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July 21, 2014
GDP Growth: Will We Find a Higher Gear?
We are still more than a week away from receiving the advance report for U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) from April through June. Based on what we know to date, second-quarter growth will be a large improvement over the dismal performance seen during the first three months of this year. As of today, our GDPNow model is reading an annualized second-quarter growth rate at 2.7 percent. Given that the economy declined by 2.9 percent in the first quarter, the prospects for the anticipated near-3 percent growth for 2014 as a whole look pretty dim.
The first-quarter performance was dominated, of course, by unusual circumstances that we don't expect to repeat: bad weather, a large inventory adjustment, a decline in real exports, and (especially) an unexpected decline in health services expenditures. Though those factors may mean a disappointing growth performance for the year as a whole, we will likely be willing to write the first quarter off as just one of those things if we can maintain the hoped-for 3 percent pace for the balance of the year.
Do the data support a case for optimism? We have been tracking the six-month trends in four key series that we believe to be especially important for assessing the underlying momentum in the economy: consumer spending (real personal consumption expenditures, or real PCE) excluding medical services, payroll employment, manufacturing production, and real nondefense capital goods shipments excluding aircraft.
The following charts give some sense of how things are stacking up. We will save the details for those who are interested, but the idea is to place the recent performance of each series, given its average growth rate and variability since 1990, in the context of GDP growth and its variability over that same period.
What do we learn from the foregoing charts? Three out of four of these series appear to be consistent with an underlying growth rate in the range of 3 percent. Payroll employment growth, in fact, is beginning to send signals of an even stronger pace.
Unfortunately, the series that looks the weakest relates to consumer spending. If we put any stock in some pretty basic economic theory, spending by households is likely the most forward-looking of the four measures charted above. That, to us, means a cautious attitude is the still the appropriate one. Or, to quote from a higher Atlanta Fed power:
... it will likely be hard to confirm a shift to a persistent above-trend pace of GDP growth even if the second-quarter numbers look relatively good.
This experience suggests to me that we can misread the vital signs of the economy in real time. Notwithstanding the mostly positive and encouraging character of recent data, we policymakers need to be circumspect when tempted to drop the gavel and declare the case closed. In the current situation, I feel it's advisable to accrue evidence and gain perspective. It will take some time to validate an outlook that assumes above-trend growth and associated solid gains in employment and price stability.
By Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director, and
Pat Higgins, a senior economist, both in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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July 10, 2014
Introducing the Atlanta Fed's GDPNow Forecasting Model
The June 18 statement from the Federal Open Market Committee opened with this (emphasis mine):
Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in April indicates that growth in economic activity has rebounded in recent months.... Household spending appears to be rising moderately and business fixed investment resumed its advance, while the recovery in the housing sector remained slow. Fiscal policy is restraining economic growth, although the extent of restraint is diminishing.
I highlighted the business fixed investment (BFI) part of that passage because it contracted at an annual rate of 1.2 percent in the first quarter of 2014. Any substantial turnaround in growth in gross domestic product (GDP) from its dismal first-quarter pace would seem to require that BFI did in fact resume its advance through the second quarter.
We won't get an official read on BFI—or on real GDP growth and all of its other components—until July 30, when the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) releases its advance (or first) GDP estimates for the second quarter of 2014. But that doesn't mean we are completely in the dark on what is happening in real time. We have enough data in hand to make an informed statistical guess on what that July 30 number might tell us.
The BEA's data-construction machinery for estimating GDP is laid out in considerable detail in its NIPA Handbook. Roughly 70 percent of the advance GDP release is based on source data from government agencies and other data providers that are available prior to the BEA official release. This information provides the basis for what have become known as "nowcasts" of GDP and its major subcomponents—essentially, real-time forecasts of the official numbers the BEA is likely to deliver.
Many nowcast variants are available to the public: the Wall Street Journal Economic Forecasting Survey, the Philadelphia Fed Survey of Professional Forecasters, and the CNBC Rapid Update, for example. In addition, a variety of proprietary nowcasts are available to subscribers, including Aspen Publishers' Blue Chip Publications, Macroeconomic Advisers GDP Tracking, and Moody's Analytics high-frequency model.
With this macroblog post, we introduce the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's own nowcasting model, which we call GDPNow.
GDPNow will provide nowcasts of GDP and its subcomponents on a regularly updated basis. These nowcasts will be available on the pages of the Atlanta Fed's Center for Quantitative Economic Research (CQER).
A few important notes about GDPNow:
- The GDPNow model forecasts are nonjudgmental, meaning that the forecasts are taken directly from the underlying statistical model. (These are not official forecasts of either the Atlanta Fed or its president, Dennis Lockhart.)
- Because nowcasts are often based on both modeling and judgment, there is no reason to expect that GDPNow will agree with alternative forecasts. And we do not intend to present GDPNow as superior to those alternatives. Different approaches have their pluses and minuses. An advantage of our approach is that, because it is nonjudgmental, our methodology is easily replicable. But it is always wise to avoid reliance on a single model or source of information.
- GDPNow forecasts are subject to error, sometimes substantial. Internally, we've regularly produced nowcasts from the GDPNow model since introducing an earlier version of it in an October 2011 macroblog post. A real-time track record for the model nowcasts