THINKING LIKE A FED HEAD

Takeaway: A strong quantitative argument can be made for the FOMC board to remain on hold throughout the balance of 2013 and throughout 2014 as well.

This note was originally published September 23, 2013 at 18:01 in Macro

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SUMMARY BULLETS:

  • A strong quantitative argument can be made for the FOMC board to remain on hold throughout the balance of 2013 and throughout 2014 as well. This debate is likely to become increasingly mainstream in the coming weeks and months and will have meaningful implications for the US dollar, US interest rates and global capital and currency markets at large.
  • Investors attempting to get inside of Bernanke's head and/or view the economy as the FOMC board does should arrive at the following three conclusions based on the most recent data:
    • Reported US economic growth is sluggish at best;
    • The labor market has cooled off substantially; and
    • Benign reported inflation will give policymakers ample headroom to continue easing even if the labor market starts to accelerate meaningfully.
  • Regarding the latter point, both St. Louis Fed President James Bullard and Chicago Fed President Chuck Evans (the both of whom are voting members on the FOMC board) have been calling out low inflation as their chief economic concern in recent weeks/months.
  • Our analysis suggests the US economy may have to sustainably record Real GDP growth in the +3% to +3.6% range in order to generate the kind of job creation necessary for the Unemployment Rate to breach the Fed’s 6.5% threshold over the intermediate term (holding flat other factors like the Labor Force Participation Rate).

Like most market participants, we were surprised by the Fed’s decision not to taper its asset purchase program last week.

In our view, both the pace and slope of economic growth has been solid enough to justify commencing a process of weaning the economy and its capital markets off of  large-scale asset purchases (LSAP).

The critical takeaway from the aforementioned statement is not the part about the pace and slope of economic growth; rather, the key element of that declaration was indeed the phrase, “in our view”.  

Specifically, “our view” of the pace and slope of economic growth is wholly shaped by leading and concurrent indicators, such as market prices, survey data (such as New Orders PMI readings) and our proprietary analysis of that data (e.g. modeling market prices with Keith’s quantitative risk management levels or something like tracking the YoY % change in Rolling NSA Jobless Claims).

Moreover, our process is designed to front-run inflection points in the market(s) and/or policy. Thus, an overt focus on concurrent-to-leading indicators is a prerequisite for any repeatable success in doing so.  

The Fed, on the other hand, primarily focuses on lagging economic indicators, like Unemployment, Core PCE and Real GDP. Their primary responsibility is to set monetary policy based on actual – not guesstimated – economic conditions. Thus, an overt focus on lagging indicators is appropriate for their task as it is defined.

While we’d certainly prefer they apply more modern-day analytical techniques (i.e. chaos theory, behavioral economics, etc.) to their policy-setting agenda, for the purposes of keeping this note tight, we will temporarily concede to the consensus view among the academic economist community that the Fed should be more measured (i.e. less dynamic) with respect to setting monetary policy.

All told, understanding this distinction between what market participants are focused on and what the FOMC board is focused on is critical to appropriately preparing your portfolio for the Fed’s next policy move and, more importantly, the timing therein.

Looking at the economy from the Fed’s perspective, it should not have come as a surprise to see them back away from tapering at last week’s FOMC meeting. If anything, their only fault was allowing tapering speculation to percolate throughout the global financial community in the first place!

  • In the 12M through 2Q13 (the latest reported figure), the US economy has grown only +1.6% on real basis; that rate of change represents a full standard deviation below the trailing 3Y trend.
  • In the QTD, Nonfarm Payrolls have averaged +136k MoM; that’s nearly one full standard deviation below the trailing 3Y trend (-0.9x) and down sharply from an average pace of +207.3k MoM in 1Q13.
  • In the 12M through JUL ’13 (the latest reported figure), underlying inflation – as measured by the Fed’s preferred measure of Core PCE – has tracked +1.2% YoY; that’s nearly one full standard deviation below the trailing 3Y trend (-0.9x).

Investors attempting to get inside of Bernanke's head and/or view the economy as the FOMC board does should arrive at the following three conclusions based on that sequence of data:

  1. Reported US economic growth is sluggish at best;
  2. The labor market has cooled off substantially;
  3. Benign reported inflation will give policymakers ample headroom to continue easing even if the labor market starts to accelerate meaningfully.

