The Atlanta Fed's macroblog provides commentary on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, financial issues and Southeast regional trends.

Authors for macroblog are Dave Altig and other Atlanta Fed economists.

September 21, 2015

What Do U.S. Businesses Know that New Zealand Businesses Don't? A Lot (Apparently).

A recent paper presented at the Brookings Institute, picked up by the Financial Times and the Washington Post, suggests that when it comes to communicating their inflation objective, central banks have a lot of work to do. This conclusion is based primarily on two pieces of evidence.

The first piece is that when businesses in New Zealand are asked about their expectations for changes in "overall prices"—which presumably corresponds with their inflation expectation—the responses, on average, appear to be much too high relative to observed inflation trends. And the responses vary widely from business to business. According to this survey, the average firm in New Zealand expects 4 to 5 percent inflation on a year-ahead basis, and 3.5 percent inflation over the next five to 10 years. Those expectations are for the average firm. Apparently, about one in four firms in New Zealand think inflation in the year ahead will be more than 5 percent, and about one in six firms believe inflation will top 5 percent during the next five to 10 years. Certainly, these aren't the responses one would expect from businesses operating in an economy (like New Zealand) where the central bank has been targeting 2 percent inflation for the past 13 years, over which time inflation has averaged only 2.2 percent (and a mere 0.9 percent during the past four years).

But count us skeptical of this evidence. In this paper from last year, we challenge the assumption that asking firms (or households, for that matter) about expected changes in "overall prices" corresponds to an inflation prediction.

The second piece of evidence regarding the ineffectiveness of inflation targeting is more direct—the authors of this paper actually asked New Zealand businesses a few questions about the central bank and its policies, including this one:

What annual percentage rate of change in overall prices do you think the Reserve Bank of New Zealand is trying to achieve? (Answer: ______%)

The distribution of answers by New Zealand firms is shown in the chart below. According to the survey, the median New Zealand firm appears to think the central bank's inflation target is 5 percent. Indeed, more than a third of firms in New Zealand reported that they think the central bank is targeting an inflation rate greater than 5 percent. Only about 12 percent of the firms were able to correctly identify their central bank's actual inflation target of 2 percent (actually, the New Zealand inflation target is a range of between 1 and 3 percent, centered on 2 percent).

If this weren't embarrassing enough for central bankers, the study also reports that New Zealand households (like U.S. households) don't seem to know who the head of the central bank is. In fact, the authors show that there are more online searches for "puppies" than for information about macroeconomic variables.

OK, to be honest, we don't find that last result very surprising. Puppies are adorable. Central bankers? Not so much. But we were very surprised to see just how high and wide-ranging businesses in New Zealand perceived their central bank's inflation target to be. We're surprised because that bit of information doesn't fit with our understanding of U.S. firms.

In December 2011, the month before the Fed officially announced an explicit numerical target for inflation, we wanted to know whether firms had already formed an opinion about the Fed's inflation objective. So we asked a panel of Southeast businesses the following question:


What we learned was that 16 percent of the 151 firms who responded to our survey had no opinion regarding what rate of inflation the Federal Reserve was aiming for. But of the firms that had an opinion, 58 percent identified a 2 percent inflation target.

But perhaps this isn't a fair comparison to the recent survey of New Zealand businesses. In our 2011 survey, firms had only six options to choose from (including "no opinion"). It could be that our choice of options biased the responses away from high inflation values. So last week, we convened another panel of firms and asked the question in the same open-ended format given to New Zealanders:

What annual rate of inflation do you think the Federal Reserve is aiming for over the long run? (Answer: ______%)

The only material distinction between their question and ours is that we substituted the word "inflation" for the phrase "changes in overall prices." (For this special survey, we polled a national sample of firms that had never before answered one of our survey questions.) The chart below shows what we found relative to the results recently reported for New Zealand firms.

Our survey results look very similar to our results of four years ago. About one in five of the 102 firms that answered our survey was unsure about the Fed's inflation target. But almost 53 percent of the firms that responded answered 2 percent. (On average, U.S. firms judged the central bank's inflation target to be 2.2 percent, just a shade higher than our actual target.)

Furthermore, the distribution of responses to our survey was very tightly centered on 2 percent. The highest estimate of the Fed's inflation target (from only one firm) was 5 percent. So again, our results don't at all resemble what has been reported for the firms down under.

Why is there a glaring difference between what the survey of New Zealand firms found and what we're finding? Well, as noted earlier, we've got our suspicions, but we'll keep studying the issue. And in the meantime, have you seen this?

Photo of Mike Bryan
By Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist,
Photo of Brent Meyer
Brent Meyer, assistant policy adviser and economist, and
Photo of Nicholas Parker
Nicholas Parker, economic policy specialist, all in the Atlanta Fed's research department

Editor's note: Learn more about inflation and the consumer price index in an ECONversations webcast featuring Atlanta Fed economist Brent Meyer.

September 21, 2015 in Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy, Inflation | Permalink


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September 04, 2015

5-Year Deflation Probability Moves Off Zero

Since 2010, our Bank has regularly posted 5-year deflation probabilities derived from prices of Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS) on our Deflation Probabilities web page. Each deflation probability, which measures the likelihood of a decline in the Consumer Price Index over a fixed five-year window, is estimated by comparing the price of a recently issued 5-year TIPS with a 10-year TIPS issued about five years earlier. Because the 5-year TIPS has more "deflation protection" than the 10-year TIPS, the implied deflation probability rises when the 5-year TIPS becomes more valuable relative to the 10-year TIPS. (See this macroblog post for a more detailed explanation, or this appendix with the mathematical details.)

