macroblog

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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.


July 13, 2012


What’s to be done?

It's always hard to please everyone. Sometimes it's hard to please anyone. You probably don't need a lot of convincing on this point, but if you desire one more case study look no further than the past week's commentary on monetary policy, starting with Wonkblog's rather negative performance review (post by Brad Plumer) of the Fed's recent policy decisions:

"Right now, unemployment is falling more slowly than the Fed expected when it issued its forecasts back in April... When the Fed published its forecasts, it expected more jobs reports like April's, which initially showed the economy adding 115,000 jobs new jobs. But that hasn't happened… Which means the Fed's own numbers prove the Fed is failing to meet its dual mandate of keeping unemployment and inflation low. (Inflation is below the central bank's target right now; unemployment is not.)"

Plumer favorably references an earlier item from the Peterson Institute's Joe Gagnon, bearing the damning title "The Fed Shirks Its Duty":

"On June 20, 2012, the Federal Reserve System's Federal Open Market Committee extinguished the last shred of doubt as to whether it intends to achieve its mandated objectives."

Carnegie Mellon's Alan Meltzer similarly wonders "What's Wrong With the Federal Reserve?" But his lament, published earlier this week in the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, doesn't exactly mesh with the Gagnon-Plumer school of thought.

"One of the Fed's big mistakes is excessive attention to the short term, over which it has little influence...

"The problem with the short term is that data reported today are subject to revision, or reflect only transitory changes. The better economic data last winter are one of many examples. Would the reported improvement in the economy persist? We didn't learn the answer until weaker data reported this spring. Is the slowdown persistent or temporary? We can only guess.

"Executing monetary-policy changes in response to transitory data is a mistake...

"Today's economic problems are serious, but the Fed can't do much about them if these problems are not monetary. Very expansive monetary policies did help during the crisis of 2008–09, but they're not what is needed now…"

I don't see a dispute here about the fact in the first half of the year the U.S. economy has grown considerably slower than most people—including those in the Fed—thought it would. As usual, the dispute comes down to how to interpret those facts and what to do about them.

Material differences of opinion about how to interpret the current economic environment was the focal point of a speech given today by Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart, in Jackson, Mississippi. Acknowledging the divergent views represented by the Plumer, Gagnon, and Meltzer views, President Lockhart offers his own:

"The question that the members of the FOMC confront is whether there is more that can be done to address the related challenges of slower GDP growth and tepid job creation. So, to wind up, let me give you my take on the key questions underlying a decision to bring on more monetary stimulus.

"I think the output gap—the amount of slack in the economy—is neither as sizeable as the high-end estimates, nor is it zero. If there were no slack at all, 8.2 percent unemployment would represent full employment. If this were so, the economy would have undergone profound structural change over the last five years. As I weigh the findings of research by Federal Reserve economists and others, I do not think a compelling case has yet been made that structural adjustment has played a dominant role in slowing growth and progress against unemployment.

"If, on the other hand, slack in the economy were close to the high estimates, we should have seen more and more persistent downward pressure on prices and wages than has, in fact, been the case. Deciding on the extent of the output gap is not straightforward. I believe the truth is in the gray middle.

"On the risk associated with the balance sheet: in my judgment, some further use of the balance sheet to promote continued recovery and/or financial stability brings with it manageable risks. I think reversal of the cumulative balance sheet scale and maturity structure can be accomplished in an orderly manner. But the step of additional balance sheet expansion should be undertaken very judiciously. Such a step would take us further into uncharted territory.

"On the likely effectiveness of further monetary stimulus—a policy that would necessarily be brought to bear at least in part through credit channels—I think we should have modest expectations about what further action can accomplish. I do not think this means monetary policy is impotent or has reached its limit. But I don't see more quantitative easing or similar policy action as a miracle cure, especially absent fixes in policy areas outside the central bank's purview."

And to the dimming forecasts:

"So, as one policymaker, here's my situation: my support for the current stance of policy rests on a forecast that sees a step-up of output and employment growth by year-end and into 2013. If the economy continues on the track indicated by the most recent incoming data and information, that forecast will become untenable, as will the policy premises underlying it."

Plumer and Gagnon argue we are already at that point. Meltzer believes otherwise. Lockhart is weighing both possibilities. That approach pleases neither camp, but it's the right thing to do.

David AltigBy Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed

July 13, 2012 in Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy, Forecasts, Monetary Policy | Permalink

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We never know the "natural rate" of employment or unemployment, or the speed limit of the economy, until we find it. It's an unknown and always will be. We never know how the economy is doing, except with a lag. Back on the 70s we overestimated it, now we are underestimating it (and please don't tell me about structural unemployment, construction is starting to pick up in AZ and NV as the foreclosure pipeline drains, just as one would expect- there is even demand for drywall).

The key fact about the recovery is that its not a new phenomenon that the Fed missed forecasts. The Fed forecasts have consistently underestimated the strength of the recovery, an indirect effect of underestimating how long it would take to work out all those mortgages (200k/month foreclosures and 700+ days homes are in foreclosure).

The Fed has also consistently overestimated inflation.

Underestimating inflation and underestimating the strength of the recovery (in a biased way, both of which mean insufficient aggregate demand) means the Fed has done a very poor job correcting for bias.

The even sadder news is that there is a policy that corrects for uncertain potential output in the face of the kinds of nominal rigidities facing the economy, ngdp level targeting.

And the worse news is that if the magically Fed corrects its bias and/or adopts better policy in a Romney administration, it will damage its credibility and independence forever because the perception will be that the FOMC was willfully blind to hurt Obama, especially when it knew of policies that worked in the past but did not use them. I am not saying i agree, but perception is reality in DC and there is a strong case the Fed will be seen as a GOP/banker tool having failed to catch the housing market, JP Morgan, and failure to even conduct monetary policy appropriately. Sad to see the Fed shoot itself in the head.


Posted by: dwb | July 15, 2012 at 10:07 AM

There's an old saying in the newspaper business that goes something like "Just because everybody hates what you're doing doesn't make you right." There is no better example of that than this post.

A huge problem in public discourse these days is the "false balance" epidemic that is sweeping through our policy debates. One side steps up and offers facts, the other polemic, yet each are presented with the same deference. For example, Mr. Meltzer states that:

"Evidence is growing that many think higher inflation is in our future." If you look at these expectations in places such as, say, the Atlanta Fed inflation dashboard, you see no such thing. Instead what you have is someone who is so invested in their paleolithic monetarist framework that they simply have checked out of reality altogether.

The notion of policymakers agonizing over difficult choices amidst the well-thought-out differences of opinion among experts is appealing, but has no application to the current situation. There are only timid and coopted unelected (and unconfirmed) regional Fed bank presidents who unnecessarily prolong the agony of millions in the interests of the top tier of financiers.

