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Fed Nonsense and Error Bars

February 5, 2016 Leave a comment

Today’s news was the Employment number. I am not going to talk a lot about the number, since the January jobs number is one of those releases where the seasonal adjustments totally swamp the actual data, and so it has even wider-than-normal error bars. I will discuss error bars more in a moment, but first here is something I do want to point out about the Employment figure. Average Hourly Earnings are now clearly rising. The latest year-on-year number was 2.5%, well above consensus estimates, and last month’s release was revised to 2.7%. So now, the chart of wage growth looks like this.

ahe

Of course, I always point out that wages follow inflation, rather than leading it, but since so many people obsess about the wrong inflation metric this may not be readily apparent. But here is Average Hourly Earnings, y/y, versus Median CPI. I have shown this chart before.

aheandmedian

The salient point is that whether you are looking at core CPI or PCE or Median CPI, and whether you think wages lead prices or follow prices, this number significantly increases the odds that the Fed raises rates again. Yes, there are lots of reasons the Fed’s intended multi-year tightening campaign is unlikely to unfold, and I am one of those who think that they may already be regretting the first one. But a number like this will tend to convince the hawks among them otherwise.

Speaking of the Fed, last night I attended a speech by Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester, sponsored by Market News International. Every time I hear a Fed speaker speak, afterwards I want to put my head into a vise to squeeze all of the nonsense out – and last night was no different. Now, Dr. Mester is a classically-trained, highly-accomplished economist with a Ph.D. from Princeton, but I don’t hold that against her. Indeed, credit where credit is due: unlike many such speakers I have heard in the past, Dr. Mester seemed to put more error bars around some of her answers and, in one of the best exchanges, she observed that we won’t really know whether the QE tool is worth keeping in the toolkit until after monetary conditions have returned to normal. That’s unusual; most Fed speakers have long been declaring victory. She is certainly a fan and an advocate of QE, but at least recognizes that the chapter on QE cannot yet be written (although I make what I think is a fair attempt at such a chapter in my book, due out in a month or so).

But the problem with the Federal Reserve boils down to two things. First, like any large institution there is massive groupthink going on. There is little true and significant diversity of opinion. For example there are, for all intents and purposes, no true monetarists left at the Fed who have any voice. Daniel Thornton at the St. Louis Fed was the last one who ever published pieces expressing the important role of money in monetary policy, and he retired a little while back. As another example, it is taken as a given that “transparency” is a good thing, despite the fact that many of the questions posed last night to Dr. Mester boiled down to problems that are actually due to too much transparency. I doubt seriously whether there has ever been a formal discussion, internally, of the connection between increased financial leverage and increased Fed transparency. Many of the problems with “too big to fail” institutions boil down to too much leverage, and a transparent Fed that carefully telegraphs its intentions will tend to increase investor confidence in outcomes and, hence, tend to increase leverage. But I cannot imagine that anyone at the Fed has ever seriously raised the question whether they should be giving less, rather than more, information to the market. It is significantly outside of chapter-and-verse.

The second problem is that the denizens of the Fed overestimate their knowledge and their ability  to know certain things that may simply not be knowable. Again, Dr. Mester was a mild exception to this – but very mild. When someone says “We think the overnight rate should normalize more slowly than implied by the Taylor Rule,” but then doesn’t follow that up with an explanation of why you think so, I grow wary. Because economics in the real world, practiced honestly, should produce a lot of “I don’t know” answers. It may be boring, but this is how the question-and-answer with Dr. Mester should have gone:

Q: What do you think inflation will do in 2016?

A: I don’t know. I can tell you my point estimate, but it has really wide error bars.

Q: What do you think short rates will do in 2016?

A: I don’t know. I can tell you my point estimate, but it has really wide error bars.

Q: What do you think the Unemployment Rate will do in 2016?

A: I don’t know. I can tell you my point estimate, but it has really wide error bars.

Q: What do you think the Unemployment Rate will do in 2017?