From early September 2013 to the first week of August 2015, the five-year deflation probability estimated with the most recently issued 5-year TIPS was identically 0 as the chart shows.

Of course, we should not interpret this long period of zero probability of deflation too literally. It could easily be the case that the "true" deflation probability was slightly above zero but that confounding factors—such as differences in the coupon rates, maturity dates, or liquidity of the TIPS issues—prevented the model from detecting it.

Since August 11, however, the deflation probability has had its own "liftoff" of sorts, fluctuating between 0.0 and 1.3 percent over the 16-day period ending August 26 before rising steadily to 4.1 percent on September 2. Of course, this rise off zero could be temporary, as it proved to be in the summer of 2013.

How seriously should we take this recent liftoff? We can look at options prices on Consumer Price Index inflation (inflation caps and floors) to get a full probability distribution for future inflation; see this published article by economists Yuriy Kitsul and Jonathan Wright or a nontechnical summary in this New York Times article. An alternative is simply to ask professional forecasters for their subjective probabilities of inflation falling within various ranges like "1.0 to 1.4 percent," "1.5 to 1.9 percent," and so forth. The Philly Fed's Survey of Professional Forecasters does just this, with the chart below showing probabilities of low inflation for the Consumer Price Index excluding food and energy (core CPI) from each of the August surveys since 2007.

Although the price index, and the horizon for the inflation outcome, differs from the TIPS-based deflation probability, we see that the shape of the curves is broadly similar to the one shown in the first chart. In the most recent survey, the probability that next year's core CPI inflation rate will be low was small and not particularly elevated relative to recent history. However, the deadline date for this survey was August 11, before liftoff in either the TIPS-based deflation probability or the recent volatility in global financial markets. So stay tuned.

Photo of Pat Higgins
By Pat Higgins, senior economist in the Atlanta Fed's research department

September 4, 2015 in Deflation, Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy, Inflation | Permalink


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November 04, 2014

Data Dependence and Liftoff in the Federal Funds Rate

When asked "at which upcoming meeting do you think the FOMC [Federal Open Market Committee] will FIRST HIKE its target for the federal funds rate," 46 percent of the October Blue Chip Financial Forecasts panelists predicted that "liftoff" would occur at the June 2015 meeting, and 83 percent chose liftoff at one of the four scheduled meetings in the second and third quarters of next year.

Of course, this result does not imply that there is an 83 percent chance of liftoff occurring in the middle two quarters of next year. Respondents to the New York Fed's most recent Primary Dealer Survey put this liftoff probability for the middle two quarters of 2015 at only 51 percent. This more relatively certain forecast horizon for mid-2015 is consistent with the "data-dependence principle" that Chair Yellen mentioned at her September 17 press conference. The idea of data dependence is captured in this excerpt from the statement following the October 28–29 FOMC meeting:

[I]f incoming information indicates faster progress toward the Committee's employment and inflation objectives than the Committee now expects, then increases in the target range for the federal funds rate are likely to occur sooner than currently anticipated. Conversely, if progress proves slower than expected, then increases in the target range are likely to occur later than currently anticipated.

If the timing of liftoff is indeed data dependent, a natural extension is to gauge the likely "liftoff reaction function." In the current zero-lower bound (ZLB) environment, researchers at the University of North Carolina and the St. Louis Fed have analyzed monetary policy using shadow fed funds rates, shown in figure 1 below, estimated by Wu and Xia (2014) and Leo Krippner.

Unlike the standard fed funds rate, a shadow rate can be negative at the ZLB. The researchers found that the shadow rates, particularly Krippner's, act as fairly good proxies for monetary policy in the post-2008 ZLB period. Krippner also produces an expected time to liftoff, estimated from his model, shown in figure 1 above. His model's liftoff of December 2015 is six months after the most likely liftoff month identified by the aforementioned Blue Chip survey.

I included Krippner's shadow rate (spliced with the standard fed funds rate prior to December 2008) in a monthly Bayesian vector autoregression alongside the six other variables shown in figure 2 below.

The model assumes that the Fed cannot see contemporaneous values of the variables when setting the spliced policy—that is, the fed funds/shadow rate. This assumption is plausible given the approximately one-month lag in economic release dates. The baseline path assumes (and mechanically generates) liftoff in June 2015 with outcomes for the other variables, shown by the black lines, that roughly coincide with professional forecasts.

The alternative scenarios span the range of eight possible outcomes for low inflation/baseline inflation/high inflation and low growth/baseline growth/high growth in the figures above. For example, in figure 2 above, the high growth/low inflation scenario coincides with the green lines in the top three charts and the red lines in the bottom three charts. Forecasts for the spliced policy rate are conditional on the various growth/inflation scenarios, and "liftoff" in each scenario occurs when the spliced policy rate rises above the midpoint of the current target range for the funds rate (12.5 basis points).

The outcomes are shown in figure 3 below. At one extreme—high growth/high inflation—liftoff occurs in March 2015. At the other—low growth/low inflation—liftoff occurs beyond December 2015.

