Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Fed Guidance in a Fog

The terrain is getting foggier and foggier for the Federal Reserve.  Most recently, GDP barely grew (at an annual rate of 0.1% for the first quarter of 2014).  But nonfarm employment grew by 288,000 jobs in April, a pretty good pace.  And the unemployment rate dropped to 6.3%.  Not that many Fed Open Market Committee meetings ago, an unemployment level of 6.3% would have been below the point where the Fed's guidance dictated a rise in short term interest rates.  But rising rates would make the stock market pout and sulk.  So the Fed has backed away from firm benchmarks for monetary policy and is electrically sliding its way toward a strictly "data-based" policy.  What does that mean?  Apparently, it means whatever the Fed thinks the data indicates it should do in order to promote full employment. But if the data is becoming less clear, then what?

For more than a decade, the Fed has worked to provide greater transparency.  That's perceived to be a good thing because it tells the financial markets what to expect.  Presumably, investors will make wiser decisions if they better understand the lay of the land.  But transparency also encourages risk-taking.  If you know what the central bank will do, you can layer on more speculative bets because one factor that might blow you up now seems predictable.  This perhaps unintended consequence of transparency tends to lock the Fed into its guidance, and limit its options, because if you do something other than what you say, all the hedge funds, big banks and other speculators might get hosed.  And then the specter of a systemic tummy ache would loom. 

With the data getting murkier as the economy recovery sputters along, the Fed has become less transparent.  Most likely, this isn't accidental, as the Open Market Committee no doubt can see that the data is telling them less and less, and benchmarks don't mean what they used to mean.  The gamblers in the stock markets can't be happy, as the odds have become harder to calculate.  Fed policy now depends on the data, and recent data resembles a pushmi-pullyu.  

The Fed still hums the low interest rate melody even though it doesn't sing the lyrics any more.  That's a pretty good pacifier for the stock market, at least for now.  But with foreign affairs descending into the mosh pit (who wants to bet Vlad the Invader won't strike again?), and the economic recovery constantly shifting back and forth between first and second gears, the data--and consequently the Fed's guidance--will probably get foggier.

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