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

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July 18, 2016

What’s Moving the Market’s Views on the Path of Short-Term Rates?

As today's previous macroblog post highlighted, it seems that the United Kingdom's vote to leave the European Union—commonly known as the Brexit—got the attention of business decision makers and made their business outlook more uncertain.

How might this uncertainty be weighing on financial market assessments of the future path for Fed policy? Several recent articles have opined, often citing the CME Group's popular FedWatch tool, that the Brexit vote increased the probability that the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) might reverse course and lower its target for the fed funds rate. For instance, the Wall Street Journal reported on June 28 that fed funds futures contracts implied a 15 percent probability that rates would increase 25 basis points and an 8 percent probability of a 25 basis point decrease by December's meeting. Prior to the Brexit vote, the probabilities of a 25 basis point increase and decrease by December's meeting were roughly 50 percent and 0 percent, respectively.

One limitation of using fed funds futures to assess market participant views is that this method is restricted to calculating the probability of a rate change by a fixed number of basis points. But what if we want to consider a broader set of possibilities for FOMC rate decisions? We could look at options on fed funds futures contracts to infer these probabilities. However, since the financial crisis their availability has been quite limited. Instead, we use options on Eurodollar futures contracts.

Eurodollars are deposits denominated in U.S. dollars but held in foreign banks or in the foreign branches of U.S. banks. The rate on these deposits is the (U.S. dollar) London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR). Because Eurodollar deposits are regulated similarly to fed funds and can be used to meet reserve requirements, financial institutions often view Eurodollars as close substitutes for fed funds. Although a number of factors can drive a wedge between otherwise identical fed funds and Eurodollar transactions, arbitrage and competitive forces tend to keep these differences relatively small.

However, using options on Eurodollar futures is not without its own challenges. Three-month Eurodollar futures can be thought of as the sum of an average three-month expected overnight rate (the item of specific interest) plus a term premium. Each possible target range for fed funds is associated with its own average expected overnight rate, and there may be some slippage between these two. Additionally, although we can use swaps market data to estimate the expected term premium, uncertainty around this expectation can blur the picture somewhat and make it difficult to identify specific target ranges, especially as we look farther out into the future.

Despite these challenges, we feel that options on Eurodollar futures can provide a complementary and more detailed view on market expectations than is provided by fed funds futures data alone.

Our approach is to use the Eurodollar futures option data to construct an entire probability distribution of the market's assessment of future LIBOR rates. The details of our approach can be found here. Importantly, our approach does not assume that the distribution will have a typical bell shape. Using a flexible approach allows multiple peaks with different heights that can change dynamically in response to market news.

The results of this approach are illustrated in the following two charts for contracts expiring in September (left-hand chart) and December (right-hand chart) of this year for the day before and the day after Brexit. With these distributions in hand, we can calculate the implied probabilities of a rate change consistent with what you would get if you simply used fed funds futures. However, we think that specific features of the distributions help provide a richer story about how the market is processing incoming information.

Prior to the Brexit vote (depicted by the green curve), market participants were largely split in their assessment on a rate increase through September's FOMC meeting, as indicated by the two similarly sized modes, or peaks, of the distribution. Post-Brexit (depicted by the blue curve), most weight was given to no change, but with a non-negligible probability of a rate cut (the mode on the left between 0 and 25 basis points). For December's FOMC meeting, market participants shifted their views away from the likelihood of one additional increase in the fed funds target toward the possibility that the FOMC leaves rates where they are currently.

The market turmoil immediately following the vote subsided somewhat over the subsequent days. The next two charts indicate that by July 7, market participants seem to have backed away from the assessment that a rate cut may occur this year, evidenced by the disappearance of the mode between 0 and 25 basis points (show by the green curve). And following the release of the June jobs report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics on July 8, market participants increased their assessment of the likelihood of a rate hike by year end, though not by much (see the blue curve). However, the labor report was, by itself, not enough to shift the market view that the fed funds target is unlikely to change over the near future.

