery, evidence supports the proposition that financial crises without housing busts are not so unique—or if they are, the data tend to associate financial-related downturns with stronger-than-average recoveries. Mike Bordo and Joe Haubrich, respectively from Rutgers University and the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, argue that the historical record of U.S. recessions leads us to view housing and the pace of residential investment as the key to whether tepid recoveries will follow sharp recessions:

Our analysis of the data shows that steep expansions tend to follow deep contractions, though this depends heavily on when the recovery is measured. In contrast to much conventional wisdom, the stylized fact that deep contractions breed strong recoveries is particularly true when there is a financial crisis. In fact, on average, it is cycles without a financial crisis that show the weakest relation between contraction depth and recovery strength. For many configurations, the evidence for a robust bounce-back is stronger for cycles with financial crises than those without...

Our results also suggest that a sizeable fraction of the shortfall of the present recovery from the average experience of recoveries after deep recessions is due to the collapse of residential investment.

From here, however, it gets trickier to reach conclusions about why changes in housing values are so important. Simply put, why should there be a “wealth effect” at all? If the price of my house falls and I suffer a capital loss, I do in fact feel less wealthy. But all potential buyers of my house just gained the opportunity to obtain my house at a lower price. For them, the implied wealth gain is the same as my loss. If buyers and sellers essentially behave the same way, why should there be a large impact on consumption? *

I think this notion quickly leads you to the thought there is something fundamentally special about housing assets and that this special role relates to credit markets and finance. This angle is clearly articulated in these passages from a Bloomberg piece earlier in the year, one of a spate of articles in the spring about why rapidly recovering house prices were apparently not driving the recovery into a higher gear:

The wealth effect from rising house prices may not be as effective as it once was in spurring the U.S. economy...

The wealth effect “is much smaller,” said Amir Sufi, professor of finance at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Sufi, who participated in last year’s central-bank conference at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, reckons that each dollar increase in housing wealth may yield as little as an extra cent in spending. That compares with a 3-to-5-cent estimate by economists prior to the recession.

Many homeowners are finding they can’t refinance their mortgages because banks have tightened credit conditions so much they’re not eligible for new loans. Most who can refinance are opting not to withdraw equity after the first nationwide decline in house prices since the Great Depression reminded them home values can fall as well as rise...

Others are finding it difficult to refinance because credit has become a lot harder to come by. And that situation could worsen as banks respond to stepped-up government oversight.

“Credit is going to get tighter before it gets easier,” said David Stevens, president and chief executive officer of the Washington-based Mortgage Bankers Association...

“Households that have been through foreclosure or have underwater mortgages or are otherwise credit-constrained are less able than other households to take advantage” of low interest rates, Fed Governor Sarah Bloom Raskin said in an April 18 speech in New York.

(I should note that Sufi et al. previously delved into the relationship between household balance sheets and the economic downturn here.)

A more systematic take comes from the Federal Reserve Board’s Matteo Iacoviello:

Empirically, housing wealth and consumption tend to move together: this could happen because some third factor moves both variables, or because there is a more direct effect going from one variable to the other. Studies based on time-series data, on panel data and on more detailed, recent micro data point suggest that a considerable portion of the effect of housing wealth on consumption reflects the influence of changes in housing wealth on borrowing against such wealth.

That sounds like a financial problem to me and, in the spirit of Baker’s plea that it is the policy that matters, this distinction is more than semantic. The policy implications of an economic shock that alters the capacity to engage in borrowing and lending are not necessarily the same as those that result from a straightforward decline in wealth.

Having said that, it is not so clear how the policy implications are different. One possibility is that diminished access to credit markets also weakens policy-transmission mechanisms, calling for even more aggressive demand-oriented “pump-priming” policies of the sort Dean Baker advocates. But it is also possible that we have entered a period of deep structural repair that only time (and not merely government stimulus) can (or should) engineer: deleveraging and balance sheet repair, sectoral resource reallocation, new consumption habits, new business models driven by both market and regulatory imperatives, you name it.

In my view, it’s not yet clear which policy approach is closest to optimal. But I am fairly well convinced that good judgment will require us to think of the past decade as the financial event it was, and in many ways still is.

