Central bankers drive stock markets. At least, that is the way things have been since the current financial crisis started in September 2008, when Lehman Brothers, the fourth largest investment bank on Wall Street went bust.
On March 30, 2016, the BSE Sensex rallied by 438 points or 1.8% to close at 25,338.6 points. What or rather “who” was responsible for this rally? Janet Yellen, the chairperson of the Federal Reserve of the United States, the American central bank.
Yellen gave a speech on March 29. In this speech she said: “I consider it appropriate for the committee to proceed cautiously in adjusting policy.” The committee Yellen was referring to is the Federal Open Market Committee or the FOMC.
The FOMC decides on the federal funds rate. The federal funds rate is the interest rate at which one bank lends funds maintained at the Federal Reserve to another bank on an overnight basis. It acts as a sort of a benchmark for the interest rates that banks charge on their short and medium term loans.
In December 2015, the FOMC had raised the federal funds rate for the first time since 2006. The FOMC raised the federal funds rate by 25 basis points (one basis point is one hundredth of a percentage) to be in the range of 0.25-0.5%. Earlier, the federal funds rate had moved in the range of 0-0.25%, for close to a decade. FOMC is a committee within the Federal Reserve which runs the monetary policy of the United States.
The question that everybody in the global financial markets is asking is when will the FOMC raise the federal funds rate, again? It did not do so when it met on March 15-16, earlier this month. The next meeting of the FOMC is scheduled for April 26-27, next month.
By saying what Yellen did in her speech she has essentially ruled out any chances of the FOMC hiking the federal funds rate in April 2016. This is the closest a central bank head can come to saying that she will not raise interest rates any time soon.
This was cheered by the stock markets all over the world. Yellen basically announced that the era of “easy money” was likely to continue, at least for some time more.
This means that financial institutions can continue to borrow money in dollars at low interest rates and invest this money in stock markets and financial markets all around the world, in the hope of earning a higher return.
This means that the “tourist dollars” are likely to continue to be invested into the Indian stock market. Mohamed A El-Erian defines the term tourist dollar in his new book The Only Game in Town. As he writes: “During periods of large capital flows induced by a combination of sluggish advances economies, robust risk appetites, and highly stimulative central bank policies, emerging markets serve as destination for a huge pool of crossover funds, or what I refer to as tourist dollars.”
As Erian further writes: “Rather than “pulled” by a relatively deep understanding of country fundamentals, this type of capital is typically “pushed” there by prospects of low returns in their more traditional habitats in the advanced world.”
The federal funds rate in the United States is in the range of 0.25-0.5%. In large parts of Europe as well as in Japan, interest rates are in negative territory. In this scenario, the returns available in these countries are very low. At the same time, it makes tremendous sense for financial institutions to borrow money at low interest rates from large parts of the developed world and invest it in stock markets, where they expect to make some money.
And India is one such market, where these “tourist dollars” are coming in and will continue to come in, if the central banks of the developed world continue running an easy money policy.
What got the stock market wallahs all over the world further excited was something else that Yellen said during the course of her speech. As she said: “Even if the federal funds rate were to return to near zero, the FOMC would still have considerable scope to provide additional accommodation. In particular, we could use the approaches that we and other central banks successfully employed in the wake of the financial crisis to put additional downward pressure on long term interest rates and so support the economy.”
What does this mean? This basically means that, if required, the Federal Reserve will print money and pump it into the financial system to drive down long-term interest rates in the United States, so that people will borrow and spend more. This was the strategy that the Federal Reserve used when the financial crisis started in September 2008. This basically means that the era of easy money unleashed by the Federal Reserve is likely to continue in the days to come.
Now only if the Modi government could get its act right on the economic front., the tourist dollars would just flood in.
(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)
In this interview Bill tells us that “We have got a lot more, a lot more nonsense coming and I think it’s going to come first from Europe where Draghi is going to come up with a lot more QE like stuff. We don’t know exactly what or when.”