A: I don’t know. I can tell you my point estimate, but it has really, really wide error bars.

Q: What do you think the consensus is at the Fed about the optimal pace of raising rates?

A: I don’t know. Each person on the Committee has a point estimate, each of which has really wide error bars. Collectively, we have an average that has even wider error bars. We cannot therefore usefully characterize what the path of the short rate will look like. At all.

Indeed, this is part of the problem with transparency. If you are going to be transparent, there is going to be pressure to provide “answers.” But a forecast without an error bar is just a guess. The error bars are what cause a guess to become an estimate. So we get a “dot plot” with a bunch of guesses on it. The actual dot plot, from December, looks like this:

dotplot

But the dot plot should look more like this, where the error bars are all included.

betterdotplotObviously, we would take the latter chart as meaning…correctly…that the Fed really has very little idea of where the funds rate is going to be in a couple of years and cannot convincingly reject the hypothesis that rates will be basically unchanged from here. That’s simultaneously transparent, and very informational, and colossally unhelpful to fast-twitch traders.

And now I can release the vise on my head. Thank you for letting me get the nonsense out.

Zigs and Zags

January 13, 2016 Leave a comment

“The market,” said J.P. Morgan, when asked for his opinion on what the market would do, “will fluctuate.”

Truer words were never spoken, but the depth of the truism as well is interesting. One implication of this observation – that prices will vary – is that the patient investor should mostly ignore noise in the markets. Ben Graham went further; he proposed thinking about a hypothetical “Mister Market,” who every day would offer to buy your stocks or sell you some more. On some days, Mister Market is fearful and offers to sell you stocks at a terrific discount; on other days, he is ebullient and offers to buy your holdings at far more than they are worth. Graham argued that this can only be a positive for an investor who knows the value of the business he holds. He can sell it if Mister Market is paying too much, or buy it if Mister Market is selling it too cheaply.

Graham did not give enough weight to momentum, as opposed to value – the idea that Mister Market might be paying too much today, but if you sell your holdings to him today, then you might miss the opportunity to sell them to him next year for double the stupid price. And, over the last couple of decades, momentum has become far more important to most investors than has value. (I blame CNBC, but that’s a different story).

In either case, the point is important – if you know what you own, and why you own it, and even better if you have an organized framework for thinking about the investment that is time-independent (that is, it doesn’t depend on how you feel today or tomorrow), then the zigs and zags don’t matter much to you in terms of your existing investments.

(As for future investments, young people should prefer declining asset markets, since they will be investing for long periods and should prefer lower prices to buy rather than higher prices; on the other hand, retirees should prefer rising asset prices, since they will be net sellers and should prefer higher prices to lower prices. In practice, everyone seems to like higher prices even though this is not rational in terms of one’s investing life.)

We have recently been experiencing a fair number of zigs, but mostly zags over the last couple of weeks. The stock market is near the last year’s lows – but, it should be noted, it still holds 84% of its gains since March 2009, so it is hardly disintegrating. The dividend yield of the S&P is 2.32%, the highest in some time and once again above 10-year Treasury yields. On the other hand, according to my calculations the expected 10-year return to equities is only about 1.25% more per annum than TIPS yields (0.65% plus inflation, for 10 years), so they are not cheap by any stretch of the imagination. The CAPE is still around 24, which about 50% higher than the historical average. But, in keeping with my point so far: none of these numbers has changed very much in the last couple of weeks. The stock market being down 10%, plus or minus, is a fairly small move from a value perspective (from a momentum perspective, though, it can and has tipped a number of measures).