One should not interpret these projections too literally; the model uses a much narrower set of variables than the FOMC considers. Nonetheless, these scenarios illustrate that the model's forecasted liftoffs in the spliced policy rate are indeed consistent with the data-dependence principle.

Photo of Pat HigginsBy Pat Higgins, senior economist in the Atlanta Fed's research department

November 4, 2014 in Economics, Employment, Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy, Forecasts, Inflation, Monetary Policy | Permalink


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September 29, 2014

On Bogs and Dots

Consider this scenario. You travel out of town to meet up with an old friend. Your hotel is walking distance to the appointed meeting place, across a large grassy field with which you are unfamiliar.

With good conditions, the walk is about 30 minutes but, to you, the quality of the terrain is not so certain. Though nobody seems to be able to tell you for sure, you believe that there is a 50-50 chance that the field is a bog, intermittently dotted with somewhat treacherous swampy traps. Though you believe you can reach your destination in about 30 minutes, the better part of wisdom is to go it slow. You accordingly allot double the time for traversing the field to your destination.

During your travels, of course, you will learn something about the nature of the field, and this discovery may alter your calculation about your arrival time. If you discover that you are indeed crossing a bog, you will correspondingly slow your gait and increase the estimated time to the other side. Or you may find that you are in fact on quite solid ground and consequently move up your estimated arrival time. Knowing all of this, you tell your friend to keep his cellphone on, as your final meeting time is going to be data dependent.

Which brings us to the infamous “dots,” ably described by several of our colleagues writing on the New York Fed’s Liberty Street Economics blog:

In January 2012, the FOMC began reporting participants’ FFR [federal funds rate] projections in the Summary of Economic Projections (SEP). Market participants colloquially refer to these projections as “the dots” (see the second chart on page 3 of the September 2014 SEP for an example). In particular, the dispersion of the dots represents disagreement among FOMC [Federal Open Market Committee] members about the future path of the policy rate.

The Liberty Street discussion focuses on why the policy rate paths differ among FOMC participants and across a central tendency of the SEPs and market participants. Quite correctly, in my view, the blog post’s authors draw attention to differences of opinion about the likely course of future economic conditions:

The most apparent reason is that each participant can have a different assessment of economic conditions that might call for different prescriptions for current and future monetary policy.

The Liberty Street post is a good piece, and I endorse every word of it. But there is another type of dispersion in the dots that seems to be the source of some confusion. This question, for example, is from Howard Schneider of Reuters, posed at the press conference held by Chair Yellen following the last FOMC meeting:

So if you would help us, I mean, square the circle a little bit—because having kept the guidance the same, having referred to significant underutilization of labor, having actually pushed GDP projections down a little bit, yet the rate path gets steeper and seems to be consolidating higher—so if it’s data dependent, what accounts for the faster projections on rate increases if the data aren’t moving in that direction?

The Chair’s response emphasized the modest nature of the changes, and how they might reflect modest improvements in certain aspects of the data. That response is certainly correct, but there is another point worth emphasizing: It is completely possible, and completely coherent, for the same individual to submit a “dot” with an earlier (or later) liftoff date of the policy rate, or a steeper (or flatter) path of the rate after liftoff, even though their submitted forecasts for GDP growth, inflation, and the unemployment rate have not changed at all.

This claim goes beyond the mere possibility that GDP, inflation, and unemployment (as officially defined) may not be sufficiently complete summaries of the economic conditions a policymaker might be concerned with.

The explanation lies in the metaphor of the bog. The estimated time of arrival to a destination—policy liftoff, for example—depends critically on the certainty with which the policymaker can assess the economic landscape. An adjustment to policy can, and should, proceed more quickly if the ground underfoot feels relatively solid. But if the terrain remains unfamiliar, and the possibility of falling into the swamp can’t be ruled out with any degree of confidence...well, a wise person moves just a bit more slowly.

Of course, as noted, once you begin to travel across the field and gain confidence that you are actually on terra firma, you can pick up the pace and adjust the estimated time of arrival accordingly.

To put all of this a bit more formally, an individual FOMC participant’s “reaction function”—the implicit rule that connects policy decisions to economic conditions—may not depend on just the numbers that that individual writes down for inflation, unemployment, or whatever. It might well—and in the case of our thinking here at the Atlanta Fed, it does—depend on the confidence with which those numbers are held.

For us, anyway, that confidence is growing. Don’t take that from me. Take it from Atlanta Fed President Lockhart, who said in a recent speech:

I'll close with this thought: there are always risks around a projection of any path forward. There is always considerable uncertainty. Given what I see today, I'm pretty confident in a medium-term outlook of continued moderate growth around 3 percent per annum accompanied by a substantial closing of the employment and inflation gaps. In general, I'm more confident today than a year ago.

Viewed in this light, the puzzle of moving dots without moving point estimates for economic conditions really shouldn’t be much of a puzzle at all.

Photo of Dave AltigBy Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director of the Atlanta Fed

September 29, 2014 in Economic conditions, Economics, Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy, Forecasts | Permalink


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August 12, 2014

Are We There Yet?

Editor’s note: This macroblog post was published yesterday with some content inadvertently omitted. Below is the complete post. We apologize for the error.

Anyone who has undertaken a long road trip with children will be familiar with the frequent “are we there yet?” chorus from the back seat. So, too, it might seem on the long post-2007 monetary policy road trip. When will the economy finally look like it is satisfying the Federal Open Market Committee’s (FOMC) dual mandate of price stability and full employment? The answer varies somewhat across the FOMC participants. The difference in perspectives on the distance still to travel is implicit in the range of implied liftoff dates for the FOMC’s short-term interest-rate tool in the Summary of Economic Projections (SEP).

So how might we go about assessing how close the economy truly is to meeting the FOMC’s objectives of price stability and full employment? In a speech on July 17, President James Bullard of the St. Louis Fed laid out a straightforward approach, as outlined in a press release accompanying the speech:

To measure the distance of the economy from the FOMC’s goals, Bullard used a simple function that depends on the distance of inflation from the FOMC’s long-run target and on the distance of the unemployment rate from its long-run average. This version puts equal weight on inflation and unemployment and is sometimes used to evaluate various policy options, Bullard explained.

We think that President Bullard’s quadratic-loss-function approach is a reasonable one. Chart 1 shows what you get using this approach, assuming a goal of year-over-year personal consumption expenditure inflation at 2 percent, and the headline U-3 measure of the unemployment rate at 5.4 percent. (As the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics defines unemployment, U-3 measures the total unemployed as a percent of the labor force.) This rate is about the midpoint of the central tendency of the FOMC’s longer-run estimate for unemployment from the June SEP.

Chart 1: Progress toward Objectives: U-3 Gap

Notice that the policy objective gap increased dramatically during the recession, but is currently at a low value that’s close to precrisis levels. On this basis, the economy has been on a long, uncomfortable trip but is getting pretty close to home. But other drivers of the monetary policy minivan may be assessing how far there is still to travel using an alternate road map to chart 1. For example, Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart has highlighted the role of involuntary part-time work as a signal of slack that is not captured in the U-3 unemployment rate measure. Indeed, the last FOMC statement noted that

Labor market conditions improved, with the unemployment rate declining further. However, a range of labor market indicators suggests that there remains significant underutilization of labor resources.

So, although acknowledging the decline in U-3, the Committee is also suggesting that other labor market indicators may suggest somewhat greater residual slack in the labor market. For example, suppose we used the broader U-6 measure to compute the distance left to travel based on President Bullard’s formula. The U-6 unemployment measure counts individuals who are marginally attached to the labor force as unemployed and, importantly, also counts involuntarily part-time workers as unemployed. One simple way to incorporate the U-6 gap is to compute the average difference between U-6 and U-3 prior to 2007 (excluding the 2001 recession), which was 3.9 percent, and add that to the U-3 longer-run estimate of 5.4 percent, to give an estimate of the longer-run U-6 rate of 9.3 percent. Chart 2 shows what you get if you run the numbers through President Bullard’s formula using this U-6 adjustment (scaling the U-6 gap by the ratio of the U-3 and U-6 steady-state estimates to put it on a U-3 basis).

Chart 2: Progress toward Objectives: U-3 Gap versus U-6 Gap

What the chart says is that, up until about four years ago, it didn’t really matter at all what your preferred measure of labor market slack was; they told a similar story because they tracked each other pretty closely. But currently, your view of how close monetary policy is to its goals depends quite a bit on whether you are a fan of U-3 or of U-6—or of something in between. I think you can put the Atlanta Fed’s current position as being in that “in-between” camp, or at least not yet willing to tell the kids that home is just around the corner.

In an interview last week with the Wall Street Journal, President Lockhart effectively put some distance between his own view and those who see the economy as being close to full employment. The Journal’s Real Time Economics blog quoted Lockhart:

“I’m not ruling out” the idea the Fed may need to raise short-term interest rates earlier than many now expect, Mr. Lockhart said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. But, at the same time, “I’m a little bit cautious” about the policy outlook, and still expect that when the first interest rate hike comes, it will likely happen somewhere in the second half of next year.

“I remain one who is looking for further validation that we are on a track that is going to make the path to our mandate objectives pretty irreversible,” Mr. Lockhart said. “It’s premature, even with the good numbers that have come in ... to draw the conclusion that we are clearly on that positive path,” he said.

Mr. Lockhart said the current unemployment rate of 6.2% will likely continue to decline and tick under 6% by the end of the year. But, he said, there remains evidence of underlying softness in the job sector, and, he also said, while inflation shows signs of firming, it remains under the Fed’s official 2% target.

Our view is that the current monetary policy journey has made considerable progress toward its objectives. But the trip is not yet complete, and the road ahead remains potentially bumpy. In the meantime, I recommend these road-trip sing-along selections.

Photo of John RobertsonBy John Robertson, a vice president and senior economist in the Atlanta Fed’s research department

August 12, 2014 in Economics, Employment, Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy, Inflation, Labor Markets, Monetary Policy, Pricing, Unemployment | Permalink


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Major problems with U6 include the fact that someone working 34 hours but wants to work 35 or more is considered unemployed (not partially unemployed) -- a very loose definition of an unemployed person. Also, some policymakers conflate marginally attached with discouraged workers. Only one-third of the marginally attached are discouraged about job prospects (the other two-thirds didn't look for work because of illness, school, etc. -- i.e., for reasons monetary policy cannot address). So there are very good reasons for President Bullard's objective function to be based on U3 rather than U6. Additionally, what policymakers should consider, to follow through with your analogy, is when you arrive at your destination should you still have the accelerator pressed to the floor? Or does it not make sense to let off of the gas a bit as you approach your destination (to avoid driving the minivan right through your home).

Posted by: Conrad DeQuadros | August 14, 2014 at 12:57 PM

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August 08, 2014

Getting There?

To say that last week was somewhat eventful on the macroeconomic data front is probably an exercise in understatement. Relevant numbers on GDP growth (past and present), employment and unemployment, and consumer price inflation came in quick succession.

These data provide some of the context for our local Federal Open Market Committee participant’s comments this week (for example, in the Wall Street Journal’s Real Time Economics blog, with similar remarks made in an interview on CNBC’s Closing Bell). From that Real Time Economics blog post:

Although the economy is clearly growing at a respectable rate, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta President Dennis Lockhart said Wednesday it is premature to start planning an early exit from the central bank’s ultra-easy policy stance.

“I’m not ruling out” the idea the Fed may need to raise short-term interest rates earlier than many now expect, Mr. Lockhart said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. But, at the same time, “I’m a little bit cautious” about the policy outlook, and still expect that when the first interest rate hike comes, it will likely happen somewhere in the second half of next year.

“I remain one who is looking for further validation that we are on a track that is going to make the path to our mandate objectives pretty irreversible,” Mr. Lockhart said. “It’s premature, even with the good numbers that have come draw the conclusion that we are clearly on that positive path,” he said.

Why so “cautious”? Here’s the Atlanta Fed staff’s take on the state of things, starting with GDP:

With the annual benchmark revision in hand, 2013 looks like the real deal, the year that the early bet on an acceleration of growth to the 3 percent range finally panned out. Notably, fiscal drag (following the late-2012 budget deal), which had been our go-to explanation of why GDP appeared to have fallen short of expectations once again, looks much less consequential on revision.

Is 2014 on track for a repeat (or, more specifically, comparable performance looking through the collection of special factors that weighed on the first quarter)? The second-quarter bounce of real GDP growth to near 4 percent seems encouraging, but we are not yet overly impressed. Final sales—a number that looks through the temporary contribution of changes in inventories—clocked in at a less-than-eye-popping 2.3 percent annual rate.

Furthermore, given the significant surprise in the first-quarter final GDP report when the medical-expenditure-soaked Quarterly Services Survey was finally folded in, we’re inclined to be pretty careful about over-interpreting the second quarter this early. It’s way too early for a victory dance.

Regarding labor markets, here is our favorite type of snapshot, courtesy of the Atlanta Fed’s Labor Market Spider Chart:

Atlanta Fed Labor Market Spider Chart

There is a lot to like in that picture. Leading indicators, payroll employment, vacancies posted by employers, and small business confidence are fully recovered relative to their levels at the end of the Great Recession.

On the less positive side, the numbers of people who are marginally attached or who are working part-time while desiring full-time hours remain elevated, and the overall job-finding rate is still well below prerecession levels. Even so, these indicators are noticeably better than they were at this time last year.

That year-over-year improvement is an important observation: the period from mid-2012 to mid-2013 showed little progress in the broader measures of labor-market performance that we place in the resource “utilization” category. During the past year, these broad measures have improved at the same relative pace as the standard unemployment statistic.

We have been contending for some time that part-time for economic reasons (PTER) is an important factor in understanding ongoing sluggishness in wage growth, and we are not yet seeing anything much in the way of meaningful wage pressures:

Total Private Earnings, year/year % change, sa

There was, to be sure, a second-quarter spike in the employment cost index (ECI) measure of labor compensation growth, but that increase followed a sharp dip in the first quarter. Maybe the most recent ECI reading is telling us something that hourly earnings are not, but that still seems like a big maybe. Outside of some specific sectors and occupations (in manufacturing, for example), there is not much evidence of accelerating wage pressure in either the data or in anecdotes we get from our District contacts. We continue to believe that wage growth is most consistent with the view that that labor market slack persists, and underlying inflationary pressures (from wage costs, at least) are at bay.

Clearly, it’s dubious to claim that wages help much in the way of making forward predictions on inflation (as shown, for example, in work from the Chicago Fed, confirming earlier research from our colleagues at the Cleveland Fed). And in any event, we are inclined to agree that the inflation outlook has, in fact, firmed up. At this time last year, it was hard to argue that the inflation trend was moving in the direction of the Committee’s objective (let alone that it was not actually declining).

But here again, a declaration that the risks have clearly shifted in the direction of overshooting the FOMC’s inflation goals seems wildly premature. Transitory factors have clearly elevated recent statistics. The year-over-year inflation rate is still only 1.5 percent, and by most cuts of the data, the trend still looks as close to that level as to 2 percent.

'Trends' in the June Core PCE

We do expect measured inflation trends to continue to move in the direction of 2 percent, but sustained performance toward that objective is still more conjecture than fact. (By the way, if you are bothered by the appeal to a measure of core personal consumption expenditures in that chart above, I direct you to this piece.)

All of this is by way of explaining why we here in Atlanta are “a little bit cautious” about joining any chorus singing from the we’re-moving-on-up songbook. Paraphrasing from President Lockhart’s comments this week, the first steps to policy normalization don’t have to wait until the year-over-year inflation rate is consistently at 2 percent, or until all of the slack in the labor market is eliminated. But it is probably prudent to be fairly convinced that progress to those ends is unlikely to be reversed.

