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August 23, 2018
What Does the Current Slope of the Yield Curve Tell Us?
As I make the rounds throughout the Sixth District, one of the most common questions I get these days is how Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) participants interpret the flattening of the yield curve. I, of course, do not speak for the FOMC, but as the minutes from recent meetings indicate, the Committee has indeed spent some time discussing various views on this topic. In this blog post, I'll share some of my thoughts on the framework I use for interpreting the yield curve and what I'll be watching. Of course, these are my views alone and do not reflect the views of any other Federal Reserve official.
Many observers see a downward-sloping, or "inverted," yield curve as a reliable predictor for a recession. Chart 1 shows the yield curve's slope—specifically, the difference between the interest rates paid on 10-year and 2-year Treasury securities—is currently around 20 basis points. This is lowest spread since the last recession.
The case for worrying about yield-curve flattening is apparent in the chart. The shaded bars represent recessionary periods. Both of the last two recessions were preceded by a flat (and, for a time, inverted) 10-year/2-year spread.
As we all know, however, correlation does not imply causality. This is a particularly important point to keep in mind when discussing the yield curve. As a set of market-determined interest rates, the yield curve not only reflects market participants' views about the evolution of the economy but also their views about the FOMC's likely reaction to that evolution and uncertainty around these and other relevant factors. In other words, the yield curve represents not one signal, but several. The big question is, can we pull these signals apart to help appropriately inform the calibration of policy?
We can begin to make sense of this question by noting that Treasury yields of any given maturity can be thought of as the sum of two fundamental components:
- An expected policy rate path over that maturity: the market's best guess about the FOMC's rate path over time and in response to the evolution of the economy.
- A term premium: an adjustment (relative to the path of the policy rate) that reflects additional compensation investors receive for bearing risk related to holding longer-term bonds.
Among other things, this premium may be related to two factors: (1) uncertainty about how the economy will evolve over that maturity and how the FOMC might respond to events as they unfold and (2) the influence of supply and demand factors for U.S. Treasuries in a global market.
Let's apply this framework to the current yield curve. As several of my colleagues (including Fed governor Lael Brainard) have noted, the term premium is currently quite low. All else equal, this would result in lower long-term rates and a flatter yield curve. The term premium bears watching, but it is unclear that movements in the premium reflect particular concerns about the course of the economy.
I tend to focus on the other component: the expected path of policy. When we ask whether a flattening yield curve is a cause for concern, what we are really asking is: does the market expect an economic slowdown that will require the FOMC to reverse course and lower rates in the near future?
The eurodollar futures market shows us one measure of the market's expectation for the policy rate path. These derivative contracts are quoted in terms of a three-month rate that closely follows the FOMC's policy rate, which makes them well-suited for this kind of analysis. (Some technical details regarding this market can be found in a 2016 issue of the Atlanta Fed's "Notes from the Vault.")
Chart 2 illustrates the current estimate of the market's expected policy rate path. Read simply, the market appears to be forecasting continuing policy rate increases through 2020, and there is no evidence of a market forecast that the FOMC will need to reverse course in the medium term. However, the level of the policy rate is lower than the median of the FOMC's June Summary of Economic Projections (SEP) for 2019 and 2020.
Once we get past 2020, the market's expected policy path flattens. I read this as evidence that market participants overall expect a very gradual pace of tightening as the most likely outcome over the next two years. Interestingly, the market appears to expect a slower pace of tightening than the pace that at least some members of the FOMC currently view as "appropriate" as represented in their SEP submissions.
For this measure, I find the short-term perspective most informative. As one looks further into the future, the range of possible outcomes widens, as many the factors that influence the economy can evolve and interact widely. Thus, the precision of any signal the market is providing about policy expectations—if indeed there is any signal at all—is likely to be quite low.
With this information in mind, I do not interpret that the yield curve indicates that the market believes the evolution of the economy will cause the FOMC to lower rates in the foreseeable future. This interpretation is consistent with my own economic forecast, gleaned from macroeconomic data and a robust set of conversations with businesses both large and small. My modal outlook is for expansion to continue at an above-trend pace for the next several quarters, and I see the risks to that projection as balanced. Yes, there are downside risks, chief among them the effects of (and uncertainty about) trade policy. But those risks are countered by the potential for recent fiscal stimulus to have a much more transformative impact on the economy than I've marked into my baseline outlook.
I believe the yield curve gives us important and useful information about market participants' forecasts. But it is only one signal among many that we use for the complex task of forecasting growth in the U.S. economy. As the economy evolves, I will be assessing the response of the yield curve to incoming data and policy decisions along the lines I've laid out here, incorporating market signals along with a constellation of other information to achieve the FOMC's dual objectives of price stability and maximum employment.
April 19, 2017
The Fed’s Inflation Goal: What Does the Public Know?
The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) has had an explicit inflation target of 2 percent since January 25, 2012. In its statement announcing the target, the FOMC said, "Communicating this inflation goal clearly to the public helps keep longer-term inflation expectations firmly anchored, thereby fostering price stability and moderate long-term interest rates and enhancing the Committee's ability to promote maximum employment in the face of significant economic disturbances."