One other feature of our approach is that comparing the heights of the modes across contracts allows us to assess the market's relative certainty of particular outcomes. For instance, though the market continues to put the highest weight on "no move" for both September and December, we can see that the market is much less certain regarding what will happen by December relative to September.

The greater range of possible rates for December suggests that there is still considerable market uncertainty about the path of rates six months out and farther. And, as we saw with the labor report release, incoming data can move these distributions around as market participants assess the impact on future FOMC deliberations.

July 18, 2016

Lockhart Casts a Line into the Murky Waters of Uncertainty

Is uncertainty weighing down business investment? This recent article makes the case.

Uncertainty as an obstacle to business decision making and perhaps even a "propagation mechanism" for business cycles is an idea that that has been generating a lot of support in economic research in recent years. Our friend Nick Bloom has a nice summary of that work here.

Last week, the boss here at the Atlanta Fed gave the trout in the Snake River a break and made some observations on the economy to the Rocky Mountain Economic Summit, casting a line in the direction of economic uncertainties. Among his remarks, he noted that:

The minutes of the June FOMC [Federal Open Market Committee] meeting clearly pointed to uncertainty about employment momentum and the outcome of the vote in Britain as factors in the Committee's decision to keep policy unchanged. I supported that decision and gave weight to those two uncertainties in my thinking.

At the same time, I viewed both the implications of the June jobs report and the outcome of the Brexit vote as uncertainties with some resolution over a short time horizon. We've seen, now, that the vote outcome may be followed by a long tail of uncertainty of quite a different character.

But he followed that with something of a caution…

If uncertainty is a real causative factor in economic slowdowns, it needs to be better understood. Policymaking would be aided by better measurement tools. For example, it would help me as a policymaker if we had a firmer grip on the various channels through which uncertainty affects decision-making of economic actors.

I have been thinking about the different kinds of uncertainty we face. Often we policymakers grapple with uncertainty associated with discrete events. The passage of the event to a great extent resolves the uncertainty. The outcome of the Brexit referendum would be known by June 24. The interpretation of the May employment report would come clear, or clearer, with the arrival of the June employment report on July 8. I would contrast these examples of short-term, self-resolving uncertainty with long-term, persistent, chronic uncertainty such as that brought on by the Brexit referendum outcome.

As President Lockhart indicated in his speech, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta conducts business surveys that attempt to measure the uncertainties that businesses face. From July 4 through July 8, we had a survey in the field with a question on how the Brexit referendum was influencing business decisions.

We asked firms to indicate how the outcome of the Brexit vote affected their sales growth outlook. Respondents could select a range of sentiments from "much more certain" to "much more uncertain."

Responses came from 244 firms representing a broad range of sectors and firm sizes, with roughly one-third indicating their sales growth outlook was "somewhat" or "much" more uncertain as a result of the vote (see the chart). Those noting heightened uncertainty were not concentrated in any one sector or firm-size category but represented a rather diverse group.

Chart: Which of the following best describes how the outcome of the recent referendum in Great Britain (so-called Brexit) has affected your sales growth outlook?

As President Lockhart noted in his speech, "[w]e had a spirited internal discussion of whether one-third is a big number or not-so-big." Ultimately, we decided that uncovering how these firms planned to act in light of their elevated uncertainty was the important focus.

In an open-ended, follow-up question, we then asked those whose sales growth outlook was more uncertain how their plans might change. We found that the most prevalent changes in planning were a reduction in capital spending and hiring. Many firms mentioned these two topics in tandem, as this rather succinct quote illustrates: "Slower hiring and lower capital spending." Our survey data, then, provide some support for the idea that uncertainties associated with Brexit were, in fact, weighing on firm investment and labor decisions.

Elevated measures of financial market and economic policy uncertainty immediately after the Brexit vote have abated somewhat over subsequent days. Once the "waters clear," as our boss would say, perhaps this will be the case for firms as well.

