Communicating Monetary Policy Uncertainty

When it comes to forecasting, we usually cite famous Yankee catcher and baseball philosopher Yogi Berra, who reputedly said: “It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

For central bankers, this is more than just a minor headache. Given the lags between policy actions and their effects, forecasting is unavoidable. That puts uncertainty about the economic outlook at the heart of the policymakers’ daily job. Indeed, no one knows the future path of the economy or interest rates—not even those making the decisions.

Communicating this inevitable monetary policy uncertainty is difficult, but essential. In the United States, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) uses a variety of means for this purpose. In two earlier posts, we discussed the evolution of FOMC communications and the usefulness of the quarterly survey of economic projections (SEP). Here, we examine a key aspect of FOMC communications that receives insufficient attention: the explicit publication of policymakers’ range of uncertainty about the future path for the policy rate. Buried near the end of the FOMC minutes, published three weeks after the SEP release, this information is consumed only by die-hard devotees….

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Qualifying for the Fed

Monetary economists of nearly all persuasions are overwhelming in their condemnation of President Trump’s desire to appoint Stephen Moore and Herman Cain to vacant seats on the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve. The full-throated case for a high-quality Board offered by Greg Mankiw—former Chief of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush—is just one compelling example.

Rather than review President Trump’s picks, in this post we enumerate the key qualities that we believe make a person well suited to serve on the Board. Before getting to any details, we should emphasize our strongly held view that there is no simple prescription—in law or practice―for what makes a successful Federal Reserve Governor. Furthermore, no single person combines all the characteristics needed to make for a successful Board. For that, diversity in thought, preferences, frameworks, decision-making, and experience is essential.

With the benefits of diversity in mind, we highlight three common characteristics that we consider vital for anyone to be an effective Governor (or Reserve Bank President). These are: a deep respect for the Fed’s legal mandate; a clear understanding of an analytic framework that makes policy choices reasonably predictable and effective; and an open-mindedness combined with humility that tempers the application of that framework….

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Dot-ology: What can we learn from the dot plot?

The primary objective of monetary policy is to keep inflation and unemployment low and stable. To be effective, central bankers must address shocks to inflation and unemployment, while ensuring that what they say and do is not a source of volatility. One way to make a commitment to stability credible is for policymakers to broadcast their likely responses to shocks—their reaction function. Such transparency escalates the cost of reneging, helping to anchor expectations about the future that influence current behavior (see our primer on time consistency). And, because they can anticipate how policy will respond to changes in economic and financial conditions, it improves everyone’s economic and financial decisions.

With such a stability-oriented policy strategy, the policy path will depend on what happens in a changing world. Only under specific circumstances―such as when the short-term interest rate is at or near its effective lower bound―will policymakers be inclined to commit to a specific future policy path.

Recently, we wrote about the remarkable evolution of Federal Reserve monetary policy communication over the past quarter century. Today, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) publishes statements, minutes, and quarterly forecasts for growth, inflation, unemployment, and interest rates. In this post we take up a narrow question: What can we learn from the information published in the FOMC’s quarterly Summary of Economic Projections (SEP)?

Our answer is: quite a bit. The data allow us to estimate not only an FOMC reaction function, but also a short-run projection of the equilibrium real rate of interest (r*)―one that is consistent with projected economic conditions over a two- to three-year horizon—in addition to the long-run r* that is implicit in each SEP. While there is almost surely room to improve on the SEP, we conclude, as a friend and expert Fed watcher once suggested, “Don’t ditch the dots” ….

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Inflation risks and inflation expectations

U.S. inflation has been low and steady for three decades. This welcome stability is not merely a consequence of good fortune. Shocks that in the past might led to higher trend inflation—like the energy price increases—continue to buffet the economy much as they did in the 1970s and 1980s, when inflation rose to a peacetime record. Rather, it reflects the improved monetary policy of the Federal Reserve, which began acting as an inflation-targeting central bank in the mid-1980s, long before it announced a 2% target for inflation in 2012. As a consequence of the Fed’s sustained efforts, long-run inflation expectations have remained close to 2% for more than 20 years. One result is that temporary disturbances that drive inflation above or below target quickly fade.

This is the optimistic conclusion of the 2017 U.S. Monetary Policy Forum (USMPF) report. Since the adoption of the de facto inflation-targeting regime, one-off shocks have little impact on the inflation trend. Moreover, as many have observed, the relationship between unemployment and inflation—the Phillips curve (see our primer)—is now notably weaker. However, the authors of that earlier report warn that the Phillips curve “flattening” could be a direct consequence of the Fed’s success. Furthermore, since the sample period from 1984 to 2016 excludes any sustained period of a very tight economywide labor market, it would not be possible to detect an outsized impact, if any, of persistently low unemployment on inflation.