But here is the more important overarching point to me, right now. I don’t worry about zigs and zags but what I do worry about is the fact that we are approaching the next bear market – whether it is this month, or this year, or next year, we will eventually have a bear market – with less liquidity then when we had the last bear market. Dealers and market-makers have been decimated by regulations and constraints on their deployment of capital, in the name of making them more secure and preventing a “systemic event” in the next calamity. All that means, to me, is that the systemic event will be more distributed. Each investor will face his own systemic event, when he finds the market for his shares is not where he wanted it to be, for the size he needed it to be. This is obviously less of a problem for individual investors. But mutual fund managers, pension fund managers – in short, the people with the big portfolios and the big positions – will have trouble changing their investment stances in a reasonable way (yet another reason to prefer smaller funds and managers, but increasing regulation has also made it very difficult to start and sustain a smaller investment management franchise). Another way to say this is that it is very likely that while the average or median market movement is likely to be similar to what it has been in the past, the tails are likely to be longer than in the past. That is, we may not go from a two-standard-deviation event to a four-standard-deviation event. We may go straight to a six-standard-deviation event.

If market “tails” are likely to be longer than in the past because of (il)liquidity, then the incentive for avoiding those tails is higher. This is true in two ways. First, it creates an incentive for an investor to move earlier, and lighten positions earlier, in a potential downward move in the market. And second, in the context of the Kelly Criterion (see my old article on this topic, here), rising volatility combined with decreased liquidity in general means that at every level of the market, investors should hold more cash than they otherwise would.

I don’t know how far the market will go down, and I don’t really care. I am prepared for “down.” What I care about is how fast.

Back From the Moon

January 6, 2016 2 comments

Economics is too important to be left to economists, apparently.

When the FOMC minutes were released this afternoon, I saw the headline “Some FOMC Members Saw ‘Considerable’ Risk to Inflation Outlook” and my jaw dropped. Here, finally, was a sign that the Fed is not completely asleep at the wheel! Here, finally, was a glimmer of concern from policymakers themselves that the central bank may be behind the curve!

Alas…my jaw soon returned to its regular position when I realized that the risk to the inflation outlook which concerned the FOMC was the “considerable” risk that it might fall.

A quick review is in order. I know it is a new year and we are still shaking off the eggnog cobwebs. Inflation is caused (only) when money growth is faster than GDP growth. In the short run, that holds imprecisely because of the influence of money velocity, but we also have a pretty good idea of what causes money velocity to ebb and flow: to wit, interest rates (more precisely, investment opportunities, which can be simply modeled by interest rates but more accurately should include things such a P/E multiples, real estate cap rates, and so on). And in the long run, velocity does not continue to move permanently in one direction unless interest rates also continue to move in that direction.

It is worth pointing out, in this regard, that money growth continues to swell at a 6.2% domestically over the last 12 months, and nothing the Fed is currently contemplating is likely to slow that growth since there are ample excess reserves to support any lending that banks care to do. But it is also worth pointing out that inflation is currently at 7-year highs and rising, as the chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows.

medcpi

Core inflation is also rising in Japan (0.9%, ex-food and energy, up from -0.9% in Feb 2013), the Eurozone (0.9% ex-food and energy, up from 0.6% in January 2015), and recently even in the UK where core is up to 1.2% after bottoming at 0.8% six months ago. In short, everywhere we have seen an acceleration in money growth rates, we are now seeing inflation. The only question is “why has it taken so long,” and the answer to that is “because central banks held interest rates, and hence velocity, down.”

In other words, as we head towards what looks very likely to be a global recession (albeit not as bad as the last one), we are likely to see inflation rates rising rather than falling. The only caveat is that if interest rates remain low, then the uptick in inflation will not be terrible. And interest rates are likely to remain relatively low everywhere, especially if the Fed operates on the basis of its expectations rather than on the basis of its eyeballs and holds off on further “tightenings.”

Because the Fed has really put itself in the position where most of the things it would normally do are either ineffective (such as draining reserves to raise interest rates) or harmful (raising rates without draining reserves, which would raise velocity and not slow money growth) if the purpose is to restrain inflation. It would be best if the Fed simply worked to drain reserves while slack in the economy holds interest rates (and thus velocity) down. But that is the sort of thinking you won’t see from economists but rather from engineers looking to get Apollo 13 safely home.