Happy Reading! Vivek Kaul Iceland just sent its 26th banker to prison. As far as I know not a single US banker or someone from Wall Street has gone to jail. Rajat Gupta and Raj Rajaratnam have, but their cases were different. They had nothing to do with the financial crisis.
Ah! I am not sure, but as far as I know no banker specifically has been gone to jail as a result of the crisis. I don’t know what to make of it. I am hesitant to condemn the bankers.
I mean they were playing the game when in effect, they were the ones who made the rules. They bribed the politicians to make the rules and they played by those rules. Did they break the rules? I don’t know.
Why do you say that?
I have been involved in the financial industry in America for a long time. What I do know is, those rules are very tough to understand. If anybody wants to put you in jail, they can put you in jail because it’s sure that you are violating some rule somewhere. There are too many of them. So I am little bit sympathetic to the bankers in that particular aspect about being convicted of crimes. But I am not at all sympathetic to them in the broader sense because as I said they created that system. I don’t think they deserve to go to jail because I would bet those rules are pretty non-screwy. I do bet they deserve to go broke and that’s what would have happened and that’s the way the market works.
But these guys escaped…
The market doesn’t put you in jail just because you bet on the wrong banker. But the market has a way of taking care of these problems and it was on its way to taking care of these problems in a big way in 2008, when half of Wall Street was exposed to bankruptcy. Half of those institutions probably would have gone broke and half would have been broken up and sold. That would be a punishment and getting what one deserves. That to me makes sense. Instead of that, the government came in and gave these people money. It gave the people who had made such bad bets even more money to make even bigger bets and then it claimed to be enforcing the law. The wrong doers were too close. They all were too cozy there.
That’s a nice way of putting it…
So my guess is that in Iceland their financial industry did not lobby correctly. But the end of it was that the financial industry got away scot free and got away with all of their ill-gotten gains and went on to make even more money as the Fed gave them money in the terms of zero interest rate financing. So the whole thing is absolutely preposterous in every sense and offensive.
Your new book is called “Hormegeddon: How Too Much of a Good Thing Leads to Disaster.” So can you elaborate a little on the subtitle of the book, “How too Much of a Good Thing Leads to Disaster.” Why do you say that?
Well there is a famous quote in America by Mae West, who said, “Too much of a good thing is wonderful.” The thing that she was talking about might be the only thing that too much of is wonderful. But most things are like sugar. You think, well, I will have a chocolate pudding for dessert and one chocolate pudding is wonderful, two chocolate puddings is okay. By the time the third chocolate pudding comes around, you begin to say um, I am not sure about this and by the fourth you begin to feel a little sick. If you keep eating chocolate puddings, it is not going to be good for you. So that’s true of almost anything.
By the way the economists have a rule for this called the principle of declining marginal utility and it seems to apply to just about everything. No matter what you try to do or what you think.
Can you give us an example?
It applies to money. When you have no money and somebody gives you 10 dollars, that 10 dollars, each one of those dollars is very very valuable to you and if you have a million dollars and somebody gives you 10 dollars you really are not going to be impressed at all because the value of that money has declined. Each additional incremental dollar declines to the point where it is almost worth nothing. We read in the papers that multibillionaires like Zuckerberg have given away 50 billion dollars and that is such a great thing. But actually those 50 billion dollars really had no value.
What do you do when you already have the house that you want…you already have the car that you want… and you can’t eat any more chocolate desserts…no matter how much money you have…you cannot buy another car…what are you going to do with it?
You only have a certain number of hours in a day…you can only watch so many movies…you can only do this…you can only do that…so you reach a point where the extra money that you get has a marginal utility that has declined to zero and then below zero. Because you have to take care of it, you have to think about it and you have to protect it. And so when a billionaire has 100 billion dollars and he gives away 50, well I don’t know if he has given away that much.
