Search Blog Entries
Feeds for this site
References and Recommendations

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Contact and login
Currently Reading
  • The Silk Roads: A New History of the World
    The Silk Roads: A New History of the World
    by Peter Frankopan
  • Eyes: Novellas and Stories
    Eyes: Novellas and Stories
    by William H. Gass
  • The Innocent
    The Innocent
    by Ian McEwan
Powered by Squarespace

Entries in Fed Watch (3)


Tweaking the Fed's unemployment target 

Last week I had a look at the US labour market over at Variant Perception's blog based on this excellent piece by Ellen Terry, an economist at the Atlanta Fed, which discusses the drivers of the decline in the US labour force participation rate. The issue should be well known for US economy watchers. The unemployment rate has declined noticeably but if we factor in the declining labour force participation rate the picture looks largely unchanged. 

The following sums up the main point from Terry's study and my own comments. 

The most interesting aspect of Terry’s analysis however is the finding that the bulk of the decline in the US labour force participation rate (80%) is due to one of three reasons.


  1. Wants a job, but can’t find one
  2. Disabled/ill
  3. Retired


The disabled/ill category is interesting because of the increasing evidence that receiving disability aid is better paid than having a low wage job. Several academic and journalist sources have been pointing to the unsustainable rise in the prevalence of social disability entitlements in the US. Finally, it is interesting to ponder retirement as one of the major causes of the decline in the labour force participation rate. This is significant for two reasons in our view. Firstly, because retired workers are unlikely to re-enter even if economic conditions improve (and if they do it will most likely be in part-time and/or low wage occupations). Secondly, it casts a pessimistic empirical light on the prospect (in all OECD economies) to increase the labour supply by inducing later retirement to correct for a rise in life expectancy. This may work in theory, but it seems much more difficult to implement in practice. 

In the context of the official unemployment rate moving rapidly closer to the Fed's target as per the Evans rule the recent labour market trends have obviously put the central bank in a bind. The Fed has already assured markets that the Fed funds rate will be kept low well past the point at which the unemployment rate declines below 6.5%, but for how long and should the rate to which forward guidance is attached be amended (e.g. from 6.5% to 5.5%)? Continuingly massaging forward guidance to reflect a complicated interplay between structural and cyclical drivers of the US labour force participation rate could turn into a big communication challenge for the Fed. 

The question surrounding the dwindling labour force participation rate has been the center of much debate and analysis. A recent contribution comes from Morgan Stanley's US economics team also citing Terry's piece. The piece largely come to the same conclusions as above (in terms of the drivers of the labour force participation rate decline), but MS appears optimistic on the prospect of the participation rate to recover as the economy improves. In other words, MS argues that there is scope for significant cyclical improvement. 

The gist of the suggestion is that there is more slack in the US labour market than meets the eye and that the Fed could conceivably change the labour market measure it looks at to anchor forward guidance. 

Should the Fed, then, shift focus to some alternative measure of labor market slack? A broader measure of unemployment, the U-6, may help. It includes marginally attached workers such as those that are working part-time, but would prefer full-time if it were available (“part-time for economic reasons”), and workers who would like a job but don't search because they don't believe any jobs are available (“discouraged” workers). The U-6 unemployment rate was 13.1% in December compared with the standard (U-3) unemployment rate of 6.7% (Exhibit 7).

The spread between U-6 and U-3 reflects what we consider to be shadow labor - deserters ofthe labor force that could come back if job prospects were to improve enough.

I am skeptical that this shadow labour will be as sensitive to the business cycle as MS suggests. This is especially the case since we have already seen a noticeable improvement in the US economy without any reaction from the shadow labour component (on the contary). The most interesting proposal however is obviously the suggestion that the Fed should change its unemployment target from the U-3 to the U-6 measure. Needless to say this would immediately alleviate a lot of the pressure on forward guidance, but it would also mean that the Fed would need to buy the idea that the difference between these two measures is cyclical. In coming posts I will have a look at whether this can be argued to be true. 


After Jackson Hole, Clear Road Ahead?

In terms of forward guidance I think the Fed Chairman's speech provided little direction, but Friday's precious metal price action into the close and the various sell side notes that I have seen suggest that this, at least initially, is too bearish a conclusion. The following excerpt from the speech, in particular, was taken as clear evidence of more and aggressive easing in the pipeline. 

As we assess the benefits and costs of alternative policy approaches, though, we must not lose sight of the daunting economic challenges that confront our nation. The stagnation of the labor market in particular is a grave concern not only because of the enormous suffering and waste of human talent it entails, but also because persistently high levels of unemployment will wreak structural damage on our economy that could last for many years.