Posted by: Rich888 | July 15, 2012 at 08:29 PM

The Fed needs to reassess those policies fixes outside their purview for they are not. It's policies are leading directly to tax cut extensions and larger budget deficits. At this point they have responsibility for both inflation and deficits.

Posted by: Lord | July 16, 2012 at 12:08 PM

I think the Fed is out of bullets. Only responsible fiscal policy can save the short term, and good luck with that.

Posted by: Jeff Carter | July 16, 2012 at 05:48 PM

Dave,
You only get to play the "elder statesman" card if you get things right. The Fed has been wrong over and over since the crisis started....and always in the same direction. Inflation is always below target and unemployment is always over.

Not to be mean, but wake up and smell the recession!

Posted by: robbl | July 17, 2012 at 12:17 PM

I think the Fed is out of principal points. Only accountable financial plan can save the temporary, and best of fortune with that.

Posted by: seo florida | July 18, 2012 at 02:33 PM

your first chart, the prices are actually always increasing every month....i think thats interesting given the question of this blog post...

Its so funny to read questions from Fed people regarding prices and where they are headed, you print the money and control interest rates, how do you not know over the long term. You guys should give me a job there, I could do the thinking for 5 of you.

Good luck with your balance sheet guys. When your bank notes collapse, people like yourself will be responsible.

Posted by: youguyshavedegree's?? | July 19, 2012 at 03:23 PM

Unemployment in a certain country contributes a great help to the growth of its economy. Just like the U.S. economy which has grown slower because of the increase of unemployment in the country. More jobs must be opened to make a country more financially stable and the continuous growth of the economy will be easily met.

Posted by: Jonathan Mansho | August 11, 2012 at 12:16 PM

There are many encouraging signs and indicators tbat are improving.....Stay the course
.be patient
.....Good Work Bernanke!

Posted by: Anne | September 04, 2012 at 04:02 PM

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February 16, 2012


How are we doing?

Near the beginning of the minutes of the January meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), released yesterday, you'll find a reiteration of the FOMC's historic decision explicitly endorsing a numerical definition of long-run price stability:

"The inflation rate over the longer run is primarily determined by monetary policy, and hence the Committee has the ability to specify a longer-run goal for inflation. The Committee judges that inflation at the rate of 2 percent, as measured by the annual change in the price index for personal consumption expenditures, is most consistent over the longer run with the Federal Reserve's statutory mandate."

The minutes include the motivating force behind this decision:

"The Chairman noted that the proposed statement did not represent a change in the Committee's policy approach. Instead, the statement was intended to help enhance the transparency, accountability, and effectiveness of monetary policy."

In a speech given Tuesday at New College in Sarasota, Fla., our local participant in this decision—Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart—provided his interpretation of this numerical inflation objective:

"The 2 percent inflation target is an aid to understanding how the FOMC will react to developments in the economy within an overarching approach that can be called 'flexible inflation targeting.'

"The word 'flexible' describes and qualifies the committee's exercise of judgment in reaction to adverse developments. The word 'flexible' also reflects the principle that it is not always feasible or desirable to hit the target in the short run. Short-lived shocks to the economy can temporarily move measured inflation well away from the 2 percent target."

The thinking behind that statement can be clearly seen in the following chart, which illustrates the volatility of annualized inflation rates as the horizon extends from one to five years:


As the chart shows, volatility noticeably declines as the horizon extends beyond one year to two years, and a similar decline occurs as we move from a two- to five-year horizon. This picture is exactly the type you would expect if inflation were subject to temporary ups and downs that dissipate over time. In his speech, President Lockhart offered his thoughts on the policy meaning of an inflation process that has this characteristic:

"Consider last year's energy and commodity price increases. Those cost pressures pushed up inflation in the early part of the year. Then, as expected, their influence dissipated as the year progressed.

"Had the FOMC tightened monetary policy early last year in response to the inflation threat, we might have compromised progress on growth and employment to no particular benefit with respect to our inflation mandate…

"As I see it, this is a recent, real-world example of a balanced approach in action. It illustrates the idea of flexible inflation targeting."

Of course, that particular example might ring somewhat hollow if the record suggested that the FOMC just got lucky this time around. A criticism that emerged in the aftermath of the inflation target announcement was not so much that it was flexible per se, but that in its focus on an undefined long-run, it is essentially an empty commitment. That opinion was offered in a Financial Times article penned by Lorenzo Bini Smaghi:

"The first [question about the FOMC's definition of price stability] relates to the time horizon over which the Fed is supposed to achieve price stability, namely the long-run. This differs from most other central banks in advanced economies, where price stability is targeted over a horizon of two to three years…

"Monetary policy produces its effects with lags of one to three years. This is the period over which the central bank should be held accountable."

That thought was echoed on The Economist's Free Exchange blog:

"According to the Fed's projections, it hits its target—2% inflation—over the long term. Mr Bini Smaghi's point is that it doesn't make much sense to judge current Fed actions against a long-run inflation projection.

"…the Fed doesn't necessarily run into problems of inconsistency if it projects inflation above 2% 1 or 2 years from now—a timeframe over which markets readily understand this group of policymakers to have control—while maintaining the long-run 2% goal."

The second part of The Economist comments move the conversation to an operational middle ground between an inflexible commitment to a target in the very short run and a promise that provides little discipline because its attainment remains out in a perpetually undefined future.

In particular, think about monitoring policy performance against a stated inflation objective over some "medium-term" horizon. "Medium-term" is itself a term of art, but I find it attractive to think about a three- to five-year horizon. Given the continuous arrival of shocks to the economy, uncertainties about the timing of policy effects, and the desirability of trading off precise control over inflation against the risks of destabilizing influences on real economic growth, I think it is still unrealistic and unwise to expect that an inflation target will be hit precisely even over a medium-run horizon. This is the reason, I believe, that an exact point target for inflation is relegated to the long run. But I think it is realistic, and wise, to expect realized average inflation to fall within a reasonable tolerance range about a long-run target over something like a three-to-five-year medium-term horizon.

People can disagree about what constitutes a reasonable tolerance range, but one option that I find sensible would be along the lines of the average volatility of medium-term inflation (calculated over a period in which inflation outcomes were deemed to be acceptable, which I've chosen to be the period since the mid-1990s). With this in mind, the following chart plots realized inflation over three-, four-, and five-year horizons. (For reference, the chart highlights the 2 percent target with upper and lower limits that are plus and minus 1 percentage point.)


The plus or minus 1 percentage point threshold in the above graph is somewhat above the standard deviation of medium-term outcomes shown in my earlier chart, so one might want to tighten up the bounds. But if you are willing to accept that it's close to your definition of tolerable deviation, the record does support the position that, over the past two decades or so, the Fed has delivered on the its now-explicit long-term objective, or taken sufficient to steps to correct matters when it wasn't.

