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Policy Hub: Macroblog provides concise commentary and analysis on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, inflation, labor economics, and financial issues for a broad audience.

Authors for Policy Hub: Macroblog are Dave Altig, John Robertson, and other Atlanta Fed economists and researchers.

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June 24, 2019

Mapping the Financial Frontier at the Financial Markets Conference

The Atlanta Fed recently hosted its 24th annual Financial Markets Conference, whose theme was Mapping the Financial Frontier: What Does the Next Decade Hold? The conference addressed a variety of issues pertinent to the future of the financial system. Among the sessions touching on macroeconomics was a keynote speech on corporate debt by Federal Reserve Board chair Jerome Powell and another on revitalizing America by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Simon Johnson. The conference also included a panel discussion of the Fed's plans for implementing monetary policy in the future. This macroblog post reviews these macroeconomic discussions. A companion Notes from the Vault post reviews conference sessions on blockchain technology, data privacy, and postcrisis developments in the markets for mortgage backed securities.

Chair Powell's thoughts on corporate debt levels
Chair Powell's keynote speech focused on the risks posed by increases in corporate debt levels. In his speech, titled "Business Debt and Our Dynamic Financial System" (which you can watch or read), Powell began by observing that business debt levels have increased by a variety of measures including the ratios of debt to gross domestic product as well as the debt to the book value of corporate assets. These higher debt ratios alone don't currently pose a problem because corporate profits are high and interest rates are low. Powell noted some reasons for concern, however, including the reduced average quality of investment-grade bonds, with more corporate debt concentrated in the "lowest rating—a phenomenon known as the 'triple-B cliff'".

Powell noted several differences between the recent increase in corporate debt and the increase in household debt prior to the 2007–09 crisis that offset these risks. These differences include a more moderate rate of increase in corporate debt, the lack of a feedback loop from debt levels to asset prices, reduced leverage in the banking system, and less liquidity risk.

Powell concluded his remarks by saying that although business debt does pose a risk of amplifying a future downturn, it does not appear to pose "notable risks to financial stability." Finally, he noted that the Fed is working toward a more thorough understand of the risks.

Simon Johnson on jumpstarting America
Simon Johnson started his keynote speech by discussing Amazon's search for a second headquarters city. The company received proposals from 238 cities across the country (and Canada). However, in the end, it selected two large metropolitan areas—New York and Washington, DC—that were already among the leaders in creating new tech jobs. Although many places around the country want growth in good jobs, he said the innovation economy is "drawn disproportionately to these few places."

Johnson's remedy for this disproportionate clustering is for the federal government to make a deliberate effort to encourage research and development in various technical areas at a number of research universities around the country. This proposal is based on his book with fellow MIT economist Jonathan Gruber. They argue that the proposal encourages "exactly what the U.S. did in the '40s, '50s, and '60s," which was to help the United States develop new technology to be used in World War II and the Cold War.

Johnson proposed that the funding for new technical projects be allocated through a nationwide competition that intentionally seeks to create new tech hubs. In making his case, Johnson observed that the view that "all the talent is just in six places is fundamentally wrong." Johnson said that he and his coauthor found 102 cities in 36 states that have a substantial proportion of college graduates and relatively low housing prices. Moreover, Johnson observed that existing tech centers' cost of living has become very high, and those cities have substantial political limits on their ability to sustain new population growth. If some of these 102 potential hubs received the funding to start research and provide capital to business, Johnson argued, overall growth in the United States could increase and be more evenly distributed.

Discussing the implementation of monetary policy
The backdrop for the session on monetary policy implementation was postcrisis developments in the Fed's approach to implementing monetary policy. As the Fed's emergency lending programs started to recede after the crisis, it started making large-scale investments in agency mortgage backed securities and U.S. Treasuries. This program, widely (though somewhat misleadingly) called "quantitative easing," or QE, pumped additional liquidity into securities markets and played a role in lowering longer-term interest rates. As economic conditions improved, the Fed first started raising short-term rates and then adopted a plan to shrink its balance sheet starting in 2018. However, earlier this year, the Fed announced plans to stop shrinking the balance sheet in September if the economy performs as it expected.

Julia Coronado, president of MacroPolicy Perspectives, led the discussion of the Fed's plans, and a large fraction of that discussion addressed its plans for the size of the balance sheet. Kevin Warsh, former Federal Reserve governor and currently a visiting fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, provided some background information on the original rationale for QE, when many financial markets were still rather illiquid. However, he argued that those times were extraordinary and that "extraordinary tools are meant for extraordinary circumstances." He further expressed the concern that using QE at other times and for other reasons, such as in response to regulatory policy, would increase the risk of political involvement in monetary policy.

During the discussion, Chicago Fed president Charles Evans argued that QE is likely to remain a necessary part of the Fed's toolkit. He observed that slowing labor force growth, moderate productivity growth, and low inflation are likely to keep equilibrium short-term interest rates low. As a result, the Fed's ability to lower interest rates in a future recession is likely to remain constrained, meaning that balance sheet expansion will remain a necessary tool for economic stimulus.

