The final countdown

Undaunted by the Federal Open Market Committee meeting in September, investors are buying long-term U.S. Treasuries in droves as the probability of a rate hike falls sharply below 30 percent.  

Considering the significant improvements in the world’s largest economy over the last few years, what is driving such confidence that a move by the Federal Reserve will be delayed?  

The unemployment rate hit a low of 5.1 percent in August, while second quarter GDP grew at 3.7 percent, following a first quarter increase of 0.6 percent. This sets the tone for a 2.5 percent annual GDP growth rate for 2015, much above the higher range of the growth target set by the Federal Reserve in June. Admittedly, the economy continues to face some headwinds.

July’s core Personal Consumption Expenditure was measured at 1.3 percent, significantly below the committee’s 2 percent medium-term target. Coupled with the recent volatility in markets evidenced by the VIX soaring 135 percent in August, the Federal Reserve is facing quite the conundrum!  

The policymaking body stands in stark contrast to the European Central Bank with its dual mandate focus: to promote maximum sustainable employment and price stability. With the cumulative effect of a near zero interest rate policy and a bloated balance sheet of US$4.5 trillion (approximately 25 percent of GDP), one could certainly argue that the level of policy accommodation is much bigger than initially thought. Why then does it appear that courage to lift rates is waning?  

Despite the less than sanguine mood in markets recently, the employment picture remains robust. At 5.1 percent unemployment, the Fed has essentially reached the level associated with the natural rate of unemployment.

The recent Job Opening and Labour Turnover Survey suggests this slack is shrinking at an impressive rate. In July, job openings hit a record high of 5.7 million, an increase of more than 1 million year over year. The ratio of hires to new openings further hit a pre-recession level of 0.87 and has held steady below the break-even rate for the past six consecutive months, a sure sign of the shrinking slack within labor markets. Some economists have further pointed to the nonlinear relationship between shrinking slack and inflation as an economy approaches full employment.  

Yet another broad measure of the labor market, the underemployment rate, which includes temporary and part-time workers, has fallen significantly to just over 10 percent in July from a high of 17.1 percent in October 2009. The tightness in labor at this level of unemployment can quickly transform itself into mounting wage pressure, one of the largest contributors to inflation. 

Admittedly, the second mandate of the Fed has been much more elusive. While wage pressures have not yet manifested into inflation, the Fed chairwoman, in her March speech, cited “a substantial body of theory and historical evidence suggesting that inflation will eventually begin to rise as resource utilization continues to tighten.”  

Not viewing the manifestation of wage pressure as a precursor to lifting rates, Vice Chair Stanley Fischer echoed similar sentiments late this summer. On Aug. 28, Mr. Fischer cautioned against the benefits of waiting too long given the substantial lag for policy decisions to influence real economic activity.  

One would also be remiss to ignore the fading disinflationary forces from a higher U.S. dollar and free fall in commodity prices. The implications, therefore, of mounting wage pressures as the economy nears its maximum employment level coupled with the effect of fading disinflationary forces may be enough to push core PCE closer to the Fed’s target.  

In addition to price stability and full employment, policymakers must also keep an eye on the recent market volatility and increasing evidence of a slowdown in China. Although the spike in the VIX was significant, declines in U.S. markets were less than 7 percent for the major indices, below what is considered a market correction. With U.S. exports to China at approximately 1.2 percent of GDP, recent market movements are considered immaterial unless the slowdown is severe enough to threaten contagion.  

Given the mixed signals of vastly improved labor markets, economic growth amid market volatility, and low but potentially rising inflation, there is little argument to justify maintaining an easy money policy. Whether the policymaking body can muster enough courage to increase rates in September or December, one thing remains clear: We are on the cusp of witnessing a brand new era in Fed monetary policy. 


Disclaimer: The views expressed are the opinions of the writer and while believed reliable may differ from the views of Butterfield Bank (Cayman) Ltd. The Bank accepts no liability for errors or actions taken on the basis of this information.

Statistics and Data Source: Bloomberg LP., Capital Economics, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.  


Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer