WEEKEND ECONOMIST: The Fed effect

The Federal Reserve's doves are taking signs of a pick-up in US economic activity with a grain of salt, allowing room for our central bank to continue to ease.

The minutes from the Reserve Bank’s Board meeting in August provided clear encouragement for our view that the bank has not reached the end of this easing cycle.

The most important aspect of these minutes was the clarification on the current policy stance.

The wording in the governor’s statement following the board meeting suggested to us that the board had moved back to a neutral stance with the words: “The board will continue to assess the outlook and adjust policy as needed to foster sustainable growth in demand and inflation outcomes consistent with the inflation target over time”. The minutes add the following sentence: “Regarding the communication of this decision members agreed that the Bank should neither close off the possibility of reducing rates further nor signal an imminent intention to reduce rates further”.

The next board meeting will be held on September 2, five days before the election. This statement in the minutes makes it clear that there is no intention to adjust rates at that meeting arguably because of it’s proximity to the election.

However, the minutes indicate that the board is of the mind that it is still considering decisions with a view to reducing rates further. The 'mood' of the minutes indicated that prospects for lower rates are real.

Having said that, it is always dangerous to interpret minutes with a view to the outlook for policy. The practise of central banks is to use minutes to justify the current decision. That is consistent with the assessment of the economy being decidedly more downbeat than we have seen before. In previous minutes growth had been described as “a bit below trend”. In the latest minutes it is described as “below trend”.

The following comments capture the sentiment from the minutes: “... liaison pointed to only modest growth (in retail sales) more recently”; “Non-mining business investment remained subdued and a range of indicators suggested that this was likely to persist in the near term”; “The outlook for employment growth was slightly weaker than at the time of the May Statement on Monetary Policy” and was expected to remain modest over the next few quarters; and “Quarterly inflation in the prices of market services for which labour is a significant cost component had been quite a bit lower in recent quarters”.

While the housing sector was assessed to have improved through measures like auction clearance rates, dwelling prices, residential building approvals and loan approvals there was still a note of disappointment even for housing – “Dwelling investment had thus far experienced a muted recovery relative to past cyclical upturns”. Commentary around the impact of the fall in the Australian dollar on inflation was confident with the softer pressures from wages expected to offset the inflation impact of the recent depreciation.

Therefore despite the depreciation, the bank’s inflation forecasts were unchanged from the May Statement on Monetary Policy. The commentary in the minutes referred to below trend output growth over the coming year or so. The growth forecasts from the August SoMP showed a reduction in the growth forecast for 2013 from 2.5 per cent to 2.25 per cent, although the growth forecast to 2014 was unchanged at 2.5 per cent.

It is interesting that the minutes emphasise that at recent meetings the board felt that the inflation outlook afforded some scope to ease policy further. Despite the fall in the currency that scope is described as “no lessening of that scope” which combined with the weaker outlook for activity overall justified the rate decision.

The sentiment from previous statements that the exchange rate remained high by historical standards was repeated. The assessment of the global economy included a downward revision in the forecast for overall global growth.

That change mainly reflected the Bank’s assessment that growth in China was unlikely to pick up in coming quarters.

Despite this clear encouragement that lower rates can be expected in Australia, term rates in Australia have risen sharply and, according to market pricing, prospects for Reserve Bank movements have dimmed. Recently the market had been pricing near to our target of a 2 per cent low in the cash rate. Markets are now even questioning whether there will be any more rate cuts at all. Further out on the curve 10-year bond rates have increased by 50 basis points; three-year swap rates by 20 basis points; and one-year swap rates by 15 basis points.

These movements have been in response to an expected tapering by the US Federal Reserve of its bond purchase program. Markets are convinced that this tapering will begin, in earnest, from the Fed’s next FOMC meeting on September 16.

My perusal of the minutes of the FOMC’s latest meeting raises considerable doubts that a tapering of the size that would satisfy market expectations can be expected. Fed watchers are aware that the 'doves' on the FOMC have traditionally been the most powerful bloc – including Chairman Bernanke; Vice Chair Dudley and Vice Chair of the Board of Governors, Yellen. A detailed scrutiny of the minutes highlight that there is a group on the committee that is clearly sceptical of the hyped-up view of the US economy which is demanding tapering. I find the arguments of this group decidedly more realistic that the alternative.

