Mitchell’s Musings 10-3-16: Fed Politics

02 Oct 2016 4:27 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 10-3-16: Fed Politics

Daniel J.B. Mitchell

At the September meeting of the Federal Reserve, interest rates were not changed. Presidential candidate Donald Trump indicated he thought the Fed was being political, i.e., helping his opponent. Of course, decision makers at the Fed are aware that there is an election cycle in progress. And, in a sense, they were responding to political events, although not in the way Trump suggests.

First, it should be noted that the case for raising rates at this time is weak. Not only is inflation low, it is expected to remain low. As the chart below indicates, financial markets are not anticipating a burst of inflation. The spreads between conventional Treasury securities and inflation-adjusted Treasuries –indexes of the expected rate of price inflation - remain below 2%. In fact, except during the Great Recession and its immediate aftermath, expectations are lower now than they were during previous years when the economy was softer. Put another way, price inflation expectations remain low, despite a seemingly tightening economy, so maybe the economy isn’t all that tight.

And that is a second point. Despite a decline in unemployment to around 5% (the latest monthly figure is 4.9%), it is still unclear if the low level of unemployment in fact signifies “full employment.” As has been much discussed, the employment-to-population ratio is below previous peaks. The latest UCLA Anderson Forecast featured a chart for California. The equivalent for the U.S. as a whole would show much the same thing. As can be seen below, the ratio is still lower than at the previous cyclical peak. One explanation is that demographic changes account for the reduction. When you make “corrections” for demographic trends, the current ratio seems to be roughly equivalent to the prior peak, as the straight line on the chart shows.

But even with that correction, there remains ambiguity. Why not consider the peak before the prior peak, i.e., the dot-com boom peak? The demographic trend would produce a line with a similar slope from that peak, and we would be we below it. In short, the evidence for the proposition that we have hit some kind of capacity constraint is ambiguous. Which peak is really THE peak for comparison?

You could look at wage behavior rather than at prices. There, we do find some evidence of wage growth acceleration. The latest data on the Employment Cost Index did show some acceleration. But as the chart below indicates, the series can be volatile. The series stayed at about 2% per annum during much of the recovery, blipped up in 2014, but then came down again. So surely a case could be made for waiting a few quarters before passing a final judgment and making a policy change.

Employment Cost Index, Total Compensation, Private Sector, 12-Month Percent Changes

On the output side, real GDP growth has been relatively anemic so far in 2016. Generally, recovery from the trough of the Great Recession to the present has been slow. Perhaps, not surprisingly, that fact has given rise to discussion of whether the post-World War II growth rate was anomalously fast. But even if there is now a “new normal” of real growth at around 2% per annum, we haven’t seen even that pace in 2016. During the first half of the year, measured real growth was a bit over 1% per annum.

Bottom line: Even if 2016 were not a presidential election year, the Fed might have been dovish about raising interest rates. When there is uncertainty about diagnosing economic conditions, the tendency is not to shift policy.[1] Apart from the unknowns described above, however, the presidential election itself – or rather its outcome – has created an even larger element of uncertainty than price inflation, wage inflation, or real growth.

One interesting feature of the September UCLA Anderson Forecast was an attempt at economic modeling of the election results by Forecast economist William Yu. In recent years, there has been an increased interest in political forecasting based on economic conditions. Yu developed a model across states and time using as explanatory variables general economic trends, demographics, past voting behavior, and other factors. He looked particularly at electoral votes in the “swing” states. And the conclusion was that the election was too close to call. Popular votes in the swing states hovered around 50-50 for the two major party candidates.

Given the oddities of the 2016 election, and the possibility that there could be economic turmoil when the results are known, why would the Fed raise interest rates two months before Election Day? It’s likely that election uncertainty, more than inflation uncertainty, drove the decision. It’s fine to forecast, but surely confidence in the results of the exercise must drop when you don’t know who will be making policy. In particular, what a Trump presidency would mean for economic policy and economic outcomes is hard to predict. In that sense, you could say the decision at the Fed to wait until after the election before making a change in monetary policy was “political.”


[1] Some participants on the Federal Open Market Committee did want to raise rates. None of the members of the Board of Governors, however, voted for such an increase. The degree of uncertainty regarding economic trends is reflected in the official transcript of the news conference after the September decision:

Fed Chair Janet Yellen in response to a reporter's question after the interest rate decision: "...I think we are trying to understand some difficult issues. There is less disagreement among participants in the (Federal Open Market) Committee than you might think, listening to speeches and commentary. I think we all agree that the economy is making progress, that we are close to an unemployment rate that is one that’s sustainable in the longer run. We all agree we are undershooting our inflation goal, and that we want to make sure we stay on a course that raises that to 2 percent. And we’re struggling with a difficult set of issues about what is the “new normal” in this economy and in the global economy more generally, which explains why we keep revising down the (real growth) rate path..."


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