Enter the 2019 USMPF report, which focuses on the possibility that inflation may indeed respond differently when the unemployment rate is very low and projected to remain low for several years (see, for example the FOMC’s latest Summary of Economic Projections). The logic is straightforward: if labor is very scarce for an extended period, employers will bid up wages and (unless they are prepared to accept declining profits) pass on those cost increases in the form of higher prices….

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FOMC Communication: What a Long, Strange Trip It's Been

Following their January 2019 meeting, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) came in for intense criticism. Instead of a truculent President complaining about tightening, this time it was financial market participants grumbling about a sudden accommodative shift. In December 2018, Fed policymakers’ suggested that, if the economy and market conditions evolved as expected, they probably would raise interest rates further in 2019. Faced with changes in the outlook, six weeks later they altered the message, suggesting that going forward, monetary easing and tightening were almost equally likely.

We find the resulting outcry difficult to fathom. The FOMC’s perceptions of the outlook may have been incorrect in December, in January, or both. There are myriad ways for economic and market forecasts to go wrong. But, to secure their long-run objectives of stable prices and maximum sustainable employment, isn’t it sometimes necessary for policymakers to change direction, and when they do, to explain why?

The point is that the recent turmoil arises at least in part from the Fed’s high level of transparency. In this post, we summarize the evolution of Federal Reserve communication policy over the past 30 years, and discuss the importance and likely impact of these changes. While transparency is far from a panacea, we conclude that the evolution has been useful for making policy more effective and sustainable, and remains critical for accountability and democratic legitimacy….

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Bad Precedent

Recent reports that President Trump wanted to fire Board Chairman Powell in response to Federal Reserve interest rate hikes are unprecedented. Denials from senior officials―Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Hassett―have even less credibility than would a statement (or tweet) from the President himself. We find this entire discussion extremely disheartening and surely damaging to economic policy and the credibility of the Federal Reserve. As former Chair Yellen has stated, the risk is that people lose “confidence in the Fed, in the basis for its actions and its responsiveness to its mandate” (see here, time mark: 18:51).

To be sure, there is some debate over whether the President can fire the Fed Chair, other than “for cause.” We are not lawyers, but thoughtful people such as Peter Conti-Brown suggest that the answer is yes. Against this background, we view President Trump’s actions (and reported wishes) as the most serious threat to Fed independence since the Treasury-Fed accord of March 1951….

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Navigating in Cloudy Skies

Stargazers hate clouds. Even modest levels of humidity and wind make it hard to “see” the wonders of the night sky. Very few places on our planet have consistently clear, dark skies.

Central bankers face a similar, albeit earthly, challenge. Even the simplest economic models require estimation of unobservable factors; something that generates considerable uncertainty. As Vice Chairman Clarida recently explained, the Fed depends on new data not only to assess the current state of the U.S. economy, but also to pin down the factors that drive a wide range of models that guide policymakers’ decisions.

In this post, we highlight how the Federal Open Market Committee’s (FOMC’s) views of two of those “starry” guides—the natural rates of interest (r*) and unemployment (u*)—have evolved in recent years. Like sailors under a cloudy sky, central bankers may need to shift course when the clouds part, revealing that they incorrectly estimated these economic stars. The uncertainty resulting from unavoidable imprecision not only affects policy setting, but also complicates policymakers’ communication, which is one of the keys to making policy effective….

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Trump v. Fed

Last month, interrupting decades of presidential self-restraint, President Trump openly criticized the Federal Reserve. Given the President’s penchant for dismissing valuable institutions, it is hard to be surprised. Perhaps more surprising is the high quality of his appointments to the Board of Governors. Against that background, the limited financial market reaction to the President’s comments suggests that investors are reasonably focused on the selection of qualified academics and individuals with valuable policy and business experience, rather than a few early-morning words of reproof.

Nevertheless, the President’s comments are seriously disturbing and—were they to become routine—risk undermining the significant benefits that Federal Reserve independence brings. Importantly, the criticism occurred despite sustained strength in the economy and financial markets, and despite the stimulative monetary and fiscal policies in place….

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Inflation Policy

Inflation in the United States remains at levels that most people don’t really notice. Overall, the consumer price index rose 2.8 percent from May 2017 to May 2018. And, when you look at core measures, the trend is still below 2 percent.

With inflation and inflation expectations still so benign, it is no wonder that despite solid economic growth and the lowest unemployment rate in 50 years the Federal Open Market Committee continues to act quite gradually (see their June 2018 statement). Inflation could well turn up in the near term—perhaps by more than the policymakers expect. But, for reasons that we will explain, if we were on the FOMC, we would stay the planned course: remain vigilant, but certainly not panic.