Looking forward, if the midpoint of FOMC participants' most recent inflation projections comes to pass, the four- to five-year averages would remain near the long-run objective, with the three-year average moving away from its recent flirtation with the lower end of my hypothetical tolerance range.

I'm not saying that the above chart alone defines "appropriate policy"; performance against the other half of the dual mandate is obviously relevant. But I think it provides at least one way to think about what success looks like, and a sensible metric for whether the Fed is delivering on its long-run promise.

David AltigBy Dave Altig, senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed

 

February 16, 2012 in Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy, Forecasts, Inflation, Monetary Policy | Permalink

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I'm just wondering, how will inflation react to our overall economy with the recent 9 month high increase of crude prices? Just a thought.

Posted by: Johnny | February 21, 2012 at 02:57 PM

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February 10, 2012


Reading the bump in inventories

Yesterday's wholesale trade report, with its positive surprise in December inventory accumulation, has estimates of fourth quarter gross domestic product (GDP) on the rise again. For the advance GDP release, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis assumed that the book value of merchant wholesale inventories rose by $17 billion (at a seasonally adjusted annual rate, or SAAR) in December. The wholesale trade report suggests the book value instead may have risen by $56 billion SAAR. Our own calculations suggest fourth quarter GDP may be revised up from 2.8 percent to around 3.1 percent. A piece of that revision comes from positive sales activity, which would appear to be an unambiguous plus.

The inventory piece is trickier. Forecasters have a tendency—because the statistics have a tendency—to take a larger-than-expected inventory buildup in one quarter out of growth estimates for the next quarter. The implication in present tense is, of course, that 2012 may start out on the slow side as the fourth quarter inventory swell is run off.

That's not how we see it. Our current read is that it is better to think of the fourth quarter inventory buildup as a payback from a decumulation in the third quarter. Here's a look at overall inventory changes over the recent past, broken down into their various industrial components:


If you look hard, you will see that, though the fourth quarter inventory rise was broad-based, the third to fourth quarter change in wholesale inventories was particularly notable. In fact, the wholesale inventory picture in the back half of 2011 was dominated by a fairly large decumulation of nondurable goods inventories in the third quarter, a decline that was reversed in the last three months of the year:


In the background of those details are some pretty nonthreatening-looking inventory-sales ratios:


So, consider two stories that might frame thinking about the role of inventories in GDP growth in the first quarter or first half of this year. One story is inventory-inflated growth in the fourth quarter of 2011, to be followed by payback in the form of a drag on production in the first quarter (or so) of 2012. Another story is that the drag actually emerged in the third quarter of last year, providing a little extra juice in the fourth quarter, with no particular consequences for the current-year growth trajectory.

Right now, it looks to us like the latter story might be the right one. Of course, that doesn't mean there aren't significant risks to the outlook for domestic production, and hence inventories. For instance, although today's report on international trade in December was relatively benign in terms of fourth quarter GDP revisions, it did show a substantial further weakening in exports to the euro zone. Weaker demand from Europe will weigh on U.S. export growth. The big unknown is how weak that demand will get.

David AltigBy Dave Altig, senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed

 

February 10, 2012 in Data Releases, Economic Growth and Development, Forecasts | Permalink

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December 16, 2011


Maybe this time was at least a little different?

Earlier this week, Derek Thomson, a senior editor at The Atlantic, began his article "The Graph That Proves Economic Forecasters Are Almost Always Wrong" with some observations that don't really require a graph:

"As the saying goes: 'It's hard to make predictions. Especially about the future.' Thirty years ago, it was obvious to everybody that oil prices would keep going up forever. Twenty years ago, it was obvious that Japan would own the 21st century. Ten years ago, it was obvious that our economic stewards had mastered a kind of thermostatic control over business cycles to prevent great recessions. We were wrong, wrong, and wrong."

In a recent speech, Dennis Lockhart—whom most of you recognize as president here at the Atlanta Fed—offered his own thoughts on why forecasts can go so wrong:

"… you may wonder why forecasters, the Fed included, don't do a better job. To answer this question, let me suggest three reasons why forecasts may be off.

"While it's relatively trivial in my view, the first reason involves missing the timing of economic activity. An example of that was mentioned earlier when I explained that GDP for the third quarter had been revised down while the fourth quarter is expected to compensate.

"A second reason that forecasts miss the mark is, in everyday language, stuff happens.

"To be a little more precise, unforeseen developments are a fact of life. In my view, the energy and commodity shocks early in the year had a significant impact on growth in the first half of 2011. The tsunami-related supply disruptions, though temporary, were an exacerbating factor. In fact, a lot of shocks or disruptions are quite temporary and don't cause one to rethink the narrative about where the economy is likely going.

"Which brings me to the third reason why economic prognostications go off track: we, as forecasters, simply get the bigger story wrong.

"What I mean by getting the bigger story wrong is failing to understand the fundamentals at work in the economy."

"Getting the bigger story wrong" is Simon Potter's theme in the New York Fed's Liberty Street Economics blog post, "The Failure to Forecast the Great Recession":

"Looking through our briefing materials and other sources such as New York Fed staff reports reveals that the Bank's economic research staff, like most other economists, were behind the curve as the financial crisis developed, even though many of our economists made important contributions to the understanding of the crisis. Three main failures in our real-time forecasting stand out:

1.  Misunderstanding of the housing boom …

2. A lack of analysis of the rapid growth of new forms of mortgage finance …

3. Insufficient weight given to the powerful adverse feedback loops between the financial system and the real economy …


"However, the biggest failure was the complacency resulting from the apparent ease of maintaining financial and economic stability during the Great Moderation."

Potter does not implicate any of his Federal Reserve brethren, but you can add me to the roll call of those having made each of the mistakes on the list.

Should we have known? A powerful narrative that we should have has taken hold. The boom-bust cycle associated with large bouts of asset appreciation and debt accumulation has a long history in economics, and the theme has been pressed home in its most recent incarnation by the work of Carmen Reinhart and coauthors, including the highly influential book written with Kenneth Rogoff, This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly.

Unfortunately, even seemingly compelling historical evidence is not always so clear cut. An illustration of this, relevant to the failure to forecast the Great Recession, was provided in a paper by Enrique Mendoza and Marco Terrones (from the University of Maryland and the International Monetary Fund, respectively), presented last month at a Central Bank of Chile conference, "Capital Mobility and Monetary Policy." What the paper puts forward is described by Mendoza and Terrones as follows:

"… in Mendoza and Terrones (2008) we proposed a new methodology for measuring and identifying credit booms and showed that it was successful in identifying credit boom events with a clear cyclical pattern in both macro and micro data.

