Peter Morici: Powell has lost his North Star, and the Fed is flying blind

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell is in an unenviable position. Folks expect him to fine-tune interest rates to keep the economy going and inflation tame but he can’t make things much better — only worse.

Growth is nearly 3% and unemployment is at its lowest level since 1969. What inflation we have above the Fed target of 2% is driven largely by oil prices and those by forces beyond the influence of U.S. economic conditions — OPEC politics, U.S. sanctions on Iran, and dystopian political forces in Venezuela and a few other garden spots.

When the current turbulence in oil markets recedes, we are likely in for a period of headline inflation below 2%, just as those forces are now driving prices higher now.

Overall, long-term inflation has settled in at the Fed target of about 2%. The Fed should not obsess about it but keep a watchful eye.

Amid all this, Powell’s inflation compass has gone missing. The Phillips curve, as he puts it, may not be dead but just resting. To my thinking, it’s in a coma if it was ever alive at all.

That contraption is a shorthand equation sitting atop a pyramid of more fundamental behavioral relationships. Those include the supply and demand for domestic workers and in turn, an historically large contingent labor force of healthy prime-age adults sitting on the sidelines, the shifting skill requirements of a workplace transformed by artificial intelligence and robotics, import prices influenced by weak growth in Europe and China, and immigration.

Of course, Mariner Powell has his North Star — what economists affectionately call R* (R-Star), but it is no longer at a fixed position in Powell’s sky.

R* is the federal funds rate that neither encourages the economy to speed up or slow down. However, with businesses needing much less capital to get started or grow these days and for decades China and Germany—the second and fourth largest economies globally—racking up current account surpluses and savings to invest abroad, it is no wonder the forces of supply and demand have been driving R* down to historically low levels.

With long-run inflation at 2%, current estimates put the nominal R* at a bit below 3%. That’s just three more quarter-point rate increases away.

Overshooting could kill the recovery but how is Powell to know?

Miner Powell’s canary has gone AWOL. Historically, economists and financial types have looked to the yield curve for the warning croak that the economy is headed for recession.

When I wrote about a flattening yield curve on MarketWatch early last December, the 10-year TMUBMUSD10Y, -0.27%  less 30-day Treasurys TMUBMUSD01M, -0.13%  spread was about 120 basis points. Now it’s about 100, and folks are even more nervous.

Although the gap is supposed to tell us about investor expectations for growth—a wide spread meaning optimism and a narrowing gap the threat of recession — these days, long rates are significantly affected by factors quite beyond the U.S. economy.

Increasingly, the dollar BUXX, -0.26%   is the currency of payment for import contracts — 40% of imports worldwide are invoiced in dollars even though the United States is only about one-tenth of the market. And populist movements in Europe and political uncertainty elsewhere have driven private-asset managers and savers into dollars. Consequently, foreign private actors — not just foreign central banks — have a ravenous appetite for Treasurys and dollar-denominated deposits.

The economists at the Fed are really econometricians bent on estimating all these relationships with ever-more-complex statistical techniques but they only have historical data. The parameters keep shifting, and historical information can only inadequately tell us their values.

All the Fed can do is feel its way with an eye toward price pressure in the core. In the 1950s, we hit unemployment below 3%, and it could go much lower than 3.7% without much inflation.

We have strong reason to believe the equilibrium short-term rate is no more than 3% — though on that Chairman Powell is agnostic. And if we take Federal Open Market Committee policy statements and the plot chart at face value, Powell and his colleagues intend to drive the federal funds rate to well above that by 2020.

That’s dangerous stuff.

Be Sociable, Share!

Related Posts


MarketTamer is not an investment advisor and is not registered with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission or the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. Further, owners, employees, agents or representatives of MarketTamer are not acting as investment advisors and might not be registered with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission or the Financial Industry Regulatory.

This company makes no representations or warranties concerning the products, practices or procedures of any company or entity mentioned or recommended in this email, and makes no representations or warranties concerning said company or entity’s compliance with applicable laws and regulations, including, but not limited to, regulations promulgated by the SEC or the CFTC. The sender of this email may receive a portion of the proceeds from the sale of any products or services offered by a company or entity mentioned or recommended in this email. The recipient of this email assumes responsibility for conducting its own due diligence on the aforementioned company or entity and assumes full responsibility, and releases the sender from liability, for any purchase or order made from any company or entity mentioned or recommended in this email.

The content on any of MarketTamer websites, products or communication is for educational purposes only. Nothing in its products, services, or communications shall be construed as a solicitation and/or recommendation to buy or sell a security. Trading stocks, options and other securities involves risk. The risk of loss in trading securities can be substantial. The risk involved with trading stocks, options and other securities is not suitable for all investors. Prior to buying or selling an option, an investor must evaluate his/her own personal financial situation and consider all relevant risk factors. See: Characteristics and Risks of Standardized Options. The educational training program and software services are provided to improve financial understanding.

The information presented in this site is not intended to be used as the sole basis of any investment decisions, nor should it be construed as advice designed to meet the investment needs of any particular investor. Nothing in our research constitutes legal, accounting or tax advice or individually tailored investment advice. Our research is prepared for general circulation and has been prepared without regard to the individual financial circumstances and objectives of persons who receive or obtain access to it. Our research is based on sources that we believe to be reliable. However, we do not make any representation or warranty, expressed or implied, as to the accuracy of our research, the completeness, or correctness or make any guarantee or other promise as to any results that may be obtained from using our research. To the maximum extent permitted by law, neither we, any of our affiliates, nor any other person, shall have any liability whatsoever to any person for any loss or expense, whether direct, indirect, consequential, incidental or otherwise, arising from or relating in any way to any use of or reliance on our research or the information contained therein. Some discussions contain forward looking statements which are based on current expectations and differences can be expected. All of our research, including the estimates, opinions and information contained therein, reflects our judgment as of the publication or other dissemination date of the research and is subject to change without notice. Further, we expressly disclaim any responsibility to update such research. Investing involves substantial risk. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results, and a loss of original capital may occur. No one receiving or accessing our research should make any investment decision without first consulting his or her own personal financial advisor and conducting his or her own research and due diligence, including carefully reviewing any applicable prospectuses, press releases, reports and other public filings of the issuer of any securities being considered. None of the information presented should be construed as an offer to sell or buy any particular security. As always, use your best judgment when investing.