But anyway, the principle applies to everything.
Can you give us some more examples?
It applies to security, one of the cases that I explained in the book. Now you would say well security; you can’t be too safe and that’s what they tell you when you go through the line at the airport and there is a grandmother in front of you and they are checking her out thoroughly making her go through twice and panning her down and you are thinking in what way does she pose a threat to anybody and then a voice comes out that says, “you cannot be too safe.”
But in fact you can be too safe and because everything that you do in that direction involves expending money and time and resources that could be used for something else.
Can you give us an example?
In the extreme example that I used in the book—In Germany after the First World War, it felt very unsafe, you know they had capitulated in the war and the allies that is to say France, America and Britain were not at all sympathetic. So Germany felt terribly exposed and they were not allowed even to have an army.
So along came Adolf Hitler and he said, “Enough of this, I am going have an army anyway.” And he began investing German money in the security industry and at first it seemed like the right thing to do. And at first the viewers, especially the foreign viewers, who really didn’t know what was going on, they thought that this was great. Germany was getting back on its feet and their factories were hustling again. Everything seemed to be going in the right direction.
But Adolf Hitler did not stop with a little bit of security, he wanted a lot of security and more and more of the German economy, was shifted from domestic production to military production and the result of this was that it shifted people’s minds too, because pretty soon a lot of the German workforce actually worked for the defence industry and a lot of people had children, sons, daughters, nephews in the army. Everybody became very sympathetic to the army, to the defence industry and after years of propaganda to the idea that Germany needed its place in the sun and the way to get it was with military force.
So they launched on this adventurism which they started in 1939 and the result of that we all know. It was disastrous. It ended in the worst possible way for Germany where all of that security bought them no security at all. It was counterproductive. It was a negative pay off. They had gone from when they had too much of a good thing, security being a good thing, to the point where they had no security at all. And that’s true in a lot of things, I mean that principle.
How do you link this to the current financial crisis?
Well you could say almost exactly the same thing about credit. A little bit of borrowing is a good thing and the credit has proven to be useful in many circumstances. In fact, credit is as old as the hills and even before there was money there was credit.
Yeah there was debt and people would remember in small tribes. Anthropologists have done a lot of study of this. They found that people would remember that somebody gave them chicken or somebody gave them an arrowhead or somebody’s daughter was exchanged to one family and they owe them a daughter or something or another. And they remembered. They had long memories of this stuff. So credit is basically something that has been around for a long time and surely a little bit of credit seems to help an economy, but too much credit and then you end up with these funny things happening as we have in the world today.
And by the way world credit is astounding in its growth; in 1995, which is 20 years ago, the entire world credit was 40 trillion dollars; today it’s 225 trillion. That’s in a period in which the GDP has risen like 2% per year. This is a phenomenal separation of the real economy from the Wall Street economy; The Wall Street economy being an economy of debt, assets, financial instruments, etc. So we have this huge diversion.
We have seen also the same sort of thing, a declining marginal utility of debt, where each additional dollar invested in debt has produced less and less GDP payoff. And so at the end, in 2009, we were seeing huge increases in debt with no increase in GDP and that’s what is happening again today, where debt is still going up at a very high rate and the GDP growth has declined in America to about a zero. In fact, it might be zero and it might be negative, we are waiting for the figures for the last quarter to come out, but there are some people guessing that the next quarter is going to be a recessionary.
Given that the next quarter is going to be recessionary, how do you see Janet Yellen and the federal open market committee going about increasing the federal funds rate…
Oh! I don’t think they will and I don’t think they can. I think that it’s…
Will they reverse the cut?
They won’t want to because you know they have staked their short term reputations on this idea that the economy is recovering and that therefore they can normalise interest rates. They are all in cahoots by the way. Also, these guys talk to one another. I think what they are counting on is Mario Draghi [the President of European Central Bank] to reinvigorate the European economy with a lot of credit, because he has been generally not done as much.