"The method we proposed is a 'thresholds method.' This method works by first splitting real credit per capita in each country into its cyclical and trend components, and then identifying a credit boom as an episode in which credit exceeds its long-run trend by more than a given 'boom' threshold, defined in terms of a tail probability event… The key defining feature of this method is that the thresholds are proportional to each country's standard deviation of credit over the business cycle. Hence, credit booms reflect 'unusually large' cyclical credit expansions."

And here is what they find:

"In this paper, we apply this method to data for 61 countries (21 industrialized countries, ICs, and 40 emerging market economies, EMs), over the 1960-2010 period. We found a total of 70 credit booms, 35 in ICs and 35 in EMs, including 16 credit booms that peaked in the critical period surrounding the recent financial crisis between 2007 and 2010 (again with about half of these recent booms in ICs and EMs each)…

"The results show that credit booms are associated with periods of economic expansion, rising equity and housing prices, real appreciation and widening external deficits in the upswing of the booms, followed by the opposite dynamics in the downswing."

That certainly sounds familiar, and supports the "we should have known" meme. But the full facts are a little trickier. Mendoza and Terrones continue:

"A major deviation in the evidence reported here relative to our previous findings in Mendoza and Terrones (2008) is that adding the data from the recent credit booms and crisis we find that in fact credit booms in ICs and EMs are more similar than different. In contrast, in our earlier work we found differences in the magnitudes of credit booms, the size of the macroeconomic fluctuations associated with credit booms, and the likelihood that they are followed by banking or currency crises.

"… while not all credit booms end in crisis, the peaks of credit booms are often followed by banking crises, currency crises of Sudden Stops, and the frequency with which this happens is about the same for EMs and ICs (20 to 25 percent for banking and currency for banking crisis, 14 percent for Sudden Stops)."

Their notion still supports the case of the "we should have known" camp, but here's the rub (emphasis mine):

"This is a critical change from our previous findings, because lacking substantial evidence from all the recent booms and crises, we had found only 9 percent frequency of banking crises after credit booms for EMs and zero for ICs, and 14 percent frequency of currency crises after credit booms for EMs v. 31 percent for ICs."

In other words, based on this particular evidence, we should have been looking for a run on the dollar, not a banking crisis. What we got, of course, was pretty much the opposite.

No excuses here. Speaking only for myself, I had the story wrong. But the conclusion to that story is a lot clearer now than it was in the middle of the tale.

David AltigBy Dave Altig, senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed

 

December 16, 2011 in Business Cycles, Financial System, Forecasts | Permalink

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When your currency is the global reserve currency, there is nothing
available in sufficient size to run TO. Therefore, a run ON the dollar
was an impossibility. The ONLY other possibility was the only one remaining, a run on the Banking System.

Posted by: Robert K | December 18, 2011 at 01:13 PM

Indeed, you can't predict economic events. No kidding.

However, that fact means you must also give up attempts to control the economy.

If you cannot predict any future, how do you navigate to one particular desired future?

There is no actual evidence over 50-year periods that any country has successfully done so. Economists have destroyed a lot of countries in their attempts, however.

Abolish the Fed.

Posted by: Lew Glendenning | December 18, 2011 at 08:51 PM

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September 08, 2011


Another cut at the postrecession job picture

There is not much to be said about the August employment report released last Friday—or not much good, anyway. The ongoing updates at Calculated Risk provide a chronicle of the questions and challenges that have characterized the postrecession period. An exhaustive set of graphs are spread across several posts, here, here, and here. The last post in the series focused on construction employment specifically and includes this observation, which is based on the addition of 26,000 construction jobs in 2011 through August:

"After five consecutive years of job losses for residential construction (and four years for total construction), this is a baby step in the right direction. However there will not be a strong increase in residential construction until the excess supply of housing is absorbed."

Given the likely pace of turnaround in the housing market, that sounds like a problem. It is not much surprise that employment in the construction sector is, and likely will continue to be, significantly weaker than it was before the recession. Can the same be said of most other sectors? The following chart shows pre- and postrecession, cross-sector average monthly changes in payroll employment, broadly defined according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' classifications. For reference, the size of the circles in the chart reflect the relative prerecession size of the sector in terms of employment.


A few points:

  • The 45-degree line represents points where average monthly employment changes before the recession (from December 2001 through November 2007, precisely) are exactly the same as the average changes after the recession (July 2009 through August 2011). Consistent with the slow pace of overall employment growth during this recovery, the majority of circles representing different sectors lie below the 45-degree line.
  • In general, the pattern of circles is such that those sectors with relatively high employment changes prerecession are those that have exhibited relatively high changes during the recovery. In other words, we have not yet seen a widespread reshuffling of cross-sectoral employment trends outside of the recession. For example, employment changes in the education and health care sector led the pack before the recession, and that sector has led the pack thus far in the recovery. At the opposite end of the scale, job growth in the information sector has remained on a negative trend in the recovery period, just as it was prior to the recession.
  • I want to note a few exceptions to the preceding observation, which discusses the sectors with relatively high employment changes before the recession being the same ones that exhibited relatively high changes during the recovery. As noted, employment in the construction sector is well off its prerecession pace. What may be less appreciated is the fact that manufacturing employment, outside of the motor vehicles and auto parts sector, has experienced monthly employment gains that are better than the prerecession rate. Employment in the government sector, on the other hand, has noticeably flipped from positive to negative. This shift is also true of job growth in the financial activities sector, though the change is less dramatic than in the government sector.


Manufacturing and government represent relatively big shares of employment. Including motor vehicles and parts, manufacturing payroll employment was over 11 percent of total U.S. jobs for the period from 2002 through 2007. Government employment was about 16.5 percent (and had the largest single share of sectoral employment in the breakdown used in the chart above). The bad news in the big picture is that the better performance in manufacturing job creation is really a shift from negative job creation in the prerecession period to zero job creation in the postrecession period. And as for government employment, it seems unlikely that the forces will soon align to move job growth in the public sector back into positive territory. (The same could probably be said of financial activities employment.)

I am not pushing any particular interpretation of these facts, but a couple of questions come to mind. Will non-auto manufacturing employment revert to the contracting trend in place prior to the recession? Will employment in the financial activities and government sectors continue to shrink? If so, will these jobs be absorbed by increased employment in other sectors, and how long will that take?

David Altig By Dave Altig, senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed

 

September 8, 2011 in Data Releases, Employment, Forecasts, Labor Markets | Permalink

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Dave: Can you create a similar graph that measures not number of employed but % of income going to each of those sectors?

