Evaluating the New Kid
Part of the assessment of a new Federal Reserve Chairman always involves trying to figure out if the new person says particular things because they are wily, and cagey, or because they don’t really have a good idea of what they’re doing.
For example, when Chairman Bernanke said on “60 Minutes” that he was “100 percent” certain that the Fed could stop inflation from happening, some people thought he was being clever and projecting the great confidence that investors presumably needed to hear from the Fed Chairman at that time. I didn’t buy that, and rather thought that anyone associated with real-life financial markets (as opposed to models) would never attach a 100% probability to anything, and certainly not something that had never been tried. Subsequent events showed that the latter was probably closer to the truth, as the Fed went from reassuring the world that it could exit whenever it was warranted, to claiming that no exit – in the sense of needing to reduce its balance sheet – was necessary. That transition in message was largely due to the slowly-developing realization that in the real world, you can’t sell $2 trillion of securities as easily as you can buy them when the Treasury is going the same way.
We are going through a similar process of “market vetting” with Yellen. Her decision to stay the course on the taper – which is surely the right course – could be wise, or it could simply be that she doesn’t make decisions very quickly. It isn’t clear right now which of these is the case.
However, I find her recent talk about inflation to be disturbing. Yes, of course we all know that she is a dove. And, given her historical record on monetary policy topics, I don’t expect her to be as concerned as others (such as Allan Meltzer in today’s Wall Street Journal) are about the prospects for inflation – in other words, I expect her to be late and slow to respond. And that theme got no lack of support today, when Yellen remarked in testimony before the Joint Economic Committee, that “In light of the considerable degree of slack that remains in labor markets and the continuation of inflation below the Committee’s 2 percent objective, a high degree of monetary accommodation remains warranted.” Certainly, that is no surprise, and neither is her assertion (scary though it be) that “In particular, we anticipate that even after employment and inflation are near mandate-consistent levels, economic and financial conditions may, for some time, warrant keeping the target federal funds rate below levels that the Committee views as normal in the longer run.”
I’m not too keen when the Chairman basically promises to keep interest rates below neutral levels even when unemployment and inflation are at normal levels; that’s essentially a promise to raise inflation to a level higher than the Fed’s longer-term goal. Moreover, I am also unsure still whether the Chair is fully informed with respect to the current level and trajectory of inflation itself. It is soothing to hear her acknowledge that “inflation will begin to move up toward 2 percent” (headline inflation will exceed that level eight days from now, and median inflation is already above that standard so this isn’t a difficult projection for an economist) but Dr. Yellen seems to be unaware that the main reason that core PCE and CPI inflation is below 2% today is due to the fact that in April of last year, Medicare slashed prices paid to doctors due to sequester-induced cuts. Bernanke has noted this previously, and it isn’t exactly a state secret…then again, come to think of it state secrets aren’t what they used to be. But talking about persistent inflation below 2%, when there is very little chance of that, makes me wonder whether she’s really attuned to what is happening with prices. CPI and PCE are not the right indicators to be looking at right now – a point also made clearly by the deviation over the last year of PriceStats inflation from CPI inflation (see chart, source PriceStats).
If it were Bernanke talking, we would assume that he knows where the numbers actually are and is just trying to talk the market to his way of thinking. Greenspan was a notorious numbers wonk so there is no doubt that he would know the context of what he’s talking about. But with the new Chair, we don’t really know. It may be that, since she knows she’s keeping rates down for a long time regardless of what happens, she isn’t getting too fine about the details right now. Or it may be that she is alarmed and doesn’t want to let on (I doubt this). It might even be that she doesn’t really know much about inflation, and given her past remarks on the subject of LSAP and policy stimulus – linked to above – that is a possibility we cannot truly refute at this point.
The Fed is already a year or more behind schedule when it comes to removing accommodation in time to prevent an uptick in inflation. I am looking for evidence that they know that inflation will not arrest the moment they decide they are concerned, but I can’t find it. This should worry us all.