Markets Watch the Fed - But What Does the Fed Watch?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

It is a well known fact that market participants watch the Federal Reserve in order to predict future moves. But what is known about the process how the Fed watches the economy?
Taking the latest Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) minutes from the August 7 meeting it appears the FOMC relies heavily on lagging indicators. Reading the minutes results in a lengthy review of the then most recent economic indicators but what is missing is a more intense discussion of the future. Having a bunch of economists at one table whose profession is to forecast the future makes it hard to believe that the FOMC only ticks off recent data and then has a cup of tea.
But the minutes leave this impression, especially as there is only one slight hint that would suggest that the Fed knew of the brewing trouble in money markets that would force it to cut the discount rate only 10 days later. Takers at this window of last resort were not to be seen despite some leading banks who grudgingly grabbed $2 billion at a higher rate in order to promote this facility.
Snips like the following are not designed to erase fears about a recession accompanied by heavy inflation. Does the Fed know where the US economy is headed to?
From the minutes (my comments in italics):
The Manager (of the System Open Market Account) ... reported on developments in domestic financial markets and on System open market operations in government securities and federal agency obligations during the period since the previous meeting.
And? Nothing happened there in the runup to August meltdown?
Despite continued softness in house prices, household wealth moved markedly higher in the second quarter, mostly reflecting rising equity prices.
House-price appreciation continued to slow, with some measures again showing declines in home values.
Home equity goes down but home values rise?
Household surveys conducted in early July indicated that the median expectation for inflation over the next year remained unchanged from June's elevated level despite declines in gasoline prices in both months. Median expectations of longer-term inflation ticked up and were near the top of the narrow range that had prevailed over the past few years.
Consumers are worried more about rising prices because they feel them at every purchase.
Financial market conditions were volatile during the intermeeting period, particularly over the last few weeks of the interval. Yields on nominal Treasury securities fell on balance, possibly reflecting an increased preference by investors for safe assets as well as revisions in policy expectations. Conditions in markets for subprime mortgages and related instruments, including segments of the asset-backed commercial paper market, deteriorated sharply toward the end of the period. Credit conditions for speculative-grade corporate borrowers tightened substantially, as investors pulled back from higher-risk assets. Spreads on speculative-grade bonds increased to near their highest levels in the past four years. A number of high-yield bond and leveraged loan deals intended to finance leveraged buyouts were delayed or restructured, though other high-yield bonds were issued. In contrast, credit conditions for investment-grade businesses and prime households were relatively little affected by the market turbulence. Issuance of investment-grade bonds continued. Yields on investment-grade corporate issues rose relative to yields on Treasury securities, but because yields on Treasuries declined, yields on investment-grade bonds were about unchanged on net. Nonfinancial commercial paper outstanding posted a modest gain in July, while the pace of bank lending to businesses picked up from an already solid clip. Mortgage loans and consumer credit appeared to remain readily available to households with strong balance sheets, although late in the period some evidence pointed to diminishing availability of jumbo mortgages.
Seems the market is in a mess.
After rising at a rapid pace in the first half of the year, M2 grew at a more moderate rate in July.
And nobody wants to look at M3 anymore, now running at 13%.
In preparation for this meeting, the staff lowered somewhat its forecast of real GDP growth in the second half of 2007 and in 2008. The reduction was in part due to the annual revision of national income and product accounts (NIPA), which revealed somewhat less rapid growth in output and productivity during the past three years than previously reported and led the staff to trim its estimates of the growth rates of structural productivity and potential GDP; the reduction also reflected less accommodative financial conditions and the softer tone of some near-term indicators.
In preparation for the coming cyclical economic downturn we reduce our forecasts (and hope the White House will not behead us.)