Posted by: bryan byrne | September 10, 2011 at 08:30 AM

It's not that hard to figure this out. In 1928, the average workweek was 48 hours. In 1935, the average workweek was 40 hours.

Work is finite and shrinks over time in a productive economy. The 40-hour workweek was the coarse-grained tool to enforce an equality between production and consumption, and government employment has been the fine-grained tool to keep it balanced since 1929.

The only true fix for current situation is to reset the coarse-grained tool to 36 or 32-hour week, which will reset the fine-grained tool.

Posted by: Broward Horne | September 10, 2011 at 01:07 PM

I hope you guys are paying attention:

http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-5rxDm-_8-0I/TnmNJYKW4wI/AAAAAAAAAA8/zhetiAWZL9s/s1600/SPXvsTIPSBetas.bmp

The SPX - TIPS spread beta is a credible tool for resisting calls for more inflation in scenarios that Volker imagines, and for resisting inflation hawks in scenarios like... right now. The policy rule suggested is: Hold the beta near zero. Unlike inflation targeting, the beta has no sharp thresholds - you can under or overshoot slightly without killing people.

I'm putting this here both because it's your most recent post, and because it's a post about structural nonsense. Current economic conditions would require completely fantastic frictions to explain structurally. So people talk in vague ways about employee education, or an overburden of housing inventory. If houses are so plentiful, why does everyone I know rent or live with their parents? It's completely ridiculous. Then you have (as far as I understand it) a sterilized intervention like Twist. Newsflash: sterilized interventions can't do anything at the zero bound. Only inflation can.

Posted by: Carl Lumma | September 26, 2011 at 01:59 PM

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August 26, 2011


Lots of ground to cover: An update

If you have to discuss a difficult circumstance, I guess Jackson Hole, Wyo., is as nice as place as any to do so. This morning, as most folks know by now, Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke reiterated the reason that most Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) members support the expectation that policy rates will remain low for the next couple of years:

"In light of its current outlook, the Committee recently decided to provide more specific forward guidance about its expectations for the future path of the federal funds rate. In particular, in the statement following our meeting earlier this month, we indicated that economic conditions—including low rates of resource utilization and a subdued outlook for inflation over the medium run—are likely to warrant exceptionally low levels for the federal funds rate at least through mid-2013. That is, in what the Committee judges to be the most likely scenarios for resource utilization and inflation in the medium term, the target for the federal funds rate would be held at its current low levels for at least two more years."

There are two pieces of information that emphasize the economy's recent weakness and potential slow growth going forward. The first is this week's revised forecasts and potential for gross domestic product (GDP) from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), and the second is today's revision of second quarter GDP from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). Though estimates of potential GDP have not greatly changed, the CBO's downgrade in forecasts and BEA's report of much lower than potential growth in the second quarter have the current and prospective rates of resource utilization lower than when macroblog covered the issue just about a month ago.

Key to the CBO's estimates is a reasonably good outlook for GDP growth after we get past 2012:

"For the 2013–2016 period, CBO projects that real GDP will grow by an average of 3.6 percent a year, considerably faster than potential output. That growth will bring the economy to a high rate of resource use (that is, completely close the gap between the economy's actual and potential output) by 2017."

The margin for slippage, though, is not great. Assuming that GDP ends 2011 having grown by about 2.3 percent—as projected by the CBO—here's a look at gaps between actual and potential GDP for different, seemingly plausible growth rates:


Attaining 3.5 percent growth by next year moves the CBO's date for closing the output gap up by about a year. On the other hand, a fall in output growth to an average of 3 percent per year moves the date for eliminating resource slack back to 2020. If growth remains below that—well, let's hope it doesn't.

David Altig By Dave Altig, senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed

 

August 26, 2011 in Business Cycles, Economic Growth and Development, Employment, Forecasts, Saving, Capital, and Investment | Permalink

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«economic conditions—including low rates of resource utilization and a subdued outlook for inflation over the medium run—are likely to warrant exceptionally low levels for the federal funds rate at least through mid-2013.»

The exceptionally low funding rates to financial intermediaries are not resulting in equally low rates for customers of those intermediaries, because the Fed has repeatedly hinted that they want to rebuild the balance sheet of the finance sector boosting their profits by granting them a huge spread (and hoping that at least half of those profits go into capital instead of bonuses).

Bernanke's statement then may be interpreted as saying that the Fed does expects the financial sector to need another several years of extra profits resulting from the Fed "subsidy" because the finance sector seem unlikely to be able to make any profit if market conditions prevailed, and indeed it seems that the capital position of many finance sector "national champions" is still weak considering the cosmetically hidden capital losses they have.

As to inflation, wage inflation is indeed well contained (wages are declining in real terms) even if cost of living inflation seems pretty rampant; in a similar country like the UK where indices are less "massaged" the RPI has been running at over 5% and on an increasing trend:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-14538167

Posted by: Blissex | August 26, 2011 at 05:28 PM

Why can't the Federal Reserve tell the public the obvious: Growth will only come about by hiring people with livable wages.

If we don't raise incomes nationally we will be forced to liquidate on a massive scale. It doesn't matter who does the hiring, just that it is done.

It isn't the deficit. It isn't the debt. It's the incomes, stupid.

Posted by: beezer | August 27, 2011 at 06:10 AM

Ken Rogoff says 3-5 years of 1-2% GDP and Carmen Reinhart thinks 5-6 years of 2%. =(

Posted by: DarkLayers | August 27, 2011 at 11:19 PM

In terms of econometrics, annual increment of real GDP per capita is constant over time http://mechonomic.blogspot.com/2011/08/revised-gdp-estimates-support-model-of.html . Therefore, the rate of real GDP per capita growth has to decay as a reciprocal function of the attained level of GDP per capita. The exponential component in the overall GDP is fully related to population growth which has been around 1% per year in the U.S. Currently, the rate of population growth falls and the trajectory of the overall GDP lags behind the projection which includes 1% population growth. If to look at the per head estimates, there is no gap between "potential" and observed levels.
In no case should an economist mix the growth in population and real economic growth.

Posted by: kio | August 28, 2011 at 04:03 AM

It's going to be a long time. Do you know how hard it will be for a person to live in the same town for 30 years?

Our money game will need new rules because 30 years at the same job/house/town is over.

But once that issue is fixed, watch out. Technologically America is so far ahead that earning a 100k(todays $$) salary can be done in 6 months.

To keep the NYC banks from leeching on it will be a task.

Posted by: FormerSSResident | August 31, 2011 at 07:00 PM

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August 15, 2011


The GDP revisions: What changed?

Prior to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis's (BEA) benchmark gross domestic product (GDP) revisions announced three Fridays ago, we were devoting a fair amount of space—here, in particular—to picking apart some of the patterns in the data over the course of the recovery. Ahh, the best-laid plans. As noted in a speech today from Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart:

"It's been an eventful two weeks, to say the least. Let's now look ahead. The $64,000 question is what's the outlook from here?...