If communicating this goal to the public enhances the effectiveness of monetary policy, one natural question is whether the public is aware of this 2 percent target. We've posed this question a few times to our Business Inflation Expectations Panel, which is a set of roughly 450 private, nonfarm firms in the Southeast. These firms range in size from large corporations to owner operators.
Last week, we asked them again. Specifically, the question is:
What annual rate of inflation do you think the Federal Reserve is aiming for over the long run?
Unsurprisingly, to us at least—and maybe to you if you're a regular macroblog reader—the typical respondent answered 2 percent (the same answer our panel gave us in 2015 and back in 2011). At a minimum, southeastern firms appear to have gotten and retained the message.
So, why the blog post? Careful Fed watchers noticed the inclusion of a modifier to describe the 2 percent objective in the March 2017 FOMC statement (emphasis added): "The Committee will carefully monitor actual and expected inflation developments relative to its symmetric inflation goal." And especially eagle-eyed Fed watchers will remember that the Committee amended its statement of longer-run goals in January 2016, clarifying that its inflation objective is indeed symmetric.
The idea behind a symmetric inflation target is that the central bank views both overshooting and falling short of the 2 percent target as equally bad. As then Minneapolis Fed President Kocherlakota stated in 2014, "Without symmetry, inflation might spend considerably more time below 2 percent than above 2 percent. Inflation persistently below the 2 percent target could create doubts in households and businesses about whether the FOMC is truly aiming for 2 percent inflation, or some lower number."
Do such doubts actually exist? In a follow-up to our question about the numerical target, in the latest survey we asked our panel whether they thought the Fed was more, less, or equally likely to tolerate inflation below or above its targe. The following chart depicts the responses.
One in five respondents believes the Federal Reserve is more likely to accept inflation above its target, while nearly 40 percent believe it is more likely to accept inflation below its target. Twenty-five percent of firms believe the Federal Reserve is equally likely to accept inflation above or below its target. The remainder of respondents were unsure. This pattern was similar across firm sizes and industries.
In other words, more firms see the inflation target as a threshold (or ceiling) that the Fed is averse to crossing than see it as a symmetric target.
Lately, various Committee members (here, here, and in Chair Yellen's latest press conference at the 42-minute mark) have discussed the symmetry about the Committee's inflation target. Our evidence suggests that the message may not have quite sunk in yet.
September 8, 2016
Introducing the Atlanta Fed's Taylor Rule Utility
Simplicity isn't always a virtue, but when it comes to complex decision-making processes—for example, a central bank setting a policy rate—having simple benchmarks is often helpful. As students and observers of monetary policy well know, the common currency in the central banking world is the so-called "Taylor rule."
The Taylor rule is an equation introduced by John Taylor in a seminal 1993 paper that prescribes a value for the federal funds rate—the interest rate targeted by the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC)—based on readings of inflation and the output gap. The output gap measures the percentage point difference between real gross domestic product (GDP) and an estimate of its trend or potential.
Since 1993, academics and policymakers have introduced and used many alternative versions of the rule. The alternative forms of the rule can supply policy prescriptions that differ significantly from Taylor's original rule, as the following chart illustrates.
The green line shows the policy prescription from a rule identical to the one in Taylor's paper, apart from some minor changes in the inflation and output gap measures. The red line uses an alternative and commonly used rule that gives the output gap twice the weight used for the Taylor (1993) rule, derived from a 1999 paper by John Taylor. The red line also replaces the 2 percent value used in Taylor's 1993 paper with an estimate of the natural real interest rate, called r*, from a paper by Thomas Laubach, the Federal Reserve Board's director of monetary affairs, and John Williams, president of the San Francisco Fed. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen also considered this alternative estimate of r* in a 2015 speech.
Both rules use real-time data. The Taylor (1993) rule prescribed liftoff for the federal funds rate materially above the FOMC's 0 to 0.25 percent target range from December 2008 to December 2015 as early as 2012. The alternative rule did not prescribe a positive fed funds rate since the end of the 2007–09 recession until this quarter. The third-quarter prescriptions incorporate nowcasts constructed as described here. Neither the nowcasts nor the Taylor rule prescriptions themselves necessarily reflect the outlook or views of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta or its president.
Additional variables that get plugged into this simple policy rule can influence the rate prescription. To help you sort through the most common variations, we at the Atlanta Fed have created a Taylor Rule Utility. Our Taylor Rule Utility gives you a number of choices for the inflation measure, inflation target, the natural real interest rate, and the resource gap. Besides the Congressional Budget Office–based output gap, alternative resource gap choices include those based on a U-6 labor underutilization gap and the ZPOP ratio. The latter ratio, which Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart mentioned in a November 2015 speech while addressing the Taylor rule, gauges underemployment by measuring the share of the civilian population working their desired number of hours.
Many of the indicator choices use real-time data. The utility also allows you to establish your own weight for the resource gap and whether you want the prescription to put any weight on the previous quarter's federal funds rate. The default choices of the Taylor Rule Utility coincide with the Taylor (1993) rule shown in the above chart. Other organizations have their own versions of the Taylor Rule Utility (one of the nicer ones is available on the Cleveland Fed's Simple Monetary Policy Rules web page). You can find more information about the Cleveland Fed's web page on the Frequently Asked Questions page.