Want to try and get Apollo 13 safely back home? Go to the MV≡PQ calculator on the Enduring Investments website and come up with your own M (money supply growth), V (velocity change), and Q (real growth) scenarios. The calculator will give you a grid of outcomes for the average inflation rate over the period you have selected. Remember that this is an identity – if you get the inputs right, the output will be right by definition. Some numbers to remember:

  • Current velocity is 1.49 or so; prior to the crisis it was 1.90 and that is also the average over the last 20 years. The all-time low in velocity prior to this episode was in the 1960s, at about 1.60; the high in the 1990s was 2.20.
  • As for money supply growth, the y/y rate plunged to 1.1% or so after the crisis and it got to zero in 1995, but the average since 1980 including those periods is roughly 6% where it is currently. Rolling 3-year money growth has been between 4% and 9% since the late 1990s, but in the early 80s was over 10% and it declined in the mid-1990s to around 1%.
  • Rolling 3-year GDP growth has been between 0% and 5% since the 1980s. In the four recessions, the lows in rolling 3-year GDP were 0.2%, 1.7%, 1.7%, and -0.4%. The average was about 3.9% in the 1980s, about 3.2% in the 1990s, about 2.7% in the 2000s, and 1.8% (so far) in the 2010s.

Remember, the output is annualized inflation. Start by assuming average GDP, money growth, and ending velocity for some period, and then look at what annualized inflation would work out to be; then, figure out what it would have to be to get stable inflation or deflation. You will find, I think, that you can only get disinflation if money growth slows remarkably (and unexpectedly) and velocity remains unchanged or goes to new record lows. Try putting in some “normal” figures and then ask yourself if the Fed really wants to get back to normal.

And then ask yourself whether you would want Greenspan, Bernanke, and Yellen in charge of getting our boys back from the moon.

A Good Time to Remember

December 16, 2015 7 comments

Some days make me feel so old. Actually, most days make me feel old, come to think of it; but some days make me feel old and wise. Yes, that’s it.

It is a good time to remember that there are a whole lot of people in the market today, many of them managing many millions or even billions of dollars, who have never seen a tightening cycle from the Federal Reserve. The last one began in 2004.

There are many more, managing many more dollars, who have only seen that one cycle, but not two; the previous tightening cycle began in 1999.

This is more than passing relevant. The people who have seen no tightening cycle at all might be inclined to believe the hooey that tightening is bullish for stocks because it means a return to normalcy. The people who have seen only one tightening cycle saw the one that coincided with stocks’ 35% rally from 2004-2007. That latter group absolutely believes the hooey. The fact that said equity market rally began with stocks 27% below the prior all-time high, rather than 32% above it as the market currently is, may not have entered into their calculations.

On the other hand, the people who dimly recall the 1999 episode might recall that the market was fine for a little while, but it didn’t end well. And you don’t know too many dinosaurs who remember the abortive tightening in 1997 in front of the Asian Contagion and the 1994 tightening cycle that ended shortly after the Tequila crisis.

Moreover, it is a good time to remember that no one in the market today, or ever, can remember the last time the Fed tightened in an “environment of abundant liquidity,” which is what they call it when there are too many reserves to actually restrain reserves to change interest rates. That’s because it has never happened before. So if anyone tells you they know with absolute certainty what is going to happen, to stocks or bonds or the dollar or commodities or the economy or inflation or anything else – they are relying on astrology.

Many of us have opinions, and some more well-informed than others. My own opinion tends to be focused on inflationary dynamics, and I remain very confident that inflation is going to head higher not despite the Fed’s action today, but because of it. I want to keep this article short because I know you have a lot to read today, but I will show you a very important picture (source: Bloomberg) that you should remember.

coreandfedfunds

The white line is the Federal Funds target rate (although that meant less at certain times in the past, when the rate was either not targeted directly, as in the early 1980s, or the target was represented as a range of values). The yellow line is core inflation. Focus on the tightening cycles: in the early 1970s, in the late 1970s, in 1983-84, in the late 1980s, in the early 1990s, in 1999-2000, and the one beginning in 2004. In every one of those episodes, save the one in 1994, core inflation either began to rise or accelerated, after the Fed began to tighten.