We start with a look at the data. What we see is that trend inflation has stayed reasonably close to the Fed’s medium-term target of 2 percent for the past two decades. There have been occasional deviations, like the temporary rise in 2008 and again in 2011, but overall, the path is remarkably stable….

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The Fed's Balance Sheet and the Stance of Monetary Policy

U.S. monetary policy is tightening, as everyone who pays even the slightest attention to the financial news knows. But when and how?  Here, the discussion is focused on two complementary aspects of Federal Reserve policy: interest rates and the balance sheet. The first of these concerns policy of the old-style conventional type. The second is about the consequences of quantitative easing. At $4.23 trillion, more than 5 times the 2007 level, the size of securities holdings raises a series of questions: When will the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee (FOMC) start to shrink its balance sheet?  How will they do it? How far will they go?  And, most importantly, what will be the consequences for the stance of monetary policy?

On the first two―when and how―the minutes of the March 14-15, 2017 FOMC meeting provide the answers: later this year, the FOMC expects to instruct the open market operations staff at the New York Fed to stop reinvesting the proceeds from maturing securities. Consistent with the policy normalization principles published in September 2014, there is no hint that they will actively sell securities.

The key uncertainty is how far they will go. At this stage, there is little indication of a consensus on how big or small the balance sheet should be at the end of the process. Even if this uncertainty is clarified, however, any additional impact from balance sheet policy on the stance of policy probably will be limited....

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The case for a higher inflation target gets stronger

For several years, economists and policymakers have been debating the wisdom of raising the inflation target. Today, roughly two-thirds of global GDP is produced in countries that are either de jure or de facto inflation targeters (see our earlier post). In most advanced economies, the target is (close to) 2 percent. Is 2 percent enough?

Advocates of raising the target believe that central banks need greater headroom to use conventional interest rate policy in battling business cycle downturns. More specifically, the case for a higher target is based on a desire to reduce the frequency and duration of zero-policy-rate episodes, avoiding the now well-known problems with unconventional policies (including balance sheet expansions that may prove difficult to reverse) and the limited scope for reducing policy rates below zero.

We have been reticent to endorse a higher inflation target. In our view, the most important counterargument is the enormous investment that central banks have made in making the 2-percent inflation target credible. Yet, several lines of empirical research recently have combined to boost the case for raising the target….

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The Fed's successful tightening

No one should be surprised that the Fed is tightening monetary policy and expects to tighten significantly further over coming years. Unemployment is less than 5 percent, consistent with normal use of resources. Inflation is approaching the FOMC’s 2 percent objective. And policy rates remain below what simple guides would suggest as normal.

A key issue facing policymakers today is whether the Fed’s new operational framework is working effectively to tighten financial conditions without creating unnecessary volatility. While the FOMC’s actions are occurring in a familiar macroeconomic environment, the legacy of the crisis makes raising rates anything but routine. The key difference is the size of the Fed’s balance sheet. Unlike past episodes, when commercial bank reserves were relatively scarce, today they are abundant.

This difference—reflecting a balance sheet that is over four times its pre-crisis level—creates technical challenges for the Fed. The traditional approach of using modest open-market operations (through repurchase agreements of a few billion dollars) to control the federal funds rate—became ineffective as reserves grew abundant. This meant developing an entirely new operational framework. The good news is that—up to now—the challenges of policy setting with abundant reserves have been very clearly met. While this may seem mundane, it is no small achievement. Much like plumbing, had the Fed’s new system failed, everyone would have noticed. At the same time, there are still challenges to face, so we’re not completely out of the woods....

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The FOMC's Prudent Caution

Imagine Fed Governor Rip van Winkle waking from a 10-year nap to find that trend inflation is only a bit shy of the 2% target, the unemployment rate is close to its long-run steady state, and the Fed’s balance sheet is five times larger than when he fell asleep. As we wrote two years ago, you could forgive him for expecting the federal funds rate to be closer to 4% than ½%. And, you would understand his astonishment when he learns that financial market expectations of policy tightening have collapsed amid continued economic expansion.

So, why are both the current policy rate and expectations of the future rate so low? There are four powerful reasons. First, both investors and policymakers have lowered their estimates of the steady-state (or “natural”) real interest rate. That means that Fed policy today is less accommodative than Governor Rip’s 10-year-old perspective leads him to think. Second, Rip is surely startled to learn that, even with a tightening labor market and policy rates close to zero, market-based long-run inflation expectations have declined. Third, it seems unlikely that Rip would be thinking much about the policy asymmetry that occurs when the nominal interest rate is near the effective lower bound. That is, as post-crisis experience suggests, with policy rates near (or even below) zero, it is much easier for central banks to tighten when prices rise too quickly than it is to ease should prices start to fall. Fourth, the economy’s productive capacity may be endogenous: that is, it may be possible for trend growth to be higher than recent experience suggests...