Regarding the latter point, both St. Louis Fed President James Bullard and Chicago Fed President Chuck Evans (the both of whom are voting members on the FOMC board) have been calling out low inflation as their chief economic concern in recent weeks/months.

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Absent a dramatic near-term acceleration in core inflation – which is all but impossible given the neutering of consumer price indices in recent decades – the Fed is unlikely to find it appropriate to tighten monetary policy [via tapering… tapering is tightening, FYI] over the next few months.

Looking ahead to next year, one really has to see a dramatic acceleration of momentum in the labor market in order for the FOMC board to justify tapering LSAP – irrespective of whomever winds up in charge (no disrespect to Janet Yellen).

By our math which looks at the historical relationship between the deviation from trend in MoM Nonfarm Payrolls SA and deltas in the Unemployment Rate SA, the former series would have to average somewhere between +218.1k and +260k for five quarters in order for the latter series to reach the Fed’s 6.5% “target” (FYI, 6.5% is NOT a target for the initiation of tapering, as Bernanke has repeatedly stated in his recent commentary).

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Regarding the study, please note that we purposefully decided to cap our study at a 10Y look-back; similar results hold over a trailing 30Y period as well, but we decided to front-run consensus pushback about how the labor market is structurally different today vs. 20Y or 30Y ago. We get it…

Moving along, it’s worth stressing that five quarters from now is the end of next year; not ironically, that is exactly when the FOMC board expects Unemployment Rate to hit that level.

Of course, maintaining the aforementioned pace of job creation for such an extended period of time would no doubt drag up the average and dampen any future deviations from trend. We understand that and would still expect to see continued improvement in the Unemployment Rate in spite of that – the purpose of this study is simply to gauge what level of economic performance we need to see in order to appropriately front-run the Fed from here.

Looking at the historical relationship between the deviation from trend in YoY Real GDP growth and the deviation from trend in MoM Nonfarm Payrolls SA, the former series would have to average somewhere between +3% and +3.6% produce readings in the latter series that are +1x to +2x standard deviations from the trailing 3Y trend. Using the most recent data set to reverse engineer those deviations produces the aforementioned range of +218.1k and +260k.

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Of course, the pace of job creation isn’t the only factor in determining deltas in the Unemployment Rate; rather, there other key indicators, such as the structurally challenged Labor Force Participation Rate, that are integral components of the calculus.

Still, for anyone looking to correlate economic growth to a pace of job creation that is appropriate for the FOMC board to authorize a reduction in its LSAP program, we’d advise anchoring on anything north of +3% YoY. That’s nearly a double from the latest reported rate.

We consider it noteworthy that the Fed’s full-year 2014 GDP growth projection is right in line with that rate, effectively confirming that their economic growth expectations are on track for a 6.5% Unemployment Rate target by EOY ’14.

Right now, our model can get as high as +2.7% for 2014E Real GDP growth, but that’s not an estimate we would advise lending any credence to at the current juncture. As mentioned our previous works, our predictive tracking algorithm is designed to capture deltas and inflection points on a rolling 1-2 quarter basis. It’s worth nothing that trying to predict anything much further out than that tends to negatively skew the balance between facts and assumptions in any economic model.

THINKING LIKE A FED HEAD - USA   ALTERNATIVE SCENARIO

Even if the economy can get up to and sustain a +3% rate of growth over the intermediate term, investors must continue to be cognizant of the fact that subdued core inflation will continue to keep the doves on the FOMC board uneasy about the mere thought of tapering – let alone hiking the Fed Funds Rate (which is what they likely intend to do when the Unemployment Rate reaches 6.5%, assuming both reported inflation and inflation expectations are in line with the committee’s +2% objective at that time).

Not surprisingly, those market participants closest to the pin-action are already starting to bake this scenario in. The implied probability of the Fed Funds Rate being 0.0% at the DEC ’14 FOMC meeting has increased from 7.7% in early SEP to 25.5% currently. Conversely, the implied probability of the Fed Funds Rate being hiked to 0.75% or 1% at the DEC ’14 meeting has dropped to 7.8% and 1.5%, respectively, from 23.2% and 10.4%, respectively, in early SEP.

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All told, a strong quantitative argument can be made for the FOMC board to remain on hold throughout the balance of 2013 and throughout 2014 as well. This debate is likely to become increasingly mainstream in the coming weeks and months and will have meaningful implications for the US dollar, US interest rates and global capital and currency markets at large.

Have a wonderful evening,

Darius Dale

Senior Analyst

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