[8/22/16] In a Fed Staff working paper released over the weekend titled “Gauging the Ability of the FOMC to Respond to Future Recessions” and penned by deputy director of the division of research and statistics at the Fed, the author concludes that “simulations of the FRB/US model of a severe recession suggest that large-scale asset purchases and forward guidance about the future path of the federal funds rate should be able to provide enough additional accommodation to fully compensate for a more limited [ability] to cut short-term interest rates in most, but probably not all, circumstances.”
So far so good, however, there are some notable problems with the paper’s assumptions, as Citi head of G10 FX, Steven Englander, observes.
He writes that the paper’s basic framework is to take the standard US economic model used by the Fed, give it a negative shock big enough to push the unemployment rate up by 5 percentage points (big but not unprecedented over the last 50 years) and deploying the Fed’s policy rate, QE and forward guidance tools to see if they are adequate to get the economy back on track. Negative rates and helicopter money are not used.
The two simulations assume:
- the economy is in equilibrium initially with inflation at 2%, r* at 1%, so equilibrium nominal fed funds is 3%
- the economy is in equilibrium initially with inflation at 2%, r* at zero (secular stagnation) and equilibrium nominal fed funds at 2%
He compares three policy approaches. The first assumes a linear world where fed funds can go into negative territory but there is no breakdown in the structure of economic relationships. It is probably not a realistic view of policy ineffectiveness at negative rates, but it is mean to be a baseline. The second just takes fed funds down to zero and keeps it there long enough for unemployment to return to baseline.
The third takes fed funds down to zero and augments it with additional USD2trn of QE and forward guidance. A variation on the third policy response function doubles the amount of QE in the second simulation.
In other words, the Fed is already factoring in a scenario in which a shock to the economy leads to additional QE of either $2 trillion, or in a worst case scenario, $4 trillion, effectively doubling the current size of the Fed’s balance sheet.
He continues his critique of the Fed’s argument as follows:
In the simulations. QE and forward guidance take 10yr yields down 225-300 bps depending on the starting point for fed funds and whether you do $2 trillion or $4 trillion for QE. But that is not going to work very well if by design fed funds and 10yr yields can’t go below zero. And if expected rates are already low then forward guidance does not have much room. Fed official will gave to keep a straight face while saying they we will keep rates at zero … forever.
What makes it work is that QE and committing to low rates for longer gets the long rate down quickly and this compensates for the inability to take short rates down as far as you would want. In the unconstrained model, the maximum drop in short rates is almost 9 percentage points, almost twice as much as in the constrained model, but the QE/forward guidance lower takes (and keeps) long rates 75bps lower than when the Fed takes rates to zero and stops. When the Fed is starting from 3% fed funds, the combo can almost entirely offset the zero constraint, but only if the full $4 trillion QE is brought to bear. Starting from 2%, QE of $2 trillion is not enough to get long rates down far or fast enough to offset the shock.
All of which brings Englander to the following stunning conclusion:
I would have rewritten the conclusion as: “large-scale asset purchases and forward guidance about the future path of the federal funds rate have almost no ability to offset a shock in current circumstances, but down the road may be able to provide enough additional accommodation to fully compensate for a more limited [ability] to cut short-term interest rates in some, but not all and maybe even not most, circumstances.” The italics and colors show my changes.
Just as troubling, Englander admits that the nuanced read of the Fed paper admits it is effectively powerless to withstand a sharp recession: “The key policy issues and what drives the paper’s conclusions and my variant is the starting point. Were we to have a recession today or a year (or even two years) from now, it is very unlikely that the Fed weapons have anywhere near the potency that the paper describes. The FOMC had an end-2018 median fed funds rate of 2.4% at the June meeting and my guess is that it is lower now. Markets don’t price in even 100bps in fed funds till the end of 2019 (taking Eurodollar rates and subtracting 40bs or so.) That said, a 5% shock to the unemployment rate is pretty extreme, if the Fed is not stepping on the brakes hard or world not falling apart for other reasons.”
How much room does the Fed have…CONTINUE READING