The generous interpretation of this fact would be that the Fed peered into the future and divined that inflation was about to rise, and so moved in spectacularly-accurate anticipation of that fact. But we know that the Fed’s forecasting abilities are pretty poor. Even the Fed admits their forecasting abilities are pretty poor. And, as it turns out, this phenomenon has a name. Economists call it the “price puzzle.”

If you have been reading my columns, you know this is no puzzle at all for a monetarist. Inflation rises when the Fed begins to tighten because higher interest rates bring about higher monetary velocity, because velocity is the inverse of the demand for real cash balances. That is, when interest rates rise you are less likely to leave money sitting idle; therefore, investors and savers play a game of monetary ‘hot potato’ which gets more intense the higher interest rates go – and that means higher monetary velocity. This effect happens almost instantly. After a time, if the Fed has raised rates in the traditional fashion by reducing the growth rate of money and reserves, the slower monetary growth rate comes to dominate the velocity effect and inflation ebbs. But this takes time.

And, moreover, as I have pointed out before and will keep pointing out as the Fed tightens: in this case, the Fed is not doing anything to slow the growth rate of money, because to do that they would have to drain reserves and they don’t know how to do that. I expect money growth to remain at its current level, or perhaps even to rise as higher interest rates provoke more bank lending without and offsetting restraint coming from bank reserve scarcity. By moving interest rates by diktat, the Fed is increasing monetary velocity and doing nothing (at least, nothing predictable) with the growth rate of money itself. This is a bad idea.

No one knows how it will turn out, least of all the Fed. But if market multiples have anything to do with certainty and low volatility – then we might expect lower market multiples to come.

 

Swimming Naked

December 3, 2015 2 comments

I almost never do this, but I am posting here some remarks from another writer. My friend Andy Fately writes a daily commentary on the FX markets as part of his role at RBC as head of US corporate FX sales. In his remarks this morning, he summed up Yellen’s speech from yesterday more adroitly than I ever could. I am including a couple of his paragraphs here, with his permission.

Yesterday, Janet Yellen helped cement the view that the Fed is going to raise rates at the next FOMC meeting with her speech to the Washington Economic Club.  Here was the key paragraph:

“However, we must also take into account the well-documented lags in the effects of monetary policy. Were the FOMC to delay the start of policy normalization for too long, we would likely end up having to tighten policy relatively abruptly to keep the economy from significantly overshooting both of our goals. Such an abrupt tightening would risk disrupting financial markets and perhaps even inadvertently push the economy into recession. Moreover, holding the federal funds rate at its current level for too long could also encourage excessive risk-taking and thus undermine financial stability.” (Emphasis added).

So after nearly seven years of zero interest rates and massive inflation in the size of the Fed balance sheet, the last five of which were in place after the end of the Financial Crisis induced recession, the Fed is now concerned about encouraging excessive risk-taking?  Really?  REALLY?  That may be the most disingenuous statement ever made by a Fed Chair.  Remember, the entire thesis of QE was that it would help encourage economic growth through the ‘portfolio rebalancing channel’, which was a fancy way of saying that if the Fed bought up all the available Treasuries and drove yields to historic lows, then other investors would be forced to buy either equities or lower rated debt thus enhancing capital flow toward business, and theoretically impelling growth higher.  Of course, what we observed was a massive rally in the equity market that was based largely, if not entirely, on the financial engineering by companies issuing cheap debt and buying back their own shares.  Capex and R&D spending have both lagged, and top-line growth at many companies remains hugely constrained.  And the Fed has been the driver of this entire outcome.  And now, suddenly, Yellen is concerned that there might be excessive risk-taking.  Sheesh!

