Some Fed Policy Analysis

June 12th, 2017 8:06 am | by John Jansen |

Excellent piece via Chris Low at FTN Financial:

AM Economic Comments

by Chief Economist Chris Low

Monday, June 12, 2017

Stocks are lower in Asia and Europe overnight and NASDAQ futures are down enough this morning to suggests Friday’s tech selloff will continue today. US 10-yr note yields were higher overnight but have fallen back to 2.209%, likely in part thanks to the weakness in equities.

The front page Fed-vs-the-financial markets article in today’s WSJ dives into what ought to be the most controversial reason the Fed is raising rates this year: They have decided stocks are overvalued and they can’t stand when long-term interest rates fall when they raise short rates. The paper notes the Goldman Sachs Financial Conditions Index, which has fallen considerably since December, suggesting markets have eased more than the Fed has tightened. The GSFCI is just exactly the sort of thing the Fed loves to watch while tightening because it allows FOMC participants to ignore the economic damage they are doing to real world economic activity.

There is so much wrong with the contention that financial conditions are easier than they were before the last two rate hikes it is hard to know where to begin, but let’s start with the fact that the Fed appears entirely in agreement with the WSJ. As far as predicting what the Fed will do, the drop in the GSFCI significantly raises the odds of more aggressive behavior. After all, NY Fed President Bill Dudley cited the GSFCI two weeks ago, right before the Fed’s communications blackout, saying there is no reason to think the Fed has tightened too much if financial conditions are easing. Dudley is the Fed’s go-to financial-markets guy.

Next, Mohamed El-Erian and others have been popping up on TV lately citing financial stability as the reason the Fed is tightening. Last week, El-Erian said long-term rates are falling because too much income is going to rich people, and rich people are too prone to invest rather than spend. It rings true because 1. We all know about the income gap and 2. It is fun to think rich people are stupid. Be careful, though. El-Erian’s logic smacks of the same reality-defying thinking as the global savings glut baloney Greenspan popularized in the late Nineties and Bernanke clung to in 2006 as excuses for ignoring a flattening yield curve. People who extended maturity back then knew exactly what they were doing and they likely know what they are doing now, too.

In the meantime, even as the Fed thinks financial conditions have eased despite three rate hikes, business loan growth has slowed significantly. Commercial and industrial loans, which are made at floating rates above fed funds, are lower than they were in October. Mortgage activity has slowed and home equity lending is declining. Delinquencies are rising and lending standards are tightening in response. When the Fed raises interest rates they tend to kill floating rate borrowing first, which makes sense since they raise short-term rates. Money moves into the long end because investors are confident the Fed will check any inflationary tendencies in the economy and because long-yields are the place to be when the Fed (inevitably) tightens too much.

The GSFCI falls when the Fed tightens because it fails to recognize a flat yield curve as a sign of tight financial conditions. In the index, the drop in long yields offsets the rise in short rates. The GSFCI was very low in 2007, for instance, a year in which millions of borrowers were driven into default. And the Fed, watching things like the GSFCI instead of real-life activity in the financial sector – you know, like lending and borrowing activity – failed to recognize how tight financial conditions were in 2006-07. In fact, they did not just fail to recognize it at the time, FOMC participants failed to admit excessive tightening even three years later, in the aftermath of the worst credit crunch since the Great Depression.

The Fed will raise rates on Wednesday, and again in September and/or December, despite a sharp slowdown in credit activity because FOMC participants have a weak spot for indicators like the GSFCI and because they are all-too eager to believe in global savings gluts and the stupidity of rich investors as an alternative to the possibility the fed funds target they arbitrarily chose when they started tightening is too high.

Today, the May Treasury budget. This week, PPI, CPI and May retail sales.

Chris Low

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