Ethan Harris, head of global economics research at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, highlighted the potential stress the next downturn would place on the Fed. Harris observed that "other central banks have virtually no ammunition" to fight the next downturn, a reference to the negative policy rates and relatively larger balance sheets of some other major central banks. This dynamic prompted his question, "How is the Fed, on its own, going to fight the next crisis?"

The conference made clear the importance of the links between financial markets and the macroeconomy, and this blog post focused on just three of them. I encourage you to delve into the rest of the conference materials to see these and other important discussions.

January 16, 2019

Quantitative Frightening?

I didn't coin the title of this blog post. It was the label on a chart of the Federal Reserve's balance sheet that appeared in an issue of The Wall Street Journal last week. I've led with this phrase because it does seem to capture some of the sentiment around what has become the elephant in the monetary policy room: Is the rundown in the size of the Fed's balance sheet causing an unanticipated, and unwarranted, tightening of monetary policy conditions? I think the answer to that question is "no." Let me explain why.

In June 2017, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) determined that it was appropriate to begin the process of reducing the size of the Fed's balance sheet, which had more than quadrupled as a result of efforts to combat the financial crisis and support the subsequent recovery from a very deep recession.

As I noted in a speech last November, I see the Committee's strategy for shrinking the balance sheet as having two essential elements.

  • First, the normalization process is designed to be gradual. It was phased in over the course of about a year and a half and is now subject to monthly caps so the run-down is not too rapid.
  • Second, the normalization process is designed to be as predictable as possible. The schedule of security retirements was announced in advance so that uncertainty about the pace of normalization can be minimized. (In other words, "quantitative tightening" is decidedly not on the QT.) As a result, the normalization process also reduces complexity. Balance-sheet reduction has moved into the background so that ongoing policy adjustments can focus solely on the traditional interest-rate channel.

In his recent remarks at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association, Chairman Jerome Powell was very clear that the fairly mechanical balance-sheet strategy adopted by the FOMC thus far should not be interpreted as inflexibility in the conduct of monetary policy or an unwillingness to recognize that balance-sheet reduction is in fact monetary policy tightening.

I will speak for myself. Balance-sheet policy is an element of the monetary policy mix. The decision to adopt a relatively deterministic approach to balance-sheet reduction is not a decision to ignore the possibility that it has led or might lead to a somewhat more restrictive stance of monetary policy. It is a decision to make whatever adjustments are necessary through the Fed's primary interest-rate tools to the greatest extent possible.

I maintain that there is still wisdom in this approach. The effects of our interest-rate tools are much more familiar to both policymakers and markets than balance-sheet tools are. That, to my mind, makes them the superior instrument for reaching and maintaining our dual goals of stable inflation and maximum employment. It is my belief that reducing the number of moving pieces makes monetary policy more transparent and predictable, which enhances the Committee's capacity for a smooth transition toward those goals.

It should now be clear that nothing is written in stone. Whether the FOMC uses active interest-rate policy with passive balance-sheet policy or uses both instruments actively, policy decisions will ultimately be driven by the facts on the ground as best Committee members can judge, and by assessments of risks that surround those judgments.

In my own judgment, it is far from clear that the ongoing reduction in the balance sheet is having an outsized impact on the stance of monetary policy. I think it is widely accepted that one of the ways balance-sheet policies work is by affecting the term premia associated with holding longer-term securities. (There are many good discussions about balance-sheet mechanisms, including this one by Edison Yu, which can be found in the first quarter 2016 edition of the Philadelphia Fed's Economic Insights, or this article by Jane Ihrig, Elizabeth Klee, Canlin Li, Min Wei, and Joe Kachovec in the March 2018 issue of the International Journal of Central Banking.)

Lots of things can push term premia up and down. But one of the factors is the presumed willingness of the central bank to purchase long-term securities in scale—or not. The idea that running down the balance sheet tightens monetary policy is that, in so doing, the FOMC is removing a crucial measure of support to the bond market. This makes longer-term securities riskier by transferring more duration risk back to the market, which raises term premia and, all else equal, pushes rates higher.

Although estimating term premia is as much art as science, I don't think the evidence supports the argument that these premia have been materially rising as a result of our normalization process. The New York Fed publishes one well-known real-time estimate of the term premia associated with 10-year Treasury securities. But isolating and quantifying the effect of balance-sheet changes on term premia is challenging. It is possible that a number of factors, such as the continued high demand for U.S. Treasuries by financial institutions and a low inflation risk premium, might have dampened the independent effect of balance sheet run-off. But if the term premia channel is a critical piece of what makes balance-sheet policy work, I'm hard pressed to see much evidence of financial tightening via rising term premia in the data so far.