So Draghi came out and said that he would do whatever had to be done and he said that there were no limits to what he would do. And right after that the world stock markets went up. Yellen would much prefer for Draghi to do the heavy lifting this time and my guess is that they have a lot more they can do and I don’t think we have reached the end of this cycle at all. I think we have got a lot more, a lot more nonsense coming and I think it’s going to come first from Europe where Draghi is going to come up with a lot more QE like stuff. We don’t know exactly what or when.
You see Yellen going back to QE?
I do, but not quickly. First they are hoping that the Europeans will do enough. If the Europeans put out enough cheap money it ends up in America any way because the Europeans want to buy US treasury bonds in order to protect their money so that’s probably what will happen.
I think it really depends on how effective the Europeans are. If the Europeans are not effective and we get another big wave downward in the US markets and we go into a recession in the first quarter, I think then first they will announce that they will not do any further hikes. Then maybe they will come with some QE program or something, but there is no way in which they are going to allow a real correction. A real correction is the severe serious thing. All of their training and their institutional momentum, all of that goes towards solving these problems rather than letting them solve themselves.
In the column dated December 16, 2015, I had said that the Federal Reserve of the United States would raise the federal funds rate, at the end of its meeting which was scheduled on December 15-16, 2015. That was the easy bit given that Janet Yellen, chairperson of the Federal Reserve of the United States, had more or less made this clear in a speech she made on December 3, 2015.
The Federal Open Market Committee(FOMC) of the Federal Reserve of the United States raised the federal funds rate by 25 basis points (one basis point is one hundredth of a percentage) to be in the range of 0.25-0.5%. Earlier, the federal funds rate moved in the range of 0-0.25%. FOMC is a committee within the Federal Reserve which runs the monetary policy of the United States
The federal funds rate is the interest rate at which one bank lends funds maintained at the Federal Reserve to another bank on an overnight basis. It acts as a sort of a benchmark for the interest rates that banks charge on their short and medium term loans. This is the first time that the FOMC has raised the federal funds rate since mid-2006.
I had also said that the Yellen led FOMC would make it very clear that the increase in the federal funds rate would happen at a very gradual pace. The statement released by the FOMC said that it expects the “economic conditions will evolve in a manner that will warrant only gradual increases in the federal funds rate; the federal funds rate is likely to remain, for some time, below levels that are expected to prevail in the longer run.”
As Yellen put it in central banking parlance in the press conference that followed the Federal Reserve meeting: “The monetary policy will continue to remain accomodative”. In fact, the members of the FOMC expect the federal funds rate to be at 1.4% in a year, 2.4% in two years and 3.3% in three years.
If the federal funds rate has to be at 1.4% one year down the line, then it means that the FOMC will have to raise the federal funds rate by around 25 basis points each (one basis point is one hundredth of a percentage) four times next year. This seems to be a little difficult given that the presidential elections are scheduled in the United States next year. Also, there are other problems that this could create.
The low interest rate policy was unleashed by the Federal Reserve in the aftermath of the financial crisis which started in September 2008, when Lehman Brothers, the fourth largest investment bank on Wall Street went bust. The hope was that both households and corporations would borrow and spend more and in the process, economic growth would return.
What has happened? The household debt to gross domestic product(GDP) ratio has been falling since the beginning of 2009 as can be seen from the accompanying chart.
The household debt to GDP ratio has fallen from around 98% of the GDP at the beginning of 2009, around the time the financial crisis had just started to around 79.8% of the GDP now. What this tells us is that the household debt as a proportion of the total economy has come down. This despite low interest rates being prevalent when at least theoretically people should have borrowed and spent more money.
Take a look at the following chart. It shows that the proportion of the disposable income that Americans are paying to service their debts has also improved. In end 2007, Americans were spending 13.1% of their disposable income to service debt. It has since fallen to 10.1%, though it has jumped a little in the recent past. But the broader trend is clearly down.
