Chicago Fed president Charles Evans has gone from dissenter to intellectual leader in just a year. The future of the recovery might be at stake.
Some revolutionaries wear Guy Fawkes masks and talk about the 1 percent, and some revolutionaries wear suits and talk about policy thresholds. Chicago Fed president Charles Evans is one of the latter.
Ain’t no revolution like a monetary policy revolution.
It’s been a brave, old world for central banks the past four years. Short-term interest rates have been stuck at zero, which, outside of Japan, hasn’t happened since the 1930s. It’s what economists call a liquidity trap, and it means central banks can’t stimulate growth like they normally do by cutting short-term interest rates. They can’t cut below zero. This doesn’t mean central banks are powerless, just that they have to try new things.
(1) THE EVANS RULE
The Fed’s big announcement was that it won’t raise rates before unemployment falls to 6.5 percent or inflation rises to 2.5 percent. Notice the word “before” here. The Fed won’t automatically raise rates if unemployment or inflation hits one of these thresholds, but it won’t do so until at least then. These are the exact thresholds Evans endorsed a few weeks ago, which are modest tweaks from his original thresholds last year of 7 percent unemployment and 3 percent inflation.
[The Fed] currently anticipates that exceptionally low levels for the federal runds rate are likely to be warranted at least through mid-2015.
Is this a promise, maybe? That’s how most people interpreted it, but it’s not entirely clear. Read it again. The Fed was saying it expected the economy to be crummy enough to justify zero rates until mid-2015. But what if the economy picked up before then? Would the Fed raise rates then? Good question! The Evans rule clears this up a bit — though not entirely — but more importantly, it clears up whether the Fed has a 2 percent inflation target or ceiling.
But there’s plenty that still isn’t clear. Like how and whether this will work. The Evans rule sounds straightforward enough, but these thresholds are not. The Fed left itself a bit of wiggle room. When it comes to unemployment, the Fed will look at other labor force measures like the participation rate. In other words, it will consider whether unemployment is falling because people are finding jobs or because people have given up on finding jobs. It gets murkier when it comes to inflation. The Fed will use its 1-2 year inflation forecasts for its threshold. Yes, forecasts. That gives the Fed some good flexibility to ignore commodity surges, like oil in 2011, but it’s not the clearest of guides.
(Note: These break-evens measure the differences between Treasury and TIPS, or inflation-protected, bonds. They aren’t always reliable because TIPS are so lightly traded — their nickname is “terribly illiquid pieces of,” well, we’ll let you figure out the rest — but they’re a decent proxy. All data is from Bloomberg).
Inflation expectations should tick up again, especially if we disarm the austerity bomb known as the fiscal cliff, but the overall pattern of peaks and valleys probably isn’t going to go away yet.
(2) ASSET PURCHASES
The Fed’s other (slightly less) big announcement was that it will continue its $ 85 billion of monthly asset purchases, albeit with a slight, um, twist. Here’s what hasn’t changed: the Fed will buy $ 45 billion of Treasury bonds and $ 40 billion of mortgage bonds each and every month until unemployment “substantially” improves. What has changed is how the Fed will pay for its $ 45 billion of Treasury bond purchases. Before, the Fed had been selling $ 45 billion of short-term bonds to pay for the $ 45 billion of long-term bonds it was buying, which went by the dramatic name of “Operation Twist”. It was a way to lower long-term borrowing costs without printing money, back when more Fed members were worried about potential inflation. But with its supply of short-term Treasuries running, well, short, the Fed will turn Twist into QE. In other words, it will now print money to pay for the $ 45 billion of Treasuries it buys. The Fed’s balance sheet will grow more than before, though its monthly flow of purchases remains the same.
It’s okay if you have that Animal Farm feeling. There’s been a revolution, but nothing has changed. The Fed still thinks it’s first rate hike will come in 2015-ish, and it’s still buying $ 85 billion of bonds a month. This is a true fact. But it undersells the intellectual shift at the Fed. It’s gone from mostly thinking about inflation to creating a framework to guide its thinking about inflation and unemployment. And it’s done that in just a year. But this framework, the Evans rule, is really just a quasi-NGDP target. It’s not exactly the catchiest of phrases, but NGDP, or nominal GDP, targeting would be a real revolution in central banking. In plain English, it’s the idea that central banks should target the size of the economy, unadjusted for inflation, and make up for any past over-or-undershooting. In theory, a flexible enough inflation target should mimic an NGDP target, which is why the Evans rule is so historic. It’s an incremental step on the way to regime change at the Fed.
Occupy the Fed. Charles Evans is.