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During a two day testimony to the Senate Banking Committee that ended yesterday, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said that he runs policy according to what is in front of him and uses a slow, steady approach to keep policy from becoming too restrictive. He is fully cognisant of the risks ahead, be it inflation accelerating from fiscal stimulus or growth decelerating because of trade uncertainty. He rates the chances of both outcomes 50/50, so he isn’t going to react to either until they become actual rather than potential risks.
What the FOMC is doing is to steadily raise rates, that is, the price of short-term money so that it is better aligned with growth. It will continue with that policy until it sees risks to growth from this path. Two further rate hikes are expected this year. Real growth remains strong although new housing growth is flattening out, but construction is still expected to rise on a year-on-year basis. As the chairman said, the economy was growing at a “solid pace”, that the unemployment rate was expected to fall further, that the recent pickup in inflation, toward the Fed’s 2% target, was “encouraging”.
The Fed’s first aim is to get interest rates up to their “neutral” level, and then see how the economy is performing. What rate constitutes neutral is a matter of spirited debate among FOMC members. Powell weighed in on the subject during the Q&A portion of his testimony by saying he has effectively outsourced the resolution of the debate to the credit markets. He will take his cue as to whether the Fed has reached neutral from the shape of the yield curve. This means that as long both the economic news and the yield curve remain positive, the Fed will keep raising rates.
It is of course nothing new that the interest rate setting committee watches the bond markets and the yield curve very closely. However, it is the communication style of the current head of Federal Reserve that is a lot more open and direct compared to his predecessors, especially Alan Greenspan who was a master of obfuscation.
The eventual challenge to the Fed’s policy management will come when core inflation is drifting higher while growth is weakening around the edges because of trade disruptions. Assuming the yield curve is still positive by year-end, the question will be whether the Fed changes tack to counter trade-induced slower growth or stays the course to stem inflation – which, by that time, will probably be testing its tolerance threshold. The most likely scenario is that the Fed is likely to hold true to form and go on fighting inflation, which should mean that growth in 2019 will be slower but still positive in the Fed’s view. As it has a dual mandate, it has to balance its inflation fighting credentials with promoting a supportive policy mix for growth.
During his testimony, there was no talk about the reduction of the Fed’s balance sheet, which is odd considering the IOER*/fed funds spread is generating a lot of comment and leading some to conclude that quantitative tightening will end sooner than anticipated. The issue is that because the Fed pays interest on reserves, bank deposits at the central bank consist of both the Fed’s reserve requirements and the capital requirements of Basel III. This raises the question of how useful is the normal analysis of reserves at the Fed. The wider issue is one of bank capital adequacy. Powell was pressed about this but avoided answering. No doubt we will hear more on the subject the next time he appears in front of the Senate.
*interest rate on excess reserves
U.S. Fed's chairman outsources 'neutral' rate decision to the yield curve
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