Like Andy, I have been skeptical that uber-dove Yellen would be willing to raise rates unless dragged kicking and screaming to that action. And, like Andy, I think the Chairman has let the market assume for too long that rates will rise this month to be able to postpone the action further. Unless something dramatic happens between now and the FOMC meeting this month, we should assume the Fed will raise rates. And then the dramatic stuff will happen afterwards. Actually I wouldn’t normally expect much drama from a well-telegraphed move, but in an illiquid market made more illiquid by the calendar in the latter half of December, I would be cutting risk no matter which direction I was trading the market. I expect others will too, which itself might lead to some volatility.

There is also the problem of an initial move of any kind after a long period of monetary policy quiescence. In February 1994, the Fed tightened to 3.25% after what was to that point a record period of inaction: nearly one and a half years of rates at 3%. In April 1994, Procter & Gamble reported a $102 million charge on a swap done with Bankers Trust – what some at the time said “may be the largest ever” swaps charge at a US industrial company. And later in 1994, in the largest municipal bankruptcy to that point, Orange County reported large losses on reverse repurchase agreements done with the Street. Robert Citron had seen easy money betting that rates wouldn’t rise, and for a while they did not. Until they did. (It is sweetly sentimental to think of how the media called reverse repos “derivatives” and were up in arms about the leverage that this manager was allowed to deploy. Cute.)

The point of that trip down memory lane is just this: telegraphed or not (it wasn’t like the tightening in 1994 was a complete shocker), there will be some firms that are over-levered to the wrong outcome, or are betting on the tightening path being more gradual or less gradual than it will actually turn out to be. Once the Fed starts to raise rates, the tide will be going out and we will find out who has been swimming naked.

And the lesson of history is that some risk-taker is always swimming naked.

Anchors Aweigh!

October 19, 2015 2 comments

I think it is time to talk a little bit about “anchored inflation expectations.”

Key to a lot of the inflation modeling at the Fed, and in some sterile economics classrooms around the country, is the notion that inflation is partially shaped by the expectations of inflation. Therefore, when people expect inflation to remain down, it tends to remain down. Thus, you often hear Fed officials talk about the importance of inflation expectations being anchored, and that phrase appears often in Federal Reserve statements and minutes.

I have long found it interesting that with as much as the Fed relies on the notion that inflation expectations are anchored, they have no way to accurately measure inflation expectations. Former Fed Chairman Bernanke said in a speech in 2007 that three important questions remain to be addressed about inflation expectations:

  1. How should the central bank best monitor the public’s inflation expectations?
  2. How do changes in various measures of inflation expectations feed through to actual pricing behavior?
  3. What factors affect the level of inflation expectations and the degree to which they are anchored?

According to Bernanke, the staff at the Federal Reserve struggle with even the first of these questions (“while inflation expectations doubtless are crucial determinants of observed inflation, measuring expectations and inferring just how they affect inflation are difficult tasks”), although this has not deterred them from tackling the second and third questions. Economists use the Hoey survey, the Survey of Professional Forecasters, the Livingston survey, the Michigan survey, and inflation breakevens derived from the TIPS or inflation swaps markets. But all of these suffer from the fundamental problem that what constitutes “inflation” is a difficult question in itself and answering a question about a phenomenon that is hard to quantify viscerally probably causes people to respond to surveys with an answer indicating what they expect the well-known CPI measure to show. I talked about many of these problems in my paper on measuring inflation expectations (“Real-Feel” Inflation: Quantitative Estimation of Inflation Perceptions), but the upshot is that we don’t have a good way to measure expectations.

So, with that as background, consider this fact: next year, some Medicare participants will face a 0% increase in premiums while some Medicare participants will face increases of more than 50%.