*Update: A colleague pointed out that my example describing housing price changes and wealth effects may be simplified to the point of being misleading. Implicitly, I am in fact assuming that the flow of housing services derived from housing assets is fixed, a condition that obviously would not hold in general. See section 3 of the Iacoviello paper cited above for a theoretical description of why, to a first approximation, we would not expect there to be a large consumption effect from changes in housing values.

David Altig By Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed


July 16, 2013

Commodity Prices and Inflation: The Perspective of Firms

We’ve been thinking a lot about commodity prices lately. In case you haven’t noticed, they’ve been falling. And with inflation already tracking well under the Federal Open Market Committee’s (FOMC) longer-term objective of 2 percent, it’s reasonable to wonder whether the modest downward tilt in commodity prices is likely to put even more, presumably unwanted, disinflation into the pipeline.

We take some comfort from research by Chicago Fed President Charles Evans and coauthor Jonas Fisher, vice president and macroeconomist, also of the Chicago Fed. They conducted a statistical analysis of commodity prices and core inflation and found no meaningful relationship between the two in the post-Volcker era of the Fed. According to the authors,

[I]f commodity and energy prices were to lead to a general expectation of a broader increase in inflation, more substantial policy rate increases would be justified. But assuming there is a generally high degree of central-bank credibility, there is no reason for such expectations to develop—in fact, in the post-Volcker period, there have been no signs that they typically do.

We took this bit of good news to our boss here at the Atlanta Fed, Dennis Lockhart, who hit us with a question we wish we had thought to ask. To paraphrase: Is the response of inflation different for commodity price increases compared to commodity price decreases? The idea here is that, for a time at least, firms will pass commodity price increases on to their customers but simply enjoy higher margins when commodity prices decline.

So we reached out to our business inflation expectations (BIE) survey panel and put the question to them. Of the 209 firms who responded to the survey in July, half were asked how they would likely respond to an unexpected 10 percent increase in the costs of raw materials, and the other half were asked how they would likely respond to an unexpected 10 percent decrease. What we learned was that the boss was on to something.

For the half of the panel given the raw materials cost increase, about 52 percent indicated they would mostly push the materials costs on to their customers in the form of higher prices, compared to only 18 percent who indicated they would decrease their margins. But of the half of our sample that was given a decline in raw materials costs, 43 percent indicated they would mostly take their good fortune in the form of better margins and only 25 percent indicated that the drop in raw materials costs would induce them to drop their prices.

Of course, what a firm thinks it will do and what the marketplace will allow are not necessarily the same. But this got us thinking back to the earlier work at the Chicago Fed. Does this sort of “asymmetric” response to commodity prices appear in the data?

Following (roughly) the procedure that Evans and Fisher used, we computed the influence of a positive “shock” of one standard deviation (about 5 percent) to commodity prices on core inflation. (Our sample runs from 1954 to 2013.) As did Evans and Fisher, we confirmed that commodity price increases had a significant positive influence on core inflation, spread out over a period of several years. But we were surprised to see that when businesses were hit with a similar-sized decrease in commodities prices, the opposite didn’t occur. Commodity price declines did not produce any downward pressure on core inflation.

As in Evans and Fisher, focusing in on just the post-Volcker era (from 1982 forward), we found that the influence of positive commodity price increases on core inflation was significantly diminished (although it appears to be just a little stronger than what they had reported). However, the influence of commodity price decreases on core inflation remained the same—nada.

For many of you, this result probably doesn’t strike you as pathbreaking. There are many macroeconomic models where prices are “sticky” going down but pretty flexible on the way up. But if the question is whether we think the recent slide in commodity prices is likely to put added downward pressure on core inflation, we’re likely to echo Evans and Fisher with a bit more emphasis: the decline in commodity prices isn’t likely to have an influence on core inflation unless it leads to a general expectation of a broader disinflation. And there is no evidence in the data that suggests this is likely—post-Volcker era or not.

Photo of Mike BryanBy Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist,

Photo of Brent MeyerBrent Meyer, economist, and

Photo of Nicholas ParkerNicholas Parker, senior economic research analyst, all in the Atlanta Fed's research department