January 31, 2014

A Brief Interview with Sergio Rebelo on the Euro-Area Economy

Last month, we at the Atlanta Fed had the great pleasure of hosting Sergio Rebelo for a couple of days. While he was here, we asked Sergio to share his thoughts on a wide range of current economic topics. Here is a snippet of a Q&A we had with him about the state of the euro-area economy:

Sergio, what would you say was the genesis of the problems the euro area has faced in recent years?

The contours of the euro area’s problems are fairly well known. The advent of the euro gave peripheral countries—Ireland, Spain, Portugal, and Greece—the ability to borrow at rates that were similar to Germany's. This convergence of borrowing costs was encouraged through regulation that allowed banks to treat all euro-area sovereign bonds as risk free.

The capital inflows into the peripheral countries were not, for the most part, directed to the tradable sector. Instead, they financed increases in private consumption, large housing booms in Ireland and Spain, and increases in government spending in Greece and Portugal. The credit-driven economic boom led to a rise in labor costs and a loss of competitiveness in the tradable sector.

Was there a connection between the financial crisis in the United States and the sovereign debt crisis in the euro area?

Simply put, after Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, we had a sudden stop of capital flows into the periphery, similar to that experienced in the past by many Latin American countries. The periphery boom quickly turned into a bust.

What do you see as the role for euro area monetary policy in that context?

It seems clear that more expansionary monetary policy would have been helpful. First, it would have reduced real labor costs in the peripheral countries. In those countries, the presence of high unemployment rates moderates nominal wage increases, so higher inflation would have reduced real wages. Second, inflation would have reduced the real value of the debts of governments, banks, households, and firms. There might have been some loss of credibility on the part of the ECB [European Central Bank], resulting in a small inflation premium on euro bonds for some time. But this potential cost would have been worth paying in return for the benefits.

And did this happen?

In my view, the ECB did not follow a sufficiently expansionary monetary policy. In fact, the euro-area inflation rate has been consistently below 2 percent and the euro is relatively strong when compared to a purchasing-power-parity benchmark. The euro area turned to contractionary fiscal policy as a panacea. There are good theoretical reasons to believe that—when the interest rate remains constant that so the central bank does not cushion the fall in government spending—the multiplier effect of government spending cuts can be very large. See, for example, Gauti Eggertsson and Michael Woodford, “The Zero Interest-rate Bound and Optimal Monetary Policy,” and Lawrence Christiano, Martin Eichenbaum, and Sergio Rebelo, "When Is the Government Spending Multiplier Large?

Theory aside, the results of the austerity policies implemented in the euro area are clear. All of the countries that underwent this treatment are now much less solvent than in the beginning of the adjustment programs managed by the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund, and the ECB.

Bank stress testing has become a cornerstone of macroprudential financial oversight. Do you think they helped stabilize the situation in the euro area during the height of the crisis in 2010 and 2011?

No. Quite the opposite. I think the euro-area problems were compounded by the weak stress tests conducted by the European Banking Association in 2011. Almost no banks failed, and almost no capital was raised. Banks largely increased their capital-to-asset ratios by reducing assets, which resulted in a credit crunch that added to the woes of the peripheral countries.

But we’re past the worst now, right? Is the outlook for the euro-area economy improving?

After hitting the bottom, a very modest recovery is under way in Europe. But the risk that a Japanese-style malaise will afflict Europe is very real. One useful step on the horizon is the creation of a banking union. This measure could potentially alleviate the severe credit crunch afflicting the periphery countries.

Thanks, Sergio, for this pretty sobering assessment.

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

Editor’s note: Sergio Rebelo is the Tokai Bank Distinguished Professor of International Finance at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. He is a fellow of the Econometric Society, the National Bureau of Economic Research, and the Center for Economic Policy Research.