We may be getting there. We’re just not quite there yet.

Photo of Dave AltigBy Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director of the Atlanta Fed

August 8, 2014 in Economic conditions, Economics, Employment, Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy, GDP, Inflation, Labor Markets | Permalink


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June 02, 2014

How Discouraged Are the Marginally Attached?

Of the many statistical barometers of the U.S. economy that we monitor here at the Atlanta Fed, there are few that we await more eagerly than the monthly report on employment conditions. The May 2014 edition arrives this week and, like many others, we will be more interested in the underlying details than in the headline job growth or unemployment numbers.

One of those underlying details—the state of the pool of “discouraged” workers (or, maybe more precisely, potential workers)—garnered special attention lately in the wake of the relatively dramatic decline in the ranks of the official labor force, a decline depicted in the April employment survey from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That attention included some notable commentary from Federal Reserve officials.

Federal Reserve Bank of New York President William Dudley, for example, recently suggested that a sizeable part of the decline in labor force participation since 2007 can be tied to discouraged workers exiting the workforce. This suggestion follows related comments from Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen in her press conference following the March meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee:

So I have talked in the past about indicators I like to watch or I think that are relevant in assessing the labor market. In addition to the standard unemployment rate, I certainly look at broader measures of unemployment… Of course, I watch discouraged and marginally attached workers… it may be that as the economy begins to strengthen, we could see labor force participation flatten out for a time as discouraged workers start moving back into the labor market. And so that's something I'm watching closely.

What may not be fully appreciated by those not steeped in the details of the employment statistics is that discouraged workers are actually a subset of “marginally attached” workers. Among the marginally attached—individuals who have actively sought employment within the most recent 12-month period but not during the most recent month—are indeed those who report that they are out of the labor force because they are discouraged. But the marginally attached also include those who have not recently sought work because of family responsibilities, school attendance, poor health, or other reasons.

In fact, most of the marginally attached are not classified (via self-reporting) as discouraged (see the chart):


At the St. Louis Fed, B. Ravikumar and Lin Shao recently published a report containing some detailed analysis of discouraged workers and their relationship to the labor force and the unemployment rate. As Ravikumar and Shao note,

Since discouraged workers are not actively searching for a job, they are considered nonparticipants in the labor market—that is, they are neither counted as unemployed nor included in the labor force.

More importantly, the authors point out that they tend to reenter the labor force at relatively high rates:

Since December 2007, on average, roughly 40 percent of discouraged workers reenter the labor force every month.

Therefore, it seems appropriate to count some fraction of the jobless population designated as discouraged (and out of the labor force) as among the officially unemployed.

We believe this logic should be extended to the entire group of marginally attached. As we've pointed out in the past, the marginally attached group as a whole also has a roughly 40 percent transition rate into the labor force. Even though more of the marginally attached are discouraged today than before the recession, the changing distribution has not affected the overall transition rate of the marginally attached into the labor force.

In fact, in terms of the propensity to flow into employment or officially measured unemployment, there is little to distinguish the discouraged from those who are marginally attached but who have other reasons for not recently seeking a job (see the chart):


What we take from these data is that, as a first pass, when we are talking about discouraged workers' attachment to the labor market, we are talking more generally about the marginally attached. And vice versa. Any differences in the demographic characteristics between discouraged and nondiscouraged marginally attached workers do not seem to materially affect their relative labor market attachment and ability to find work.

Sometimes labels matter. But in the case of discouraged marginally attached workers versus the nondiscouraged marginally attached workers—not so much.

Photo of Dave AltigBy Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director,

Photo of John RobertsonJohn Robertson, a vice president and senior economist, and

Photo of Ellyn TerryEllyn Terry, a senior economic analyst, all of the Atlanta Fed's research department

June 2, 2014 in Employment, Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy, Labor Markets, Unemployment | Permalink


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I think this note usefully shows that the categories of unemployment are vague, the distinctions arbitrary, but then we knew that. But what is to be done?

Posted by: Tom Shillock | June 03, 2014 at 03:05 PM

There are a lot of myths and misunderstandings about the labor force participation rate and discouraged workers floating around -

Posted by: politics that work | December 05, 2014 at 12:38 PM

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May 16, 2014

Which Flavor of QE?

Yesterday's report on consumer price inflation from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics moved the needle a bit on inflation trends—but just a bit. Meanwhile, the European Central Bank appears to be locked and loaded to blast away at its own (low) inflation concerns. From the Wall Street Journal:

The European Central Bank is ready to loosen monetary policy further to prevent the euro zone from succumbing to an extended period of low inflation, its vice president said on Thursday.

"We are determined to act swiftly if required and don't rule out further monetary policy easing," ECB Vice President Vitor Constancio said in a speech in Berlin.

One of the favorite further measures is apparently charging financial institutions for funds deposited with the central bank:

On Wednesday, the ECB's top economist, Peter Praet, in an interview with German newspaper Die Zeit, said the central bank is preparing a number of measures to counter low inflation. He mentioned a negative rate on deposits as a possible option in combination with other measures.

I don't presume to know enough about financial institutions in Europe to weigh in on the likely effectiveness of such an approach. I do know that we have found reasons to believe that there are limits to such a tool in the U.S. context, as the New York Fed's Ken Garbade and Jamie McAndrews pointed out a couple of years back.

