“Fed Puts Interest-Rate Hikes in Play,” led the Wall Street Journal’s page one, following Federal Reserve Board chair Janet Yellen’s latest press conference. “Don’t bet on June for Federal Reserve hike,” countered page one of the business section of USA Today. To which I would add a headline for this piece, “It doesn’t really matter which one is right,” were I consulted by our esteemed headline writers.
Start with the competing interpretations of what Yellen had to say. She and her monetary policymaking colleagues dropped the word “patient” from the description of their plans for raising interest rates, while adding that they have no intention of being “impatient”. Since the economy seems to be slowing a bit, and the unemployment rate that might trigger unacceptable inflation is lower than was previously thought, Yellen feels she can be, er, patient. No rate rise at the April meeting. Fed watchers are left to fill in the blank in the sentence, “The Fed will begin raising interest rates in ---”. Or sooner, if the data warrant. Or perhaps later, if the Fed’s economists’ reading of the entrails of some goose, better known as its economic model, so indicates. Markets reacted by lowering the probability of an increase, once deemed virtually a sure thing in June (but not in this space), to less than 50-50 in September. If that reading is correct, and rates remain on hold in September, the chance of an increase in the final quarter is slight. Holiday sales are counted on by retailers to turn red ink to black, and a rate increase might result in a growth-stifling sheathing of credit cards.
To be fair, the Fed is tiptoeing through a data minefield en route to an eventual rate increase. There is no question that the economy is stronger than it was when the zero-interest rate policy was adopted, although Fed critics rush to deny that zero interest rates can take any credit for the improvement. Unemployment is down and headed to a level that can reasonably be called full employment -- unless you count all those workers involuntarily on short hours and those so discouraged that they have chosen benefits over further job-hunting. In which more realistic case unemployment remains high, certainly unacceptably so in Yellen’s eyes. Inflation is tame, running at an annual rate of 1.3% according to the Fed’s favored measure, and is likely to remain so as a soaring dollar keeps the price of imports down, and the effect of the collapse of oil prices ripples through the economy -- unless oil prices snap back and mounting wage pressures in the construction and other trades, combined with stagnant productivity, initiate a wage-price spiral. Consumers are billions richer because of lower gasoline prices, which should result in an uplift in spending -- unless the recently reported decline in consumer sentiment and the desire to shore up depleted savings accounts keeps consumers out of the shops.
In short, the life of a central banker is not an easy one, complicated of late by the decision of the rest of the world’s central bankers to drive rates down just as the Fed is considering driving them up. Lower rates in euroland in response to the European Central Bank’s €1.1 trillion stimulus, Japan and elsewhere are pushing the euro, yen and other currencies down, and the dollar up. As a result, American exports become expensive, and trips by our European and other foreign friends to Disney World with the kids, with a bit of golf on the side, become beyond the financial reach of many potential trekkers to Orlando. Putting numbers to the impact of slumping exports and declining tourism on growth and inflation is less science than art, as are many items that go into an overall forecast on which to base monetary policy. As artists go, Yellen is right up there with many old masters, which is a comforting thought, although not sufficiently comforting to the audit-the-Fed crowd to persuade them to find another issue on which to expend their energies.