What these two graphs tell us clearly is that the household debt in the United States has come down in the aftermath of the financial crisis. So if households have not been borrowing who has? The answer is corporates.
As Albert Edwards of Societe Generale wrote in a research note in November: “The primary driver for the rapid rise in bank lending…has been borrowing by US corporates and we all know they have been using the Fed’s free money not to invest in capacity expanding expenditures, but rather to buy back mountains of their own shares…Corporate debt borrowing at an $674bn annual rate [is] closing in rapidly on the all-time borrowing splurge of 2007!”
In another note released after the FOMC decision to raise the federal funds rate Edwards writes that “the real rate of corporate borrowing is even greater than was seen during the late 1990s tech bubble.”
American corporates have borrowed at rock bottom interest rates not to expand their capacities by building more factories among other things, but to buy back their shares. When a corporate buys back and extinguishes its own shares, fewer number of shares remain in the open market. This pushes up the earnings per share of the company. This in turn pushes up the share price. A higher earnings per share leads to a higher market price.
Nevertheless, all this money needs to be repaid. And this will become increasingly difficult with sales of US corporates falling. As Edwards writes in his latest research note: “It doesn’t help that both corporate profits and revenues are now falling…Nominal business sales have been contracting all year. Originally, it was put down to unseasonably cold weather – but the chilly data has just not gone away, as a combination of unit labour costs and weak pricing power have led to a typical late cycle decline in profit margins.”
If the Federal Reserve keeps increasing the federal funds rate, the interest rate that American corporates need to pay on their debt will keep going up as well.
The interest rate that the American corporates have been paying on their debt has fallen from 6% in 2009 to around 4% in 2015. A higher interest rate would mean a further fall in the profit made by American companies. Lower earnings would lead to lower stock prices and lower broader index levels.
And this is not something that the Federal Reserve would want. A falling stock market because of higher interest rates would jeopardise the American economic recovery.
As Yellen said in her speech earlier this month: “Household spending growth has been particularly solid in 2015, with purchases of new motor vehicles especially strong….Increases in home values and stock market prices in recent years, along with reductions in debt, have pushed up the net worth of households, which also supports consumer spending. Finally, interest rates for borrowers remain low, due in part to the FOMC’s accommodative monetary policy, and these low rates appear to have been especially relevant for consumers considering the purchase of durable good.”
Once we factor in all this, it is safe to say that the Federal Reserve will go really slow at increasing interest rates. In fact, I don’t see it increasing the federal funds rate to 1.4% by the end of next year. This means good news for Indian stock and bond markets, at least for the time being. The column originally appeared on The Daily Reckoning on December 18, 2015
Up until now every time the Federal Open Market Committee has had a meeting, I have maintained that Janet Yellen, the Chairperson of the Federal Reserve of the United States, will not raise interest rates. The latest meeting of the FOMC is currently on (December 15-16, 2015) and I feel that in all probability Janet Yellen and the FOMC will raise the federal funds rate at the end of this meeting.
The federal funds rate is the interest rate at which one bank lends funds maintained at the Federal Reserve to another bank on an overnight basis. It acts as a sort of a benchmark for the interest rates that banks charge on their short and medium term loans.
So why do I think that the Yellen led FOMC will raise the interest rate now? Two major economic indicators that the FOMC looks at are unemployment and inflation. Price stability and maximum employment is the dual mandate of the Federal Reserve.
There are various ways in which the bureau of labour standards in the United States measures unemployment. This ranges from U1 to U6. The official rate of unemployment is U3, which is the proportion of the civilian labour force that is unemployed but actively seeking employment. U6 is the broadest definition of unemployment and includes workers who want to work full-time but are working part-time because there are no full-time jobs available. It also includes “discouraged workers,” or people who have stopped looking for work because the economic conditions the way they are make them believe that no work is available for them.