Although the Taylor rule and its alternative versions are only simple benchmarks, they can be useful tools for evaluating the importance of particular indicators. For example, we see that the difference in the prescriptions of the two rules plotted above has narrowed in recent years as slack has diminished. Even if the output gap were completely closed, however, the current prescriptions of the rules would differ by nearly 2 percentage points because of the use of different measures of r*. We hope you find the Taylor Rule Utility a useful tool to provide insight into issues like these. We plan on adding further enhancements to the utility in the near future and welcome any comments or suggestions for improvements.
September 21, 2015
What Do U.S. Businesses Know that New Zealand Businesses Don't? A Lot (Apparently).
A recent paper presented at the Brookings Institute, picked up by the Financial Times and the Washington Post, suggests that when it comes to communicating their inflation objective, central banks have a lot of work to do. This conclusion is based primarily on two pieces of evidence.
The first piece is that when businesses in New Zealand are asked about their expectations for changes in "overall prices"—which presumably corresponds with their inflation expectation—the responses, on average, appear to be much too high relative to observed inflation trends. And the responses vary widely from business to business. According to this survey, the average firm in New Zealand expects 4 to 5 percent inflation on a year-ahead basis, and 3.5 percent inflation over the next five to 10 years. Those expectations are for the average firm. Apparently, about one in four firms in New Zealand think inflation in the year ahead will be more than 5 percent, and about one in six firms believe inflation will top 5 percent during the next five to 10 years. Certainly, these aren't the responses one would expect from businesses operating in an economy (like New Zealand) where the central bank has been targeting 2 percent inflation for the past 13 years, over which time inflation has averaged only 2.2 percent (and a mere 0.9 percent during the past four years).
But count us skeptical of this evidence. In this paper from last year, we challenge the assumption that asking firms (or households, for that matter) about expected changes in "overall prices" corresponds to an inflation prediction.
The second piece of evidence regarding the ineffectiveness of inflation targeting is more direct—the authors of this paper actually asked New Zealand businesses a few questions about the central bank and its policies, including this one:
What annual percentage rate of change in overall prices do you think the Reserve Bank of New Zealand is trying to achieve? (Answer: ______%)
The distribution of answers by New Zealand firms is shown in the chart below. According to the survey, the median New Zealand firm appears to think the central bank's inflation target is 5 percent. Indeed, more than a third of firms in New Zealand reported that they think the central bank is targeting an inflation rate greater than 5 percent. Only about 12 percent of the firms were able to correctly identify their central bank's actual inflation target of 2 percent (actually, the New Zealand inflation target is a range of between 1 and 3 percent, centered on 2 percent).
If this weren't embarrassing enough for central bankers, the study also reports that New Zealand households (like U.S. households) don't seem to know who the head of the central bank is. In fact, the authors show that there are more online searches for "puppies" than for information about macroeconomic variables.
OK, to be honest, we don't find that last result very surprising. Puppies are adorable. Central bankers? Not so much. But we were very surprised to see just how high and wide-ranging businesses in New Zealand perceived their central bank's inflation target to be. We're surprised because that bit of information doesn't fit with our understanding of U.S. firms.
In December 2011, the month before the Fed officially announced an explicit numerical target for inflation, we wanted to know whether firms had already formed an opinion about the Fed's inflation objective. So we asked a panel of Southeast businesses the following question:
What we learned was that 16 percent of the 151 firms who responded to our survey had no opinion regarding what rate of inflation the Federal Reserve was aiming for. But of the firms that had an opinion, 58 percent identified a 2 percent inflation target.
But perhaps this isn't a fair comparison to the recent survey of New Zealand businesses. In our 2011 survey, firms had only six options to choose from (including "no opinion"). It could be that our choice of options biased the responses away from high inflation values. So last week, we convened another panel of firms and asked the question in the same open-ended format given to New Zealanders:
What annual rate of inflation do you think the Federal Reserve is aiming for over the long run? (Answer: ______%)
The only material distinction between their question and ours is that we substituted the word "inflation" for the phrase "changes in overall prices." (For this special survey, we polled a national sample of firms that had never before answered one of our survey questions.) The chart below shows what we found relative to the results recently reported for New Zealand firms.
Our survey results look very similar to our results of four years ago. About one in five of the 102 firms that answered our survey was unsure about the Fed's inflation target. But almost 53 percent of the firms that responded answered 2 percent. (On average, U.S. firms judged the central bank's inflation target to be 2.2 percent, just a shade higher than our actual target.)
Furthermore, the distribution of responses to our survey was very tightly centered on 2 percent. The highest estimate of the Fed's inflation target (from only one firm) was 5 percent. So again, our results don't at all resemble what has been reported for the firms down under.
Why is there a glaring difference between what the survey of New Zealand firms found and what we're finding? Well, as noted earlier, we've got our suspicions, but we'll keep studying the issue. And in the meantime, have you seen this?
Editor's note: Learn more about inflation and the consumer price index in an ECONversations webcast featuring Atlanta Fed economist Brent Meyer.
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