Policy uncertainty

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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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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China: Mao Strikes Back

China is now a top-rank, market-moving source of daily news. It is not only the world’s second largest economy, but over the past decade, it accounted for nearly thirty percent of global economic growth. No wonder stories about a slowdown in China and trade conflict with the United States send shudders through financial markets. As conditions are worsening, uncertainty has jumped to record levels in China and elsewhere.

In the near term, if China and U.S. trade negotiators can come to an agreement avoiding a further hike of U.S. tariffs, some of this heightened uncertainty may fade. But a more persistent source of risk arises from China’s medium- and long-term growth prospects. While the country has sustained 6%-plus growth since 1991, in recent years it has done so by increasing investment per unit of growth. The prominence of these diminishing returns from incremental capital outlays lead many informed observers to conclude that a further medium-term deceleration is inevitable. Worries about the sharp increase in nonfinancial corporate debt over the past decade, and the lack of transparency regarding the risks in China’s financial system, only serve to compound this pessimism.

Given these circumstances, Nicholas Lardy’s excellent new book, The State Strikes Back, could hardly arrive at a better moment. Using careful analysis to challenge common hypotheses, Dr. Lardy takes a close look at the principal factors affecting China’s longer-run growth prospects. Ultimately, he is hopeful, but realistic: China could sustain its recent pace of growth for an extended period—or grow even faster—but only if the government is willing to return to its earlier commitment to serious reforms that favor market, rather than state, allocation of resources. So far, despite the prominent market advocacy in its 2013 “policy blueprint”—the first under President Xi Jinping’s leadership (see the opening citation)—the Xi government has shifted in precisely the opposite direction.

In the remainder of this post, we explore Lardy’s conclusion that China’s growth potential remains high. On the key issues of substance, his logic is compelling. A combination of the opportunities generated by convergence to advanced-economy productivity levels, continued improvements in competition and trade, and a renewed shift toward the private allocation of resources—especially through changes in the structure of both state-owned enterprises and the financial system—points to the possibility of a return to higher growth. Nevertheless, we find ourselves somewhat less hopeful. Even if China’s government were to make fundamental economic reform its top priority, in our view the odds favor a further slowdown over the next decade….

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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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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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Living with uncertainty: What central banks do when they don't know the natural rate

“Unfortunately, we have as yet devised no method to estimate accurately and readily the natural rate of either interest or unemployment. And the ‘natural’ rate itself will change from time to time.” Milton Friedman, American Economic Association Presidential Address, 1968.

What do you do if, on a dark and foggy night, you are forced to drive on a road with a sheer cliff on one side? Unless you know precisely where the road ends and the cliff begins, you will likely go slowly and keep your foot near the brakes. Driving like a tortoise is not the “first best” solution  – fog lights that distinguish the road from the cliff would be better. But, absent proper illumination, going slowly is a safe response to perilous driving conditions. It helps prevent catastrophic, irreversible errors.

Such robust strategies are key to central bankers' success as well...

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