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The Fed's Approach to Risk Management

“[W]e may well at present be seeing the first stirrings of an increase in the inflation rate--something that we would like to happen.”  Stanley Fischer, Vice Chair of the Federal Reserve Board

The primary task of the central bank is to avert catastrophe, making sure that nothing really bad happens. This risk management approach imparts a natural asymmetry to policymakers’ words and deeds. Sometimes, it calls for bold, aggressive action. Others times, it means cautious plodding. Everyone agrees that 2008 was a clear case of the former. Most Federal Reserve officials argue that the current circumstance exemplifies the latter...

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Connect the Dots

How and what should the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) communicate to make monetary policy most effective? That is the question addressed by this year’s U.S. Monetary Policy Forum report (Language After Liftoff: Fed Communication Away from the Zero Lower Bound).

Over the past two decades, the FOMC has made enormous strides in promoting transparency. In sharp contrast to most of its previous history, the Fed now emphasizes that transparency enhances the effectiveness of monetary policy.

Yet, central bank communication is a work in progress. And, as the new USMPF report argues, there remains scope for improvement. In our view, the simplest and most useful change that the authors recommend, and that the Fed could implement—immediately and without cost—is to “connect the dots:” that is, to link (while maintaining anonymity) the published interest rate forecasts of each FOMC participant that appear in the quarterly “dot plot” (found in the Summary of Economic Projections, or SEP) to that same person’s projections of inflation, unemployment, and economic growth.

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The Fed: From forward guidance to data dependence

The goal of every central banker is to stabilize the economic and financial system—keeping inflation low, employment high, and the financial system operating smoothly. Success means reacting to unexpected events—changes in financial conditions, business and consumer sentiment, and the like—to limit systematic risk in the economy as a whole. But as they do this, policymakers try their best to respond predictably to news about the economy. That is, there is a central bankers’ version of the Hippocratic Oath: be sure you do not become a source of instability...

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Banks and interest rates: be careful what you wish for

Many people seem to think that – as a new BIS working paper concludes – banks benefit when monetary policy tightens and interest rates rise (especially from a low level). Do they? In some instances, perhaps, but as a general principle, surely not.

A casual glance at recent U.S. stock market behavior seems to support the idea that higher interest rates would be good for banks now. When the Federal Open Market Committee decided not to hike interest rates on September 17, the S&P500 dropped by 1.85% over two days, while the KBW index of bank stocks fell by 4.85%. A week later, when Fed Chair Yellen speaking about inflation dynamics expressed her continued expectations for a rate hike this year, the S&P500 edged lower, but the bank index rose by nearly 2%...

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The FOMC is coming

Having dropped to 5.1%, the unemployment rate has reached the longer-run employment goal of the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee (FOMC). So, starting to raise interest rates would seem to be in the cards. And, many observers expect policymakers to act soon, possibly very soon.

The key sticking point, and it is a big one, is that inflation – as measured by the personal consumption expenditure price index (PCE) favored by the FOMC – has been consistently below their stated 2% medium-term objective since early 2012.

Tightening monetary policy for the first time since 2006 requires confidence that inflation will in fact head back up (see, for example, the July FOMC statement and Fed Vice Chair Fischer’s recent comments). The difficulty is that confidence requires reliable forecasts. And, as it turns out, precise forecasts of inflation are hard to come by....

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Regulatory quakes and tremors

If there were a regulatory Richter scale that measured the shaking of the financial system, the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act would register about 8, while the 2011 Basel III framework might be a bit above 7.  (For reference, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake was a 7.8). Fortunately, this shaking is mostly for the better – helping to make the financial system more resilient in the long run.

The new “Bailout Prevention Act” of Senators Vitter and Warren also might be an 8 on the shaking scale, but it would be a true disaster, because it undermines the Fed’s role as crisis lender of last resort. In contrast, the Senate Banking Committee’s new discussion draft of a “Financial Regulatory Improvement Act of 2015” is probably a 2 or a 3. If enacted, it will be “felt slightly by some people” but probably won't do much damage...

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ECB and Fed: Separated at Birth?

Nearly 30 years ago, the satirical Spy magazine began posing the now-familiar question – “separated at birth?” – above lookalike images of two unconnected public figures. Donald Trump was paired with Elvis Presley, Marie Osmond with Monica Lewinsky, and the list goes on (and on). Had Spy found humor in juxtaposing institutions rather than personalities, it still wouldn’t have landed on the Fed and the ECB (which didn’t yet exist): their buildings look nothing alike...

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