Consider: “A number of participants indicated, however, that they were somewhat less confident about a near-term pickup in economic growth than they had been in June; factors cited in this regard included recent increases in mortgage rates, higher oil prices, slow growth in key U.S. export markets, and the possibility that fiscal restraint might not lessen.”

Consider: “... a few participants expressed concern that higher household wealth might not translate into greater consumer spending, cautioning that household income growth remained slow, that households might not treat the additions to wealth arising from recent equity price increases as lasting, or that households’ scope to extract housing equity for the purpose of increasing their expenditures was less than in the past.”

I would see that qualification to a key supposed driver of the forecast boost to spending as almost self evident given the impact of the GFC on households’ risk aversion. Westpac weekly 3 Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future performance. The forecasts given above are predictive in character. Whilst every effort has been taken to ensure that the assumptions on which the forecasts are based are reasonable, the forecasts may be affected by incorrect assumptions or by known or unknown risks and uncertainties. The results ultimately achieved may differ substantially from these forecasts.

Consider: “... refinancing activity was down sharply, and the incoming data would need to be watched carefully for signs of a greater-than-anticipated effect of higher mortgage rates on housing activity more broadly.” Consider: “... continuing low readings on the participation rate and the employment-to-population ratio, together with a high incidence of workers being employed part time for economic reasons, were generally seen as indicating that overall labor market conditions remained weak.” Note that in 2013 to date around 80 per cent of new jobs were part time compared to 20 per cent in 2012 and -20 per cent in 2011.

Graph for WEEKEND ECONOMIST: The Fed effect

Consider: “A number of others ... viewed the low inflation readings as largely reflecting persistently deficient aggregate demand ...” Consider: “... some participants felt that, as a result of recent market developments, overall financial market conditions had tightened significantly ... and they expressed concern that the higher level of longer term interest rates could be a significant factor holding back spending and economic growth.”

Graph for WEEKEND ECONOMIST: The Fed effect

Consider: “A few members emphasized the importance of being patient and evaluating additional information on the economy before deciding on any changes to the pace of asset purchases.” Now contrast these realistic arguments with the following 'logic' supporting the argument for an upswing in economic activity: “... once productivity growth picked up, faster economic growth would be required to support further increases in employment...”

The obvious question is to whether this 'inevitable' pick up in productivity growth was consistent with ongoing flat business investment. Our arithmetic indicates that growth of 3.5 per cent will be required in the second half to achieve the 2.45 per cent Fed forecast for growth over the year.

We are hugely sceptical that will be achieved. Markets have taken great heart that the minutes clearly point to tapering. A number of participants on the FOMC are clearly less sure and not convinced about the expected marked up swing in growth in the second half.

Central banks do not like to surprises markets. It may be that the tapering is so embedded in market expectations that at least a 'tapering lite' gesture needs to be delivered. But the minutes reveal that there is a group of FOMC members who are far from convinced.

Graph for WEEKEND ECONOMIST: The Fed effect

There has been plenty of evidence over the years that the most influential committee members have been amongst the most dovish. Markets would be well advised to make a note of that and also not dismiss that a policy mistake in September could easily see a full reversal of tapering in the months that follow. One final comment on the risks of pushing rates too far in the current environment.

If bond rates rise to, say, 3 per cent from the current 2.9 per cent the seller will be forced to reinvest at around 0.25 per cent. Given the reasonable expectation that the Fed will keep the cash around that level for two years the seller will need to buy the 10-year bond back at around 4.3 per cent to break even on the trade. Even though cash rates are expected to be moving up by then the Fed is likely to be signalling a very measured approach. It seems extremely unlikely that a 10-year bond rate of 4.3 per cent would ever be consistent with a cash rate of 0.25 per cent under a profile of gradual rate increases. Good luck to the bold bond trader who plans to push bond rates well above 3 per cent in the event of a tapering announcement.

Bill Evans is Westpac's chief economist.

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