Great emphasis has been attached to the chairman's use of the word "grave" as a clear tell-tell sign of more easing to come. I find this quite interesting since it is one of the first instances of such "new speak" interpretation of the Fed's statements akin to the good old days of Trichet and the utterance of (strong) vigilance. Needless to say, next week's jobs market report has suddenly been propelled to a key market event and every single US data point will now be watched with caution. On that note, the next ISM reading as well as consumption figures will be equally important to watch. 

I think Tim Duy’s interpretation is the right one then (hat tip Calculated Risk) with my emphasis.

On net, Bernanke's speech leads me to believe the odds of additional easing at the next FOMC meeting are somewhat higher (and above 50%) than I had previously believed. His defense of nontraditional action to date and focus on unemployment points in that direction. This is the bandwagon the financial press will jump on. Still, the backward looking nature of the speech and the obvious concern that the Fed has limited ability to offset the factors currently holding back more rapid improvement in labor markets, however, leave me wary that Bernanke remains hesitant to take additional action at this juncture. This suggests to me that additional easing is not a no-brainer, but perhaps that is just my internal bias talking.

On balance the main point for me is that the recent change in economic data clearly merits policy change on the basis of the Fed's reaction function. 

The unemployment rate in the US is sticky and the Fed has been persistently concerned about this which is indeed a strong signal to the policy bias especially as inflation expectations are well behaved. Inflation has come down significantly in the US running at 1.4% YoY and the Taylor Rule rate is now declining (though still in level terms way above 0 but that has more to do with the inputs than anything else). We have had two consecutive months of sub-50 ISM readings and consumption growth appears to be rolling over. My interpretation of the forward looking indicators is that they look better than the consensus suggests, but the Fed lives in the here and now and will act accordingly.

Another interesting point here is that despite the visible and strong recovery in the growth rates of US housing market indicators, Bernanke mentions the level of the housing market and not the change which suggest that the despite a good run of data with respect to the change in housing market indicators the level is still seen as depressed. 

The bottom line is that some form of easing is coming but what I find highly uncertain is the timing and aggressiveness of such easing. The August minutes had already stipulated potential moves for the Fed in the form of an extension of the low interest rate commitment, lowering interest rates on excess reserves as well as an extension of Operation Twist or outright asset purchases (probably through MBS securities). But which of these measures will be employed and in what order?

One thing for example which I find very interesting is the glaring gap between Bernanke's discussion of the effectiveness of unconventional monetary policy and its effect on the real economy (i.e. labour market). In that sense, it seems quite clear to me that quantitative easing can have a strong effect in the context of imminent deflation risks and strong downward pressures in asset prices. In such an environment the portfolio effect and, indeed, outright price effect from aggressive central bank action can be very effective. 

However, whether quantitative easing can be effective in countering a structural and sticky unemployment rate (and indeed a structurally declining labour force participation rate) seems much more uncertain to me. Obviously, this goes back to the point that the Fed is the wrong tool for the job at hand, but it also raises the issue of what kind of easing the Fed is planning here.

Of the measures mentioned above one of the only things which would have an effect on the labour market (from a theoretical point of view) is an extension of the low interest rate commitment. This would be a signal to companies that their cost of capital would remain low and incentivise investment and thus, in theory, additional labour input. But such a process is slow and arguably a weak remedy in the context of structural labour market issues.

More generally, we must ask ourselves whether an extension of the low interest rate commitment be enough for the market Clearly not and in any case, an extension much beyond Bernanke’s term would be meaningless as the looming presidential election has created uncertainty as to how strong this commitment is, if for example Bernanke is faced with a Republican president.

What about an extension of Operation Twist then? If this is combined with an expansion of the balance sheet through purchases of MBS I think this could be an effective medicine (although in general I find it hard to see how it could meaningfully affect the labour market). However, the theoretical argument here is fair. By influencing long rates the Fed is likely to stand the greatest chance of supporting the ongoing recovery in the housing market and thus, by derivative, the US economy. 

Ultimately, I see two sources of uncertainty here. Firstly, it is not clear to me that the US economy is heading into a hole in the second half of 2012 to an extent that would allow very strong Fed action. Secondly, while the Fed clearly seems committed and perhaps even pre-committed to more easing the nature of such easing and its scope is still very uncertain to me. The upside risk attached to much stronger easing is clearly there (not least because we also have the ECB coming in with policy measures soon), but the spectre of grave disappointment has not been completely extinguished in my view.