US Interest Rates
Back in November 2013, nearing the end of his term as Fed chair, Ben Bernanke offered perhaps the clearest articulation of his views on the mechanisms through which the Fed’s distinct policies affect monetary conditions. My colleague Gavyn Davies then described the critical element in Bernanke’s speech as the separation principle, writing:
Just more than three years ago, Janet Yellen gave the Michel Camdessus lecture at the IMF, titled Monetary Policy and Financial Stability. The thrust of the speech was that “monetary policy faces significant limitations as a tool to promote financial stability”. As Yellen summarised the point then:
So what he’s saying is, the Fed will raise rates at some point and it won’t be a very long time from now. But he’s not saying it’s going to be in a week or a month or a couple of months. Right. OK.
In the absence of concrete policy plans from the incoming Republican administration, and a sense of how those might play with the respective caucuses (caucusi?) in the House and Senate, the easy assumption is the Federal government will spend more on bridges and roads and/or cut taxes. But history suggests Trump can act in unpredictable ways.
We don’t really understand how changes in the level of short-term interest rates affect things we actually care about, such as growth and employment. There are too many moving parts and leaps of logic required, many of which are based on bogus assumptions about how the world works. So it’s always nice to find new research into a small piece of the monetary transmission mechanism that’s grounded in facts. Researchers at TransUnion, the credit reporting company, looked at which American consumers would be exposed to an increase in the Federal Reserve’s policy rate corridor and the dollar magnitude of the impact of different tightening paths. We recently had a chance to discuss their findings with Nidhi Verma, who led the project.
The Fed sure seems to be getting comfortable with the idea of acting as a centralised counterparty for collateral transactions. It’s unclear whether the market’s quite as enamored with the idea. This year’s Jackson Hole conference was on monetary policy implementation, which often serves as a shorthand for the following questions: how should the Fed control interest rates, and how big of a role should it play in financial markets? While the topic seems arcane, it’s important to understand how thoroughly the Fed has changed its approach to controlling interest rates (and through that, its relationship with markets). The topic isn’t just for technocrats — the debate now is over whether that change should be a permanent one.
Janet Yellen opened the festivities at this year’s Jackson Hole economic symposium by musing on what central bankers had learned since the crisis and how they can deal with future recessions in a world where interest rates are far lower than in the past. Unsurprisingly, bond-buying and “forward guidance” featured prominently in Yellen’s narrative of successful new tools. (On the other hand, scholars have estimated the combined impact of these measures was an unemployment rate a mere 0.13 percentage points below where it would have been using purely conventional instruments.)
Central bankers in Europe have been thinking a lot about The Death of Banks lately. Not so much in the US. There’s good reason for that, of course. Europe has been bleeding out banks with negative rates, so policy makers there have become painfully aware of the banks’ role implementing monetary policy. The US Federal Reserve, on the other hand, has been keeping banks alive with a steady drip of interest on excess reserves, or IOER, to control rates in a financial system awash with liquidity. The Fed’s releasing a policy statement today (we understand if you forgot about that in the heli-frenzy before the BoJ on Friday). Of course, keeping banks on life support with IOER doesn’t help net interest margins. NIM is a key measure of bank profitability. It’s also closely tied to the US yield curve — which is unfortunate for banks, because that sucker has been positively steamrolled lately by the combination of low yields abroad, low inflation expectations and rising US policy rates.