In their discussion of the economic situation and outlook, meeting participants indicated that they still saw moderate economic expansion in coming quarters as the most likely outcome but that the downside risks to growth had increased. Participants reported that economic expansion had continued at a moderate pace in many regions of the country despite further weakness in the housing sector. Going forward, most participants anticipated that growth in aggregate demand would be supported by rising employment, incomes, and exports, with the result that growth in actual output probably would remain close to growth of potential GDP despite the ongoing adjustment in the housing sector. Several mentioned that the revisions to the NIPA pointed to a modest downward adjustment in projected growth of actual and potential GDP, but thought that potential output growth was likely to be a bit higher than forecast by the staff. However, recent spending indicators had been mixed, and credit conditions had become tighter, suggesting greater downside risks to growth. Participants generally expected that core inflation would edge lower over the next two years, reflecting a slight easing of pressures on resources, well-anchored inflation expectations, and the waning of temporary factors that had boosted prices last year and early this year. Participants anticipated that total inflation would slow as well, particularly if market expectations of a modest decline in energy prices in coming quarters were to prove correct. But they were concerned that the high level of resource utilization and slower productivity growth could augment inflation pressures. Against this backdrop, the Committee agreed that the risk that inflation would fail to moderate as expected remained its predominant policy concern.
Why do slower growth and higher inflation always come hand in hand?
Participants agreed that the housing sector was apt to remain a drag on growth for some time and represented a significant downside risk to the economic outlook. Indeed, developments in mortgage markets during the intermeeting period suggested that the adjustment in the housing sector could well prove to be both deeper and more prolonged than had seemed likely earlier this year. Participants noted that investors had become much more uncertain about the likely future cash flows from subprime and certain other nontraditional mortgages, and thus about the valuation of securities backed by such mortgages. Consequently, the markets for securities backed by subprime and other non-traditional mortgages had become illiquid, and originations of new subprime mortgages had dropped sharply. While these markets were expected to recover over time, it was anticipated that credit standards for these types of mortgages would be tighter, and interest rates higher relative to rates on conforming mortgages, in the future than in recent years. However, participants also observed that mortgage loans remained readily available to most potential borrowers, and that interest rates on conforming, conventional mortgage loans had declined in recent weeks, providing some support to the housing sector.
They were absolutely wrong on this.
Participants thought that consumer expenditures likely would expand at a moderate pace in coming quarters, supported by solid gains in employment and real income. Though growth in consumer spending had slowed in the second quarter, the slowing likely reflected temporary factors in part, including some payback from unusually strong growth in prior quarters and the surge in gasoline prices. Several participants noted the risks that house prices could decline significantly and that credit standards for home equity loans could be tightened substantially as factors that could weigh on consumer spending. However, the sizable upward revision--from negative to positive--in estimates of the personal saving rate during the past three years suggested somewhat less need for households to rebuild their savings.
At least there is some dissent about the complacent view of the housing market. And what is your real income growth?
Participants expected that business investment would be supported by solid fundamentals, including high profits, strong business balance sheets, and moderate growth in output. Recent financial market developments were thought unlikely to have an appreciable adverse effect on capital spending. Although lenders recently appeared to be less willing to extend credit for financial restructuring, the supply of credit to finance real investment did not appear significantly diminished. Funding had become more costly and difficult to obtain for riskier corporate borrowers, but there had been little net change in the cost of credit for investment-grade businesses. Also, businesses in the aggregate continued to have sufficient internally generated funds to finance the expected level of real investment. Nonetheless, participants recognized that conditions in corporate credit markets could change rapidly, and that adverse effects on business spending were possible. Moreover, heightened asset market volatility and the associated increase in uncertainty, if they were to persist for long, could lead businesses to pare capital spending plans. Still, participants judged that continued growth of investment outlays going forward was the most likely outcome.
Let's drop it from our helicopters and hope somebody will invest, consume, whatever keeps it going round.
In their discussion of monetary policy for the intermeeting period, Committee members again agreed that maintaining the existing stance of policy at this meeting was likely to be consistent with the overall economy expanding at a moderate pace over coming quarters and inflation pressures moderating over time. The expansion would be supported by solid job gains and rising real incomes that would bolster consumption, and by increasing foreign demand for goods and services produced in the United States. The ongoing adjustment in housing markets likely would exert a restraining influence on overall growth for several more quarters and remained a key source of uncertainty about the outlook. The recent strains in financial markets posed additional downside risks to economic growth. Members expected a return to more normal market conditions, but recognized that the process likely would take some time, particularly in markets related to subprime mortgages. However, a further deterioration in financial conditions could not be ruled out and, to the extent such a development could have an adverse effect on growth prospects, might require a policy response.
We know it's bad and we have sleepless nights too.
Markets need a cleansing process to sort out the bad apples. It would be helpful if the Fed takes a position. Bail out or not but let the markets know clearly, please.


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