U6 touched a high of 17.2 percent in October 2009, when U3, which is the official unemployment rate, was at 10 percent. Nevertheless, things have improved since then. In October and November 2015, the U3 rate of unemployment stood at 5% of the civilian labour force. The U6 rate of unemployment stood at 9.8% and 9.9% respectively. This is a good improvement since October 2009, six years earlier.
In fact, the gap between U3 and the U6 rate of unemployment has narrowed down considerably. As John Mauldin writes in a research note titled Crime in the Job Report with respect to the unemployment figures of October 2015: “The gap between the two measures [i.e. U3 and U6] is now the smallest in more than seven years, a sign that slack in the labour market is diminishing. And as the Fed weighs a potential rate hike, what may be more important is the number of people working part-time who would prefer to work full-time – that number posted its biggest two-month decline since 1994. Janet Yellen has referred to this number as often as she has to any other specific number. It is on her radar screen.”
In fact, Janet Yellen seems to be feeling reasonably comfortable about the employment numbers. As she said in a speech dated December 2, 2015: “The unemployment rate, which peaked at 10 percent in October 2009, declined to 5 percent in October of this year…The economy has created about 13 million jobs since the low point for employment in early 2010.”
Another indicator that has improved is the number of people who want to work full time but can’t because there are no jobs going around. As Yellen said: “Another margin of labour market slack not reflected in the unemployment rate consists of individuals who report that they are working part time but would prefer a full-time job and cannot find one–those classified as “part time for economic reasons.” The share of such workers jumped from 3 percent of total employment prior to the Great Recession to around 6-1/2 percent by 2010. Since then, however, the share of these part time workers has fallen considerably and now is less than 4 percent of those employed.”
On the flip side what most economists and analysts don’t like to talk about is the fact that the labour force participation rate in the United States has fallen. In November 2015 it stood at 62.5%, against 62.9% a year earlier. It had stood at 66% in September 2008, when the financial crisis started. Labour force participation rate is essentially the proportion of population which is economically active. A drop in the rate essentially means that over the years Americans have simply dropped out of the workforce having not been able to find a job. Hence, they are not measured in total number of unemployed people and the unemployment numbers improve to that extent.
This negative data point notwithstanding things are looking up a bit. With the U3 unemployment rate down to 5% and U6 down to less than 10%, companies, “in order to entice additional workers, businesses may have to think about paying more money,” writes Mauldin.
And this means wage inflation or the rate at which wages rise, is likely to go up in the days to come. The wage inflation will push up general inflation as well as buoyed by an increase in salaries people are likely buy more goods and services, push up demand and thus push up prices. At least that is how it should play out theoretically.
As Yellen said in a speech earlier this month: “Less progress has been made on the second leg of our dual mandate–price stability–as inflation continues to run below the FOMC’s longer-run objective of 2 percent. Overall consumer price inflation–as measured by the change in the price index for personal consumption expenditures–was only 1/4 percent over the 12 months ending in October.”
But a major reason for low inflation has been a rapid fall in the price of oil over the last one year. How does the inflation number look minus food and energy prices? As Yellen said: “Because food and energy prices are volatile, it is often helpful to look at inflation excluding those two categories–known as core inflation…But core inflation–which ran at 1-1/4 percent over the 12 months ending in October–is also well below our 2 percent objective, partly reflecting the appreciation of the U.S. dollar. The stronger dollar has pushed down the prices of imported goods, placing temporary downward pressure on core inflation.”
In fact, the fall in the price of oil has also brought down the fuel and energy costs of businesses. This has led to a fall in the prices of non-energy items as well. “Taking account of these effects, which may be holding down core inflation by around 1/4 to 1/2 percentage point, it appears that the underlying rate of inflation in the United States has been running in the vicinity of 1-1/2 to 1-3/4 percent,” said Yellen.
In fact, a careful reading of the speech that Yellen made on December 2, clearly tells us that she was setting the ground for raising the federal funds rate when the FOMC met later in the month.