In part, the desire to think about an option such as negative interest rates on deposits appears to be driven by considerable skepticism about deploying more quantitative easing, or QE.

A drawback, in my view, of general discussions about the wisdom and effectiveness of large-scale asset purchase programs is that these policies come in many flavors. My belief, in fact, is that the Fed versions of QE1, QE2, and QE3 can be thought of as three quite different programs, useful to address three quite distinct challenges. You can flip through the slide deck of a presentation I gave last week at a conference sponsored by the Global Interdependence Center, but here is the essence of my argument:

  • QE1, as emphasized by former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke, was first and foremost credit policy. It was implemented when credit markets were still in a state of relative disarray and, arguably, segmented to some significant degree. Unlike credit policy, the focus of traditional or pure QE "is the quantity of bank reserves" (to use the Bernanke language). Although QE1 per se involved asset purchases in excess of $1.7 trillion, the Fed's balance sheet rose by less than $300 billion during the program's span. The reason, of course, is that the open-market purchases associated with QE1 largely just replaced expiring lending from the emergency-based facilities in place through most of 2008. In effect, with QE1 the Fed replaced one type of credit policy with another.
  • QE2, in contrast, looks to me like pure, traditional quantitative easing. It was a good old-fashioned Treasury-only asset purchase program, and the monetary base effectively increased in lockstep with the size of the program. Importantly, the salient concern of the moment was a clear deterioration of market-based inflation expectations and—particularly worrisome to us at the Atlanta Fed—rising beliefs that outright deflation might be in the cards. In retrospect, old-fashioned QE appears to have worked to address the old-fashioned problem of influencing inflation expectations. In fact, the turnaround in expectations can be clearly traced to the Bernanke comments at the August 2010 Kansas City Fed Economic Symposium, indicating that the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) was ready and willing pull the QE tool out of the kit. That was an early lesson in the power of forward guidance, which brings us to...
  • ...QE3. I think it is a bit early to draw conclusions about the ultimate impact of QE3. I think you can contend that the Fed's latest large-scale asset purchase program has not had a large independent effect on interest rates or economic activity while still believing that QE3 has played an important role in supporting the economic recovery. These two, seemingly contradictory, opinions echo an argument suggested by Mike Woodford at the Kansas City Fed's Jackson Hole conference in 2012: QE3 was important as a signaling device in early stages of the deployment of the FOMC's primary tool, forward guidance regarding the period of exceptionally low interest rates. I would in fact argue that the winding down of QE3 makes all the more sense when seen through the lens of a forward guidance tool that has matured to the point of no longer requiring the credibility "booster shot" of words put to action via QE.

All of this is to argue that QE, as practiced, is not a single policy, effective in all variants in all circumstances, which means that the U.S. experience of the past might not apply to another time, let alone another place. But as I review the record of the past seven years, I see evidence that pure QE worked pretty well precisely when the central concern was managing inflation expectations (and, hence, I would say, inflation itself).

Photo of Dave AltigBy Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director of the Atlanta Fed

May 16, 2014 in Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy, Monetary Policy | Permalink


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May 13, 2014

Pondering QE

Today’s news brings another indication that low inflation rates in the euro area have the attention of the European Central Bank. From the Wall Street Journal (Update: via MarketWatch):

Germany's central bank is willing to back an array of stimulus measures from the European Central Bank next month, including a negative rate on bank deposits and purchases of packaged bank loans if needed to keep inflation from staying too low, a person familiar with the matter said...

This marks the clearest signal yet that the Bundesbank, which has for years been defined by its conservative opposition to the ECB's emergency measures to combat the euro zone's debt crisis, is fully engaged in the fight against super-low inflation in the euro zone using monetary policy tools...

Notably, these tools apparently do not include Fed-style quantitative easing:

But the Bundesbank's backing has limits. It remains resistant to large-scale purchases of public and private debt, known as quantitative easing, the person said. The Bundesbank has discussed this option internally but has concluded that with government and corporate bond yields already quite low in Europe, the purchases wouldn't do much good and could instead create financial stability risks.

Should we conclude that there is now a global conclusion about the value and wisdom of large-scale asset purchases, a.k.a. QE? We certainly have quite a bit of experience with large-scale purchases now. But I think it is also fair to say that that experience has yet to yield firm consensus.

You probably don’t need much convincing that QE consensus remains elusive. But just in case, I invite you to consider the panel discussion we titled “Greasing the Skids: Was Quantitative Easing Needed to Unstick Markets? Or Has it Merely Sped Us toward the Next Crisis?” The discussion was organized for last month’s 2014 edition of the annual Atlanta Fed Financial Markets Conference.

Opinions among the panelists were, shall we say, diverse. You can view the entire session via this link. But if you don’t have an hour and 40 minutes to spare, here is the (less than) ten-minute highlight reel, wherein Carnegie Mellon Professor Allan Meltzer opines that Fed QE has become “a foolish program,” Jeffries LLC Chief Market Strategist David Zervos declares himself an unabashed “lover of QE,” and Federal Reserve Governor Jeremy Stein weighs in on some of the financial stability questions associated with very accommodative policy:

You probably detected some differences of opinion there. If that, however, didn’t satisfy your craving for unfiltered debate, click on through to this link to hear Professor Meltzer and Mr. Zervos consider some of Governor Stein’s comments on monitoring debt markets, regulatory approaches to pursuing financial stability objectives, and the efficacy of capital requirements for banks.