Lest anyone think I am overly influenced by one particular theory, I will emphasize that I am not taking anything for granted. In addition to my monitoring of developments on Main Street, I will be watching financial conditions and term premia as I assess the outlook for the economy. My view is that a patient approach to monetary policy adjustments in the coming year is fully warranted in light of the uncertainties about the state of the economy, about what level of policy rates is consistent with a neutral stance, and about the overall impact of balance-sheet normalization. This patience is one of the characteristics of what I mean by data dependence.

October 26, 2018

On Maximizing Employment, a Case for Caution

Over the past few months, I have been asked one question regularly: Why is the Fed removing monetary policy stimulus when there is little sign that inflation has run amok and threatens to undermine economic growth? This is a good question, and it speaks to a philosophy of how to maintain the stability of both economic performance and prices, which I view as important for the effective implementation of monetary policy.

In assessing the degree to which the Fed is achieving the congressional mandate of price stability, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) identified 2 percent inflation in consumption prices as a benchmark—see here for more details. Based on currently available data, it seems that inflation is running close to this benchmark.

The Fed's other mandate from Congress is to foster maximum employment. A key metric for performance relative to that mandate is the official unemployment rate. So, when some people ask why the FOMC is reducing monetary policy stimulus in the absence of clear inflationary pressure, what they really might be thinking is, "Why doesn't the Fed just conduct monetary policy to help the unemployment rate go as low as physically possible? Isn't this by definition the representation of maximum employment?"

While this is indeed one definition of full employment, I think this is a somewhat short-sighted perspective that doesn't ultimately serve the economy and American workers well.  One important reason for being skeptical of this view is our nation's past experience with "high-pressure" economic periods. High-pressure periods are typically defined as periods in which the unemployment rate falls below the so-called natural rate—using an estimate of the natural rate, such as the one produced by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

As the CBO defines it, the natural rate is "the unemployment rate that arises from all sources other than fluctuations in demand associated with business cycles." These "other sources" include frictions like the time it takes people to find a job or frictions that result from a mismatch between the set of skills workers currently possess and the set of skills employers want to find.

When the actual unemployment rate declines substantially below the natural rate—highlighted as the red areas in the following chart—the economy has moved into a "high-pressure period."

For the purposes of this discussion, the important thing about high-pressure economies is that, virtually without exception, they are followed by a recession. Why? Well, as I described in a recent speech:

"One view is that it is because monetary policy tends to take on a much more 'muscular' stance—some might say too muscular—at the end of these high-pressure periods to combat rising nominal pressures.

"The other alternative is that the economy destabilizes when it pushes beyond its natural potential. These high-pressure periods lead to a buildup of competitive excesses, misdirected investment, and an inefficient allocation of societal resources. A recession naturally results and is needed to undo all the inefficiencies that have built up during the high-pressure period.

"Yet, some people suggest that deliberately running these high-pressure periods can improve outcomes for workers in communities who have been less attached to the labor market, such as minorities, those with lower incomes, and those living in rural communities. These workers have long had higher unemployment rates than other workers, and they are often the last to benefit from periods of extended economic growth.

"For example, the gap between the unemployment rates of minority and white workers narrows as recoveries endure. So, the argument goes, allowing the economy to run further and longer into these red areas on the chart provides a net benefit to these under-attached communities.

"But the key question isn't whether the high-pressure economy brings new people from disadvantaged groups into the labor market. Rather, the right question is whether these benefits are durable in the face of the recession that appears to inevitably follow.

"This question was explored in a research paper by Atlanta Fed economist Julie Hotchkiss and her research colleague Robert Moore. Unfortunately, they found that while workers in these aforementioned communities tend to experience greater benefits from these high-pressure periods, the pain and dislocation associated with the aftermath of the subsequent recession is just as significant, if not more so.

"Importantly, this research tells me we ought to guard against letting the economy slip too far into these high-pressure periods that ultimately impose heavy costs on many people across the economy. Facilitating a prolonged period of low—and sustainable—unemployment rates is a far more beneficial approach."

In short, I conclude that the pain inflicted from shifting from a high-pressure to a low-pressure economy is too great, and this tells me that it is important for the Fed to beware the potential for the economy overheating.

Formulating monetary policy would all be a lot easier, of course, if we were certain about the actual natural rate of unemployment. But we are not. The CBO has an estimate—currently 4.5 percent. The FOMC produces projections, and other forecasters produce estimates of what it thinks the unemployment rate would be over the longer run.

For my part, I estimate that the natural rate is closer to 4 percent, and given the current absence of accelerating inflationary pressures, we can't completely dismiss the possibility that the natural rate is even lower. Nonetheless, with the unemployment rate currently at 3.7 percent, it seems likely that we're at least at our full employment mandate.

So, what is this policymaker to do? Back to my speech:

"My thinking will be informed by the evolution of the incoming data and from what I'm able to glean from my business contacts. And while I wrestle with that choice, one thing seems clear: there is little reason to keep our foot on the gas pedal."

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.