On December 3, 2015, Yellen made a testimony to the Joint Economic Committee of the US Congress. In this testimony she exactly repeated something that she had said a day earlier in the speech. As she said: “That initial rate increase would reflect the Committee’s judgment, based on a range of indicators, that the economy would continue to grow at a pace sufficient to generate further labour market improvement and a return of inflation to 2 percent, even after the reduction in policy accommodation. As I have already noted, I currently judge that U.S. economic growth is likely to be sufficient over the next year or two to result in further improvement in the labour market. Ongoing gains in the labour market, coupled with my judgment that longer-term inflation expectations remain reasonably well anchored, serve to bolster my confidence in a return of inflation to 2 percent as the disinflationary effects of declines in energy and import prices wane.”
This is the closest that a Federal Reserve Chairperson or for that matter any central governor, can come to saying that he or she is ready to raise interest rates. My bet is that the Yellen led FOMC will raise rates at the end of the meeting which is currently on.
Nevertheless, this increase in the federal funds rate will be sugar coated and Yellen is likely to make it very clear that the rate will be raised at a very slow pace. This is primarily because the American economy is still not out of the woods.
The economic recovery remains fragile and heavily dependent on low interest rates. Net exports (exports minus imports) remain weak due to a stronger dollar. Yellen feels that this has subtracted nearly half a percentage point from growth this year.
In this environment economic growth in the United States will be heavily dependent on consumer spending, which in turn will depend on how low interest rates continue to remain. As Yellen said in her recent speech: “Household spending growth has been particularly solid in 2015, with purchases of new motor vehicles especially strong….Increases in home values and stock market prices in recent years, along with reductions in debt, have pushed up the net worth of households, which also supports consumer spending. Finally, interest rates for borrowers remain low, due in part to the FOMC’s accommodative monetary policy, and these low rates appear to have been especially relevant for consumers considering the purchase of durable good.”
This again is a clear indication of the fact that the federal funds rate in particular and interest rates in general will continue to remain low in the years to come.
As Yellen had said in a speech she made in March earlier this year: “However, if conditions do evolve in the manner that most of my FOMC colleagues and I anticipate, I would expect the level of the federal funds rate to be normalized only gradually, reflecting the gradual diminution of headwinds from the financial crisis.”
I expect her to make a statement along similar lines either as a part of the FOMC statement or in the press conference that follows or both.
The interest rate setters at the Federal Reserve of the United States, the American central bank, have decided not to raise the federal funds rate, for the time being. The federal funds rate is the interest rate at which one bank lends funds maintained at the Federal Reserve to another bank on an overnight basis. It acts as a sort of a benchmark for the interest rates that banks charge on their short and medium term loans.
The federal funds rate has been maintained in the range of zero to 0.25% in the aftermath of the financial crisis which started in September 2008. The Federal Reserve has been aiming for an inflation of 2%.
The measure of inflation that the Fed looks at is the core personal consumption expenditure (PCE) deflator. The deflator in July 2015 was at 1.2% in comparison to a year earlier, which is significantly lower than the 2% rate of inflation that the Federal Reserve is aiming for.
The statement released by the Federal Reserve on Sep 17, 2015 said: “Inflation has continued to run below the Committee’s longer-run objective, partly reflecting declines in energy prices and in prices of non-energy imports…Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability…The Committee expects inflation to rise gradually toward 2 percent over the medium term as the labor market improves further.”
Before getting into analysing this statement, I would like to go back into history and talk about something known as the Phillips curve. The Phillips curve was the work of an economist called William Phillips. Phillips was a New Zealander by birth. At the end of the Second World War, he landed at the London School of Economics (LSE).
