Friday, March 27, 2015

Yellen: Normalizing Monetary Policy: Prospects and Perspectives

by Bill McBride on 3/27/2015 03:45:00 PM

From Fed Chair Janet Yellen: Normalizing Monetary Policy: Prospects and Perspectives. Excerpts:

Why Might an Increase in the Federal Funds Rate Be Warranted Later This Year?
The Committee's decision about when to begin reducing accommodation will depend importantly on how economic conditions actually evolve over time. Like most of my FOMC colleagues, I believe that the appropriate time has not yet arrived, but I expect that conditions may warrant an increase in the federal funds rate target sometime this year. So let me spell out the reasoning that underpins this view.

I would first note that the current stance of monetary policy is clearly providing considerable economic stimulus. The near-zero setting for the federal funds rate has facilitated a sizable reduction in labor market slack over the past two years and appears to be consistent with further substantial gains. A modest increase in the federal funds rate would be highly unlikely to halt this progress, although such an increase might slow its pace somewhat.

Second, we need to keep in mind the well-established fact that the full effects of monetary policy are felt only after long lags. This means that policymakers cannot wait until they have achieved their objectives to begin adjusting policy. I would not consider it prudent to postpone the onset of normalization until we have reached, or are on the verge of reaching, our inflation objective. Doing so would create too great a risk of significantly overshooting both our objectives of maximum sustainable employment and 2 percent inflation, potentially undermining economic growth and employment if the FOMC is subsequently forced to tighten policy markedly or abruptly. In addition, holding rates too low for too long could encourage inappropriate risk-taking by investors, potentially undermining the stability of financial markets. That said, we must be reasonably confident at the time of the first rate increase that inflation will move up over time to our 2 percent objective, and that such an action will not impede continued solid growth in employment and output.

An important factor working to increase my confidence in the inflation outlook will be continued improvement in the labor market. A substantial body of theory, informed by considerable historical evidence, suggests that inflation will eventually begin to rise as resource utilization continues to tighten.2 It is largely for this reason that a significant pickup in incoming readings on core inflation will not be a precondition for me to judge that an initial increase in the federal funds rate would be warranted. With respect to wages, I anticipate that real wage gains for American workers are likely to pick up to a rate more in line with trend labor productivity growth as employment settles in at its maximum sustainable level. We could see nominal wage growth eventually running notably higher than the current roughly 2 percent pace. But the outlook for wages is highly uncertain even if price inflation does move back to 2 percent and labor market conditions continue to improve as projected. For example, we cannot be sure about the future pace of productivity growth; nor can we be sure about other factors, such as global competition, the nature of technological change, and trends in unionization, that may also influence the pace of real wage growth over time. These factors, which are outside of the Federal Reserve's control, likely explain why real wages have failed to keep pace with productivity growth for at least the past 15 years. For such reasons, we can never be sure what growth rate of nominal wages is consistent with stable consumer price inflation, and this uncertainty limits the usefulness of wage trends as an indicator of the Fed's progress in achieving its inflation objective.

I have argued that a pickup in neither wage nor price inflation is indispensable for me to achieve reasonable confidence that inflation will move back to 2 percent over time. That said, I would be uncomfortable raising the federal funds rate if readings on wage growth, core consumer prices, and other indicators of underlying inflation pressures were to weaken, if market-based measures of inflation compensation were to fall appreciably further, or if survey-based measures were to begin to decline noticeably.

Under normal circumstances, simple monetary policy rules, such as the one proposed by John Taylor, could help us decide when to raise the federal funds rate. Even with core inflation running below the Committee's 2 percent objective, Taylor's rule now calls for the federal funds rate to be well above zero if the unemployment rate is currently judged to be close to its normal longer-run level and the "normal" level of the real federal funds rate is currently close to its historical average. But the prescription offered by the Taylor rule changes significantly if one instead assumes, as I do, that appreciable slack still remains in the labor market, and that the economy's equilibrium real federal funds rate--that is, the real rate consistent with the economy achieving maximum employment and price stability over the medium term--is currently quite low by historical standards.Under assumptions that I consider more realistic under present circumstances, the same rules call for the federal funds rate to be close to zero. Moreover, I would assert that simple rules are, well, too simple, and ignore important complexities of the current situation, about which I will have more to say shortly.

The FOMC will, of course, carefully deliberate about when to begin the process of removing policy accommodation. But the significance of this decision should not be overemphasized, because what matters for financial conditions and the broader economy is the entire expected path of short-term interest rates and not the precise timing of the first rate increase. The spending and investment decisions the FOMC seeks to influence depend primarily on expectations of policy well into the future, as embedded in longer-term interest rates and other asset prices. More important than the timing of the Committee's initial policy move will be the strategy the Committee deploys in adjusting the federal funds rate over time, in response to economic developments, to achieve its dual mandate. Market participants' perceptions of that reaction function and the implications for the likely longer-run trajectory of short-term interest rates will influence the borrowing costs faced by households and businesses, including the rates on corporate bonds, auto loans, and home mortgages.