I am skeptical of the notion of inflation anchoring. But I am really skeptical if it is the case that different segments of the population see totally different inflation pictures. Which anchor counts, if one large group of people expects 7% inflation and another large group expects 1% inflation?

I would argue that none of those anchors matter, because the whole notion is silly. Let’s think through the mechanism of “inflation anchoring.” So the idea is that when people expect lower inflation, they make decisions that tend to produce lower inflation. What decisions are those? If you expect 1% inflation, but Medicare costs go up 50%, what decision are you going to make that will cause that increase to be closer to your expectations? If eggs go up 25 cents per carton and you were expecting 5 cents…is the idea that no one will buy eggs and so the vendor will have to lower the price? What about his costs? Pretty clearly, the mechanism will have to work on the seller’s side, but since every seller is a buyer except for the original seller of labor, the idea must be that if people expect high inflation they argue for higher wages, which causes prices to rise.

Aha.

I have put paid to that notion in this space before. It doesn’t make any sense to think that wages lead inflation, for if they did then we would all love inflation because we would always be ahead of it. But we know that’s not how it works – prices rise, and then we get higher wages. And sometimes we don’t.

Let’s try another hypothetical. Suppose the Federal Reserve literally drops $50 trillion, unexpectedly, from helicopters. And suppose that consumers did not change their expectations for inflation because they believed, much like the Fed does, that money doesn’t play a role in causing inflation – in other words, their expectations were “extremely well-anchored.” Does anyone think that the price level wouldn’t change, a lot, in contrast to the expectations of the crowd? (I sometimes wonder if Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen, who “sometimes…believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” was a Fed economist.)

The whole idea that inflation expectations matter is an effort to explain why parameterizations of inflation models have a regime break in the early 1990s. That is, you can fit a model to 1970-1992, or to 1994-present, but you need different parameters for almost anything you try in the Keynesian-modeling world. Econometricians know that outcome means that you are missing an explanatory variable somewhere; econometricians also know that a very convenient way to gloss over the problem is to introduce a “dummy” variable. In this case, the dummy variable is explained as “inflation expectations became anchored in the early 1990s.”

With all of the problems affecting the notion of expectations-anchoring, I find this solution to the modeling problem deeply unsatisfying. I do not believe that inflation expectations anchor for everybody collectively, but that different groups of people have different (and widely different) anchors. And I don’t think that these anchors themselves play much of a role at all in causing a certain level of inflation. There are better models, simpler models, which do not require you to believe six impossible things.

Unfortunately, they do require you to believe in monetarism. And to some people, that is a seventh impossible thing.

The New Fed Operating Framework Explained with Cheese

October 8, 2015 2 comments

This will be a brief but hopefully helpful column. For some time, I have been explaining that the new Fed operating framework for monetary policy, in which the FOMC essentially steers interest rates higher by fiat rather than in the traditional method (by managing the supply of funds and therefore the resulting pressure on reserves), is a really bad idea. But in responding to a reader’s post I inadvertently hit on an explanation that may be clearer for some people than my analogy of a doctor manipulating his thermometer to give the right reading from the patient.

Right now, there is a tremendous surplus of reserves above what banks are required to hold or desire to hold. With free markets, this would result in a Fed funds interest rate of zero, or even lower under some circumstances, with a substantial remaining surplus.[1] In this case, the Fed funds effective rate has tended to be in the 10-20bps range since the Fed started paying interest on excess reserves (IOER).