"Whether we're seeing a temporary soft patch in an otherwise gradually improving growth picture or a deeper and more persistent slowdown, most of the arriving economic data lately have caused forecasters to write down their projections. Also, and importantly, the Bureau of Economic Analysis in the Department of Commerce has revised earlier economic growth numbers. These revisions paint a different picture of the depth of the recession and the relative strength of the recovery."


Beyond keeping the record straight, revisiting the charts from our previous posts in light of the new GDP data is a key input into answering President Lockhart's $64,000 question. Here, then, is that story, at least in part.

1. Even ignoring the depth of the recession, the first two years of this recovery have been slow relative to the early phases of the past two recoveries.

I wasn't so sure this was the case to be made prior to the new statistics from the BEA, but the revisions made clear that, while still broadly similar to the slower growth pattern of the prior two recoveries, the GDP performance has been pretty easily the slowest of all.

Real GDP

2. Consumption growth has been especially weak in this recovery, and the pattern of consumer spending has been more concentrated in consumer durables than has been the case in prior business cycles.

Change in consumption expenditures

The consumer spending piece of this puzzle has President Lockhart's attention:

"I'm most concerned about the effect of the wild stock market on consumer spending. Volatility alone could have a negative impact on consumer psychology at a time of already weakening spending. Last Friday, it was reported that the University of Michigan's Survey of Consumer Sentiment fell sharply in early August to its lowest level in more than 30 years. Furthermore, if the loss of stock market value persists, the effect from the loss of investment value could combine with the loss of value in home prices to discourage consumers more and longer."


On the bright side, the GDP revisions did not of themselves alter the household spending picture. Though the benchmark revisions contained significant changes in consumer spending, those changes were concentrated during the recession in 2008 and 2009. Personal consumption expenditures were actually revised upward from 2009 on, with the big negative changes coming in net exports and government spending:

GDP revisions

Are there other rays of hope? I might add this:

3. The revisions show that the momentum that seemed to fade through 2010 was more apparent in total GDP than in final demand. In other words, the basic storyline—a good start to 2010 with a soft patch in the middle and a stronger finish—still emerges if you look through changes in inventories.

Pattern of final demand

That observation does not, of course, help salve the pain of the very anemic first half of this year. Nonetheless (from Lockhart, again):

"At the Atlanta Fed, we have revised down our near and intermediate gross domestic product (GDP) growth forecast, but we are holding to the view that the economy will continue to grow at a very modest pace. In other words, we do not expect the onset of outright contraction—a recession—but I have to say the risk of recession is higher than we perceived a month or two ago...


"The rapid-fire developments of the last several days, along with some troubling data releases, have shaken confidence. People are worried. Investors, Main Street businessmen and women, and consumers are wondering which way things will tip. The public—and for that matter, policymakers—are operating in a fog of uncertainty that is thicker than normal."


That fog of uncertainty was made thicker by the GDP revisions, and thicker yet by the volatility that followed. But I would still pass along this advice from President Lockhart:

"At this juncture, we should not jump to conclusions. A clearer picture of economic reality will be revealed in time as immediate uncertainties dissipate. It's premature, in my view, to declare these important questions relating to our economic future settled."


David Altig By Dave Altig, senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed

August 15, 2011 in Business Cycles, Economic Growth and Development, Forecasts, Saving, Capital, and Investment | Permalink

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I think it is important to remember that the BEA only has comprehensive data on income and consumer spending in 2009 and earlier. With this annual revision they folded in mandatory census like surveys on retail trade and services. On the income side they incorporated IRS tax return data which led to substantially lower estimates of asset income. Data from the Michigan survey suggests that the current estimates of personal income in 2010 and later might be overstated. The BEA does a very important job as best they can, but the source data is slow to roll in. We probably have a good picture of the recession now, but the recovery is still a work in progress in the NIPAs. In my opinion, if you want to understand the slow recovery in consumer spending...look at the income expectations (or lack thereof) in the Michigan survey.

Posted by: Claudia Sahm | August 16, 2011 at 04:48 AM

Interesting, as always. I'd like to see point 2 done for fixed investment, too.

Posted by: Dave Backus | August 16, 2011 at 05:37 PM

I think we should not begin to accept the pace of recovery in the last two recessions as a "new normal." The last two recessions have featured very little fiscal stimulus, and increasing emphasis on monetary means. Also, what fiscal stimulus there has been is of dubious value, particularly some of the tax policy measures.

These observations reflect a transition from a political economic theory that government spending should fill the gap created by falling consumer and business spending during times of recession to a political economic theory based accounting (i.e., that spending should not exceed revenues). The latter is leading to larger and larger output gaps, and will eventually lead to permanent recession.

This is why it should not be accepted as the "new normal."

Posted by: Charles | August 17, 2011 at 11:02 AM

Looks like the market is now firmly the master. Everybody has become an economist, we elect an Economist for Governors and Presidents, because we have lost control. The Tea Party is a reaction to this, a desperate one.

If the Fed/America can't re-gain control, someone else will.

Posted by: FormerSSresident | August 17, 2011 at 01:43 PM

Inventories are no longer helping and government will be a drag. It is difficult to see where growth comes from in this environment.
We should measure private sector GDP (without Government) as it is the engine that must support the economy and the government.
The economy has been off track for some 15 years as consumer debt has been the engine and that source is over. Debt is a burden and it should not be used for basic consumption or stimulus. All it does is remove future growth. We are in for a sustained period of slow growth.

Posted by: GASinclair | August 19, 2011 at 06:25 PM

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July 28, 2011


Lots of ground to cover

In my last post I noted that the pace of the recovery, now two years old, is in broad terms similar to that of the first two years of the previous two recoveries. The set-up included this observation:

"Though we have grown used to thinking of the rebound from the most recent recession as being spectacularly substandard, that impression (which I share) is driven more by the depth of the downturn than the actual speed of the recovery."

The context of the depth of the downturn is not, of course, irrelevant. One way of quantifying that context is to look at measures of the "output gap," that is, the difference between the level of real gross domestic product (GDP) and the economy's "potential." An informal way to think about whether or not a recovery is complete is to mark the time when the output gap returns to zero, or when the level of GDP returns to its potential.

There are several ways to estimate potential GDP, but for my money the one constructed by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is as good as any. And it does not tell a pretty story:

Real GDP-Real Potential GDP

It is worth noting that the CBO's measure is not a just a simple extrapolation of a constant trend, but a calculation based on historical relationships among labor hours, productivity growth, unemployment, and inflation. Their trend in potential GDP growth rates implied by this methodology, described here, is anything but linear:

Real Potential GDP

Note that the output gaps in the first chart are at historical lows (by a lot) despite the fact that potential GDP growth is at historical lows as well.