Photo of Dave AltigBy Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director of the Atlanta Fed.

May 13, 2014 in Banking, Capital Markets, Economic conditions, Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy, Monetary Policy | Permalink


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November 20, 2013

The Shadow Knows (the Fed Funds Rate)

The fed funds rate has been at the zero lower bound (ZLB) since the end of 2008. To provide a further boost to the economy, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) has embarked on unconventional forms of monetary policy (a mix of forward guidance and large-scale asset purchases). This situation has created a bit of an issue for economic forecasters, who use models that attempt to summarize historical patterns and relationships.

The fed funds rate, which usually varies with economic conditions, has now been stuck at near zero for 20 quarters, damping its historical correlation with economic variables like real gross domestic product (GDP), the unemployment rate, and inflation. As a result, forecasts that stem from these models may not be useful or meaningful even after policy has normalized.

A related issue for forecasters of the ZLB period is how to characterize unconventional monetary policy in a meaningful way inside their models. Attempts to summarize current policy have led some forecasters to create a "virtual" fed funds rate, as originally proposed by Chung et al. and incorporated by us in this macroblog post. This approach uses a conversion factor to translate changes in the Fed's balance sheet into fed funds rate equivalents. However, it admits no role for forward guidance, which is one of the primary tools the FOMC is currently using.

So what's a forecaster to do? Thankfully, Jim Hamilton over at Econbrowser has pointed to a potential patch. However, this solution carries with it a nefarious-sounding moniker—the shadow ratewhich calls to mind a treacherous journey deep within the hinterlands of financial economics, fraught with pitfalls and danger.

The shadow rate can be negative at the ZLB; it is estimated using Treasury forward rates out to a 10-year horizon. Fortunately we don't need to take a jaunt into the hinterlands, because the paper's authors, Cynthia Wu and Dora Xia, have made their shadow rate publicly available. In fact, they write that all researchers have to do is "...update their favorite [statistical model] using the shadow rate for the ZLB period."

That's just what we did. We took five of our favorite models (Bayesian vector autoregressions, or BVARs) and spliced in the shadow rate starting in 1Q 2009. The shadow rate is currently hovering around minus 2 percent, suggesting a more accommodative environment than what the effective fed funds rate (stuck around 15 basis points) can deliver. Given the extra policy accommodation, we'd expect to see a bit more growth and a lower unemployment rate when using the shadow rate.

Before showing the average forecasts that come out of our models, we want to point out a few things. First, these are merely statistical forecasts and not the forecast that our boss brings with him to FOMC meetings. Second, there are alternative shadow rates out there. In fact, St. Louis Fed President James Bullard mentioned another one about a year ago based on work by Leo Krippner. At the time, that shadow rate was around minus 5 percent, much further below Wu and Xia's shadow rate (which was around minus 1.2 percent at the end of last year). Considering the disagreement between the two rates, we might want to take these forecasts with a grain of salt.

Caveats aside, we get a somewhat stronger path for real GDP growth and a lower unemployment rate path, consistent with what we'd expect additional stimulus to do. However, our core personal consumption expenditures inflation forecast seems to still be suffering from the dreaded price-puzzle. (We Googled it for you.)

Perhaps more important, the fed funds projections that emerge from this model appear to be much more believable. Rather than calling for an immediate liftoff, as the standard approach does, the average forecast of the shadow rate doesn't turn positive until the second half of 2015. This is similar to the most recent Wall Street Journal poll of economic forecasters, and the September New York Fed survey of primary dealers. The median respondent to that survey expects the first fed funds increase to occur in the third quarter of 2015. The shadow rate forecast has the added benefit of not being at odds with the current threshold-based guidance discussed in today's release of the minutes from the FOMC's October meeting.

Moreover, today's FOMC minutes stated, "modifications to the forward guidance for the federal funds rate could be implemented in the future, either to improve clarity or to add to policy accommodation, perhaps in conjunction with a reduction in the pace of asset purchases as part of a rebalancing of the Committee's tools." In this event, the shadow rate might be a useful scorecard for measuring the total effect of these policy actions.

It seems that if you want to summarize the stance of policy right now, just maybe...the shadow knows.

Photo of Pat HigginsBy Pat Higgins, senior economist, and


Photo of Brent MeyerBrent Meyer, research economist, both of the Atlanta Fed's research department

November 20, 2013 in Fed Funds Futures, Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy, Forecasts, Interest Rates, Monetary Policy | Permalink


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'The shadow rate ... is estimated using Treasury forward rates out to a 10-year horizon.'

The Wu-Xia paper mentions forward rates, but it also describes a three-factor model incorporating 97 different macro series.

Since June 2013, the shadow policy rate has declined from -0.80% to a series-low -1.98%, while forward rates have been rising.

Is this sharp decline in the shadow policy rate due to changes in the macro series (e.g. accelerating GDP growth, to name one example), changes in forward rates, or both?

Posted by: Jim Haygood | January 13, 2014 at 04:45 PM

This has to be wrong, or a bad construct. Any full forward rate measure shows positive rates until you get to the far end of the yield curve.

Posted by: David Merkel | March 16, 2015 at 05:56 AM

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