So what happens when there is a floor price established above the market-clearing price? Economics 101 tells us that this results in surplus, with less exchange and higher prices than at equilibrium. Consider a farm-price support program where the government establishes a minimum price for cheese (as it has, actually, in the past). If that price is below the natural market-clearing price, then the floor has no effect. But if the price is above the natural market-clearing price, as in the chart below where the minimum cheese price is set at a, then in the market we will see a quantity of cheese traded equal to b, at a price of a.

cheese

But what also happens is that producers respond to the higher price by producing more cheese, which is why the supply curve has the shape it does. In order to keep this excess cheese from pushing market prices lower, the government ends up buying c-b cheese at some expense that ends up being a transfer from government to farmers. It can amount to a lot of cheese.[2] This is the legacy of farm price supports: vast warehouses of products that the government owns but cannot distribute, because to distribute them would push prices lower. So the government ends up distributing them to people who wouldn’t otherwise buy cheese, at a zero price. And eventually, we get the Wikipedia entry “government cheese.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Government_cheese

Now, this is precisely what has happened with the artificial price support for overnight interest rates. Whatever the clearing interest rate is with the current level of reserves, it is lower than the 0.25% IOER (and we know this, among other ways, because there are excess reserves. If the price floating to the actual clearing price, then there would be no excess reserves, although the mechanism for this result is admittedly more confusing than it is for cheese). So the Federal Reserve is forced to “buy up the surplus reserves” by paying interest on these reserves; this amounts to a transfer from the government to banks, rather than to farmers in the cheese example.

You should realize too that setting the floor rate higher than the market-clearing rate artificially reduces the volume of trade in reserves. The chart below, which comes from this article on the New York Fed’s blog, illustrates this nicely.

6a01348793456c970c019b01bdca9a970d-800wi

Creating such a floor also causes the supply of excess reserves themselves to increase beyond what it would otherwise be. This confusing result derives because while the Fed supplies the total reserves number to the market, banks can choose to create more “excess” reserves by doing less lending, or can create fewer excess reserves by doing more lending. Of course, banks aren’t deciding to create excess reserves per se; they are deciding whether it is more advantageous to make a loan or to earn risk-free money on the excess reserves. A higher floor rate implies less lending, all else equal – and, as I have said in the past, this means the Fed could cause a huge increase in bank lending by setting IOER at a penalty rate. This would create the conditions necessary for these lines to cross in negative nominal interest rate territory, with much higher volumes of credit and much lower levels of excess reserves being the result.

In this environment, and as recognized by the Sack-Gagnon framework that is now the presumed operating framework for Fed policy, raising IOER is the only way to change the overnight interest rates unless the Desk undertakes to shift the entire supply curve heavily to the left, by draining trillions in reserves. But raising IOER, just like raising the floor price of cheese, will create more imbalances: bigger excess reserves, less lending, and a bigger transfer from government to banks.

(Note: this is subtly different from what I have said before, which is that raising IOER will have no effect on the growth rate of the transactional money supply. Depending on the shape of the supply curve, it will reduce lending which in turn may reduce the growth rate of the monetary aggregates that we care about, such as M2. My suspicion is that the supply curve is in fact pretty steep, meaning that banks are relatively insensitive to small changes in rates, and thus loans and hence the monetary aggregates won’t see much change in the rate of growth – or, more likely, any change will be the result of other effects beyond this one such as the effect of general economic prospects on the quality of credits and the demand for loans).

Price supports, as any economist can tell you, are an inefficient way to subsidize an industry. And in fact, I don’t think the Fed is really interested in subsidizing banks at this stage in the cycle: they seem to be doing just fine. But they are taking on all of these imbalances, creating all of this government cheese, because they believe the effects I talk about parenthetically above are quite large, rather than vanishingly small as I believe. And the ancillary effect, by raising interest rates, is to spur money velocity – an unmitigated negative in this environment, as it will push inflation higher.

Now, all of this discussion may be moot since the current betting is that the Fed won’t raise interest rates any time soon. But it is good to understand this mechanism as clearly as we can, so that we can prepare ourselves for those effects when they occur.

[1] It is really hard to say how low interest rates would go, and/or how much surplus would remain, because we have no idea at all what the supply and demand curves for funds look like at sub-zero rates. Most likely there is a discontinuity at a zero rate, but how much of one and the elasticities of supply and demand below zero are likely to be “weird.”

[2] In fact, in high school I won an economics prize for my paper “That’s a Lotta Cheese.” No joke.

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