These estimates provide one way to assess the pace of the recovery. For example, the midpoints of the Federal Open Market Committee's (FOMC) most recent consensus forecasts for GDP growth are 2.8 percent (2011), 3.5 percent (2012), and 3.85 percent (2013). If those forecasts come to pass, approximately 60 percent of the CBO-implied gap will be closed. This would still leave, in real terms, more resource slack than existed at the lowest point in the past two recessions.

Put another way, if the economy grows at 4 percent from 2012 forward, the output gap won't be closed until sometime in 2015. At a growth rate of 3.5 percent—the lower end of FOMC participants' projections for the next two years—the "full recovery" date gets pushed back to 2016. If, however, the FOMC projections are too optimistic and the economy can only manage to grow at an annual pace of 3 percent (which is currently the consensus view of private forecasters for 2012) output gaps persist until 2020.

The conventional view of the macroeconomy that motivates the CBO estimates of potential GDP (and hence output gaps) at least implicitly embeds the assumption that time heals all wound. But the healing won't necessarily be fast.

David Altig By Dave Altig, senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed

July 28, 2011 in Business Cycles, Economic Growth and Development, Employment, Forecasts, Saving, Capital, and Investment | Permalink

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July 20, 2011


Is consumer spending the problem?

In answer to the question posed in the title to this post, The New York Times's David Leonhardt says absolutely:

"There is no shortage of explanations for the economy's maddening inability to leave behind the Great Recession and start adding large numbers of jobs…

"But the real culprit—or at least the main one—has been hiding in plain sight. We are living through a tremendous bust. It isn't simply a housing bust. It's a fizzling of the great consumer bubble that was decades in the making…

"If you're looking for one overarching explanation for the still-terrible job market, it is this great consumer bust."

Tempting story, but is the explanation for "the still-terrible job market" that simple?

First, some perspective on the pace of the current recovery. Though we have grown used to thinking of the rebound from the most recent recession as being spectacularly substandard, that impression (which I share) is driven more by the depth of the downturn than the actual speed of the recovery. The following chart traces the path of real gross domestic product (GDP) from the trough of the last three recessions:


In the first two years following the 1990–91 and 2001 recessions, output grew by about 6 percent. Assuming that GDP grew at annual rate of 1.5 percent in the second quarter just ended—a not-unreasonable guess at this point—the economy will have expanded by about 5.3 percent since the end of the last recession in July 2009. That's not a difference that jumps off the page at me.

Directly to the point of consumption spending, it is certainly true that consumer spending has expanded at a slower pace in the expansion to this point than was the case at the same point in the recoveries following the previous two recessions. From the end of the recession in the second quarter of 2009 through the first quarter of this year (we won't have the first official look at this year's second quarter until next week), personal consumption expenditures grew in real terms by just under 4 percent. That growth compares to 4.8 percent in the first seven quarters following the end of the 2001 recession and 5.9 percent in the first seven quarters following the end of the 1990–91 recession.

That difference in the growth of consumption across the early quarters of recovery after the 1990–91 and 2001 recessions with little discernible difference in GDP growth across those episodes illustrates the pitfalls of mechanically focusing on specific categories of spending. In fact, the relatively slower pace of consumer spending in this expansion has in part been compensated by a relatively high pace of business spending on equipment and software:


If you throw consumer durables into the general notion of "investment" (investment in this case for home production) the story of this recovery is the relative boom in capital spending compared to recent recoveries:


And what about that "still-terrible job market"? You won't get much argument from me about that description, but here again the reality is complicated. Focusing once more on the period since the end of the recession, the pace of job creation is not out of sync in comparison to recent expansions (though job creation after the last two recessions was meager as well, and we are, of course, starting from a much bigger hole in terms of jobs lost):


So, relative to recent experience, at this point in the recovery GDP growth and employment growth are about average (if we ignore the size of the recession in both measures). The undeniable (and relevant) human toll aside, the current recovery seems so disappointing because we expect the pace of the recovery to bear some relationship to the depth of the downturn. That expectation, in turn, comes from a view of the world in which potential output proceeds in a more or less linear fashion, up and to the right. But what if that view is wrong and our potential is a sequence of more or less permanent "jumps" up and down, some of which are small and some of which are big?

In addition, investment growth to date has been strong relative to recent recoveries and, as Leonhardt suggests, consumption growth has been somewhat weak. So here's a question: Would we have had more job creation and stronger GDP growth had businesses been more inclined to add workers instead of capital? And if that had occurred, might the consumption numbers have been considerably stronger?

David Altig By Dave Altig, senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed

 

July 20, 2011 in Business Cycles, Economic Growth and Development, Employment, Forecasts, Saving, Capital, and Investment | Permalink

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This is an excellent contribution to elevating the quality of commentary on the current expansion. It is time to recognize the cycles experienced in the 60s, 70s, and early 80s were fundamentally different from those since. Because of this, the earlier cycles are not part of the relevant benchmark for making comparisons to current behavior. Three cheers for taking them out of the baseline used for comparisons.

Posted by: Douglas Lee | July 21, 2011 at 10:22 AM

David,
Let me ask a supplemental question. Following the '91 recession, the US created something like 20mm jobs. Following the '01 recession, perhaps 8.5mm jobs were created. How many jobs will be created in this decade?
Stewart

Posted by: stewart sprague | July 21, 2011 at 10:40 AM

The payroll employment chart suggests that just looking at the path for the level of employment from the end of a recession is not the relevant metric. How about looking at net jobs lost during the recession versus net jobs regained during the recovery? Then, the metric captures the essence of what the graph should indicate -- and what the blog offers in words. That the immense job loss of the recent recession is the big difference, and the recent sluggish job creation is akin to recoveries in 1991 and 2001. From this perspective, we have a problem that has been around for a few business cycles.

Posted by: ET_OC | July 21, 2011 at 02:44 PM

The obvious deficiencies in GDP this time have been net exports and government spending.

While the Fed has done its best to promote both, the politicians in Washington have done their best in the opposite direction by promoting an over-valued dollar and reduced federal spending, despite interest rates on the federal debt that are universally lower than during the years of the federal budget surplus.

Posted by: Paul | July 21, 2011 at 04:19 PM

I find it highly annoying that the the obvious is invisible to everyone.

http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/series/CMDEBT

Households were pulling $1.2T/yr of new mortgage debt during the boom 2004-2006. This was all cut off in 2007-2008.

Corporate debt take-on was another $800B/yr during this time, for a $2T/yr stimulus to the economy.

THAT IS TWENTY MILLION $100k/yr jobs!

