Can The Fed Taper?

The Taper Tapir

Back in June, I correctly noted that it was severely unlikely that the Federal Reserve would taper its asset buying programs in September. I based this projection on the macroeconomic indicators on which the Federal Reserve bases its decisions — unemployment, and inflation. The Federal Reserve has a mandate from Congress to delivery a monetary policy that results in full employment, and low and stable inflation. With consumer price inflation significantly below the Fed’s self-imposed 2% goal, and with the rate of unemployment relatively high — currently well over 7% — I saw very little chance of the Fed effectively tightening by reducing his asset purchases.

There exists another school of thought that also correctly noted that the Fed would not taper. This other school, however, believes that the Fed cannot ever taper and that the Fed will destroy the dollar before it ceases its monetary activism. This view is summarised by the Misesian economist Pater Tanebrarum:

While it is true that the liquidation of malinvested capital would resume if the monetary heroin doses were to be reduced, the only alternative is to try to engender an ‘eternal boom’ by printing ever more money. This can only lead to an even worse ultimate outcome, in the very worst case a crack-up boom that destroys the entire monetary system.

So the Misesian view appears to be that the Fed won’t stop buying because doing so would result in a mass liquidation, and so the Fed will print all the way to hyperinflation.

Since talk of a taper began, rates certainly spiked as the market began to price in a taper. How far would an actual taper have pushed rates up? Well, it’s hard to say. But given that banks now have massive capital buffers in the form of excess reserves — as well as a guaranteed lender-of-last-resort resource at the Fed — it is hard to believe that an end to quantitative easing now would push us back into the depths of post-Lehman liquidation. Certainly, in the year preceding the announcement of QE Infinity — when unemployment was higher, and bank balance sheets frailer — there was no such fall back into liquidation. What a taper certainly would have amounted to is a relative tightening in monetary policy at a time when inflation is relatively low (sorry Shadowstats) and when unemployment is still relatively and stickily high. Whether or not we believe that monetary policy is effective in bringing down unemployment or igniting inflation, it is very clear that doing such a thing would be completely inconsistent with the Federal Reserve’s mandate and stated goals.

Generally, I find monetary policy as a means to control unemployment as rather Rube Goldberg-ish. Unemployment is much easier reduced through direct spending rather than trusting in the animal spirits of a depressed market to deliver such a thing, especially in the context of widespread deleveraging. But that does not mean that the Fed can never tighten again. While the depression ploughs on, the Fed will continue with or expand its current monetary policy measures. Whether or not these are effective, as Keynes noted, in the long run when the storm is over the ocean is flat. If by some luck — a technology shock, perhaps — there was an ignition of stronger growth, and unemployment began to fall significantly, the Fed would not just be able to tighten, it would have to to quell incipient inflationary pressure. Without luck and while the recovery remains feeble, it is true that it is hard to see the Fed tightening any time soon. Janet Yellen certainly believes that the Fed can do more to fight unemployment. This could certainly mean an increase in monetary activism. If she succeeds and the recovery strengthens and unemployment moves significantly downward, then Yellen will come under pressure to tighten sooner. 

In the current depressionary environment, the hyperinflation that the Misesians yearn for and see the Fed pushing toward is incredibly unlikely. The deflationary forces in the economy are stunningly huge. Huge quantities of pseudo-money were created in the shadow banking system before 2008, which are now being extinguished. The Fed would have had to double its monetary stimulus simply to push the money supply up to its long-term trend line. Wage growth throughout the economy is very stagnant, and the flow of cheap consumer goods from the East continues. So Yellen has the scope to expand without fearing inflationary pressure. The main concerns for inflation in my view are entirely non-monetary — geopolitical shocks, and energy shocks. Yet with ongoing deleveraging, any such inflationary shocks may actually prove helpful by decreasing the real burden of the nominal debt. Tightening or tapering in response to such shocks would be quite futile.

Sooner or later, the Fed will feel that the unemployment picture has significantly improved. That could be at 5% or even 6% so long as the job creation rate is strongly growing. At that point — perhaps by 2015  — tapering can begin. Tapering may slow the recovery to some extent not least through expectations. And that may be a good thing, guarding against the outgrowth of bubbles.

Yet if another shock pushes unemployment up much further, then tapering will be off the table for a long time. Although Yellen will surely try, with the Fed already highly extended under such circumstances, the only effective option left for job creation will be fiscal policy.

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The Trouble With Shadowstats

Often, when I talk about inflation being low, people who disagree tend to cite John Williams’ Shadowstats as evidence that price inflation is not low at all.

Now, I don’t disagree with the idea that some people have experienced a higher level of price inflation than the CPI. Everyone experiences a different rate of inflation based on their purchasing habits, so by definition everyone’s individual rate will diverge from the official rate to some degree; some will be higher, and some will be lower. And I don’t disagree that rising food and fuel prices have been a problem for welfare recipients and seniors on a fixed income, etc, who spend a higher proportion of their income on food and fuel than, say, young professionals with a lot of disposable income.

What I do disagree with is bad statistical methodology. Shadowstats is built on the belief that the Bureau of Labor Statistics changed their methodology in the 1980s and 1990s, and that if we were using their original methodology the level of inflation would be much higher. Shadowstats presents what they claim to be the original methodology. But Shadowstats is not calculating inflation any differently.They are not using the 1980s or 1990s methodology that they believe would be higher.  All Shadowstats is doing is taking the CPI data and adding on an arbitrary constant to make it look like inflation is higher!

This should be obvious from their data, which has the exact same curve as the CPI data at a higher level:

alt-cpi-home2 (1)

In fact, according to James Hamilton of Econbrowser, John Williams admitted in 2008 that his numbers are just inflated CPI data:

Last month I called attention to an analysis by BLS researchers John Greenlees and Robert McClelland of some of the claims by John Williams of Shadowstats about the consequences for reported inflation of assorted technical decisions made by the BLS. Williams asked me to update with a link to his response to the BLS study. I am happy to do so, along with offering some further observations of my own.

You can follow the link to Shadowstats’ response to Greenlees and McClelland and judge for yourself, but my impression is that the response is more philosophical than quantitative. In a separate phone conversation, Williams further clarified the Shadowstats methodology. Here’s what John said to me: “I’m not going back and recalculating the CPI. All I’m doing is going back to the government’s estimates of what the effect would be and using that as an ad factor to the reported statistics.”

Price changes and inflation are important topics, and constructing alternate measures of inflation is a worthwhile activity. Researchers at MIT have tried to do this with their Billion Prices Project, which measures price trends across a much, much larger range of products and locations than CPI:

BPP

What the Billion Prices Project implies for Shadowstats is that the CPI is roughly correct, and there is no vast divergence between real-world price trends and the CPI number. Of course, maybe the 1980s and 1990s methodology would be different from the current numbers. It would be very interesting to compare the current CPI methodology with the older CPI methodologies and with the BPP data! But assessing this empirically would require someone to mine through the raw CPI data since the 1980s and recalculate the outputs with the real earlier methodology — a far longer, more difficult and sophisticated process than taking the CPI outputs and adding an arbitrary constant!