As Tim Harford writes in The Undercover Economist Strikes Back — How to Run — Or Ruin — An Economy: “As a part of his work on economic dynamics, Phillips gathered data on nominal wages (a good proxy for inflation) and unemployment, and plotted the data on a graph. He found a strong and surprisingly precise empirical relationship between the two; when nominal wages were rising strongly, unemployment would tend to be low. When nominal wages were falling or stagnant, unemployment would be high.”
There was great pressure on Phillips to publish something so that he could be offered a professorial chair at the LSE. As Harford points out: “So Phillips, under pressure from his colleagues to publish something, dusted off his weekend’s work and turned it into a paper. He was unimpressed with his own work, later describing it as ‘a rushed job’. [His] colleagues, ever eager to help his career along, got the paper published in LSE’s journal Economica, under the title ‘The
Relationship between Unemployment and the Rate of Change of Money Wages in the United Kingdom 1861-1957.’”
The research paper was published in 1958 and “became the most cited academic paper in the history of macroeconomics”. The inverse relationship between unemployment and wages was explained by the fact that during periods of low unemployment, companies would have to offer higher wages in order to attract prospective employees. And higher salaries would mean higher wage inflation.
Over the years, the phrase wage inflation was replaced by simply inflation, even though they are not exactly the same. Hence, during the period of the low unemployment, inflation is high and vice versa, is something that many economists came to believe.
The Phillips curve became extremely popular over the years. As Harford writes: “The reason the ‘Phillips curve’ became so popular is that other economists – notably Paul Samuelson – championed the idea that policymakers could pick a point on the curve to aim for. If they want wanted to reduce unemployment, they’d have to tolerate higher inflation; if they wanted to get inflation down, they’d have to accept higher unemployment.”
But that is not how things always work. Over the last few years, the official rate of unemployment in the United States has come down. As of July 2015 it stood at 5.3% of the total civilian labour force. In July 2014, the number had stood at 6.2%. Even though the unemployment data for August 2015 is available I have considered July 2015 data simply because the inflation data for August 2015 is not available as yet.
What has happened on the inflation front? In July 2015, the core PCE deflator was at 1.2 %. In comparison in July 2014, the core PC deflator was at 1.7%. Hence, what is happening here is the exact opposite of what the Phillips curve predicts.
As official unemployment has fallen, the inflation instead of going up, has fallen as well. Nevertheless, the faith in the Phillips curve still remains high. As Yellen said on Thursday: “We would like to bolster our confidence that inflation will move back to 2%. And of course a further improvement in the labor market does serve that purpose.”
This is nothing but a restatement of the Phillips curve—as the rate of unemployment falls further, the rate of inflation will move towards 2%. The question is will that happen? From the way things have gone up until now, the answer is no.
The Harvard economist Larry Summers in a recent blog explains why the Phillips curve does not work. As he writes: “The Phillips curve is so unstable that it provides little basis for predicting inflation acceleration. To take just two examples — first, unemployment among college graduates is 2.5 percent yet there is no evidence that their wages are accelerating. And unemployment in Nebraska has been below 4 percent for the last 3 years and growth in average hourly earnings has been basically constant at the national average level.”
Also, if Yellen continues to believe in the Phillips curve, there is no way she can be raising the federal funds rate, any time soon.
Further, the Federal Reserve is now worried about how things are panning out in China as well. As Yellen said: “The outlook abroad appears to have become more uncertain of late. And…heightened concerns about growth in China and other emerging market economies have led to volatility in financial markets.”
What this means is that Yellen feels that China is likely to devalue its currency more in the time to come to fire up its exports. A further devalued yuan will allow Chinese exporters to cut prices of the goods that they export to the United States.
These cheaper imports into the United States are likely to push down the rate of inflation further. This means that the rate of inflation is unlikely to get anywhere near the Federal Reserve’s 2% target anytime soon. Also, it will take time for the Federal Reserve (as well as others operating in the financial markets) to figure out the extent of China’s economic problem. Given this, I don’t see the Federal Reserve raising interest rates, any time soon. At least, not during the course of this year.