November 4, 2010

Some in Europe lag behind

Since around June, news of European fiscal deficits, financial markets stresses, potential sovereign debt defaults, or even a breakup of the euro zone has faded. The focal points of global economic policy have shifted to the sluggish recovery in developed countries and potential for further unconventional monetary stimulus.

A cursory look at a few key data reflects an improved European economic outlook from this summer. The simple dollar/euro exchange rate (see chart 1) shows that since June 1 the euro has appreciated nearly 15 percent against the dollar. While many different factors affect exchange rates—and increasing expectation of further monetary stimulus in the United States has helped the euro appreciate against the dollar—some of the appreciation seems to reasonably reflect the relative improvement of market sentiment about the fiscal situation in several European countries. Similarly, looking at the major stock indexes (mostly in Western European nations) shows a steady improvement from the lows of this summer, with the Euro Stoxx 50 index rising nearly 11 percent since June 1 (see chart 2). Thus, looking at most aggregate European data paints a picture of relative improvement, though most forecasters expect sluggish growth going forward. It's when one examines individual countries that it becomes clear some are lagging behind.

Chart 1

Chart 2

While the early stages of the European sovereign debt crisis centered on the fiscal scenario in Greece, market stress eventually spread to all the so-called PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain) and even appeared to threaten the wider euro zone. Following an assortment of unprecedented interventions—highlighted by the 750 billion euro (approximately $1.05 trillion) rescue package from the European Union (through the European Financial Stability Facility) and support from the International Monetary Fund—market confidence slowly grew, and since this summer, various measures of financial market functioning have stabilized.

But while the threat of wider European contagion appears contained, fragilities remain. As has been documented in a variety of media reports, the recent improvement masks the individual euro zone peripheral countries' struggles with implementing fiscal consolidation, improving labor competiveness, resolving fragile banking systems, and staving off a crisis of confidence in sovereign debt markets.

Both bond spreads of individual European sovereign debt (over German sovereign debt) and credit default swap spreads show some stabilization for a few of the euro zone countries, but spreads in three countries—Greece, Ireland, and Portugal—are distinctly more elevated than the others (see charts 3 and 4).

Chart 3

Chart 4

The reasons for rising financing costs in these countries vary. In Ireland, for example, concerns about the Irish banking system (and the resolution of Anglo Irish Bank, in particular) were initially the driving cause. In Portugal, it was doubt over the implementation of necessary economic reforms that drove investor reluctance to provide financing; the recent adoption of austerity measures into the 2011 budget should alleviate some worry. But now much of the market action in both Irish and Portuguese bonds is focused on tough new bailout rules being implemented by the European Union.

On one hand, the renewed financing pressure brought upon these countries is less worrisome because of the backstop of the European Financial Stabilization Facility (EFSF). In fact, Moody's thinks it is unlikely there will be a euro zone default. Should market financing become too expensive for Greece, Ireland, or Portugal, the special purpose vehicle (SPV) imbedded within the EFSF could help by providing financing up to 440 billion euros ($616 billion).

But on the other hand, as part of the wider crisis prevention following the introduction of the EFSF, most European governments are implementing some level of fiscal austerity measures. From a political perspective, the implementation of these austerity measures varies widely, as demonstrated recently by the strikes in France over legislation trying to raise the retirement age. In addition to the uncertainty of implementing fiscal consolidation, there is pressure from the administrators of the EFSF to enforce burden-sharing on private bondholders in the event of any future bailout. This pressure is the primary impetus causing investors to shun the weaker peripheral countries.

One important player in this saga is the European Central Bank, which began buying European bonds for Greece, Ireland, and Portugal (among others) in conjunction with the EFSF announcement. Yet in recent weeks this bond buying has abated, and with money market pressures remaining in Europe, "something clearly has to give way," as Free Exchange wrote recently.

While aggregate market measures (exchange rates, stock indices, etc.) from Europe appear to be improving, a few specific countries face some hard challenges ahead.

By Andrew Flowers, senior economic research analyst in the Atlanta Fed's research department