Previous recessions in my life were all prompted by the Fed raising interest rates to throttle debt growth. What killed debt growth this time was the collapse of the ponzi lending structure and the bubble machine it was powering.

Posted by: Troy | July 22, 2011 at 01:58 AM

If you look at percent job losses since peak employment (not only since end of recession), then you can see how bad this recession is. At this point of the cycle after all prior recessions since WWII, the employment has recovered to pre-recession levels. In this recession, we are still 5% down.
http://cr4re.com/charts/charts.html

Posted by: Nino | July 22, 2011 at 05:29 PM

I look at PAYEMS (see below) and what do I see ? I see PAYEMS moving sideways since 2000/2001 so that after a decade of nonsense we find ourselves with 29,502.4 (Thousands (!)) less jobs than we would have had had the pre-2000/2001 trend continued to date.

http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/graph/?chart_type=line&s[1][id]=PAYEMS&log_scales=Left

Posted by: In Hell's Kitchen (NYC) | July 23, 2011 at 09:04 AM

Of course the comparison matter. your comparison against the 1990-91 and 2001 make 2007 look average. When comparing against all post WWII recession/recoveries all three of those recoveries look below average (with all recoveries since 1990 looking very weak indeed). Even then the down-turn was the worst putting the starting point at a very, very low level.

Posted by: RangerHondo | July 26, 2011 at 08:48 AM

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June 01, 2011


Should we even read the monthly inflation report? Maybe not. Then again...

In a recent issue of Economic Synopsis, our colleague Dan Thornton of the St. Louis Fed questions the usefulness of the traditional core inflation statistics—the consumer price index (CPI), or the personal consumption expenditure price index that strips out food and energy costs. Specifically, Dan asks whether the core inflation statistic is a better predictor of future inflation over the medium term (say, the next two or three years), than the headline inflation statistic. His conclusion is that:

"[F]or the most recent period, there is no compelling evidence that core inflation is a better predictor of future headline inflation over the medium term."

But Dan also invites the following:

"[I]n the interest of greater transparency and to allow the public to better understand its focus on core measures, the FOMC [Federal Open Market Committee] should provide evidence of the superior forecasting performance of the core measure it uses."

Well, of course neither writer of this blog post is on the FOMC, and equally obvious is the fact that we don't speak for anyone who is. Moreover, we're not very big fans of the traditional core measures, and we much prefer trimmed-mean estimators of inflation when thinking about recent price behavior.

Nevertheless, we'd like to attempt an answer to Dan's call, even if it wasn't aimed at us.

Here's the experiment run by Dan: He used the past 36-month trend in the traditional core inflation measure and the ordinary headline inflation measure and tested which one most accurately predicted the next 36 months of headline inflation. He found that they're about the same. A similar look at 24-month trends yielded a similar result.

The upshot of these experiments can be seen in the figure below (which is a figure of our construction, not his).


The chart shows how accurately we can predict headline CPI inflation over the next three years using only headline CPI price data or, alternatively, using only core CPI price data. The essence of the conclusion reached in the Economic Synopsis is summarized within the shaded box. The forecast accuracy of the two- and three-year trends of the core CPI price measure doesn't seem to be a significant improvement to the plain-vanilla headline CPI.

But we wonder whether the contribution of the core inflation statistic is being accurately reflected in this experiment. For us, the power of a core inflation measure—whether it be the traditional ex-food and energy measure, or some more statistical construct like the trimmed-mean estimators—can't be seen by comparing data trends of this sort. The volatility of an inflation statistic, what we would characterize as "noise," dissipates rather quickly, generally within a few months (although for food and energy, it could play out over a longer period of time, we understand).

At issue is how much the most recent month's or quarter's inflation data should inform one's thinking about the future path of inflation. Implicit in the experiments reported above is that they shouldn't—well, only as much as the most recent monthly or quarterly data influence the trend of the past two or three years.

It may be that the most recent monthly or even quarterly data are so noisy that they have nothing useful to contribute to our perception of the future inflation trend. But then again, an experiment that assumes there is no useful information in the most recent inflation data does not necessarily make it so.

We'd like to call your attention to the remainder of the figure above, where we ask the question, what happens if you try to predict headline CPI inflation over the next three years using only the most recent price data? For example, what if we restrict ourselves to looking only at the most recent month's CPI report? What we see is that the core inflation statistic provides a much improved prediction of the future inflation trend compared to the headline measure. Specifically, forecast accuracy is improved by nearly 50 percent if you use the core inflation measure. (For you wonks, the root mean square error, or RMSE, of the core CPI prediction is about 1.4 percent, compared with a RMSE of 2.7 percent for headline CPI inflation.)

Now consider the behavior of CPI prices over the past three months. How informative of the future inflation trend are these prices? Well, the accuracy of the headline inflation statistic improves relative to the one-month percent change because averaging the data over time in this way necessarily reduces the transitory fluctuations in the data. But again, the three-month core CPI price statistic provides a much better prediction of future headline inflation than does the three-month trend in the ordinary CPI statistic. In other words, if you're wondering what the past-three months of data tell you about developing inflation pressure, you're much better off considering the core statistic than you are the headline number.

Here's another observation we'd like to make: The most recent three-month trend in the core CPI inflation measure appears to be a more accurate predictor of future inflation than the 12-month headline CPI trend. Moreover, the three-month trend in the core measure is roughly as accurate as its longer-term trends. This observation suggests that paying attention to the core measure may allow you to spot changes in the inflation trend much more quickly than using headline alone.

Again, to be clear, we aren't endorsing the core inflation statistic. We're fans of trimmed-mean estimators and think they do an even better job of informing thinking about what the most recent price data tell us about the likely future path of inflation. (As evidence, we included in the chart above the same forecasting results for the median CPI.) We only want to make one simple point—the usefulness of a core inflation measure is best seen in the monthly and quarterly intervals that span FOMC meetings, not in the two- or three-year trends which are, by construction, largely silent about the most recent data.

By Mike Bryan, a vice president in research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, and Brent Meyer, a senior economic analyst at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland

 


June 1, 2011 in Forecasts, Inflation | Permalink

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You can't test whether core is useful this way. For example, if a central bank is targeting 2% total inflation at a 2-year horizon, and if it is doing it right, then *nothing* should forecast 2-year ahead inflation. This is an immediate implication of rational expectations on the part of the bank. Deviations of total inflation from 2% are the bank's forecast error, which should be uncorrelated with anything in the bank's information set 2 years prior.

More in my post here: http://worthwhile.typepad.com/worthwhile_canadian_initi/2011/06/no-you-cant-test-whether-core-is-useful-that-way.html

Posted by: Nick Rowe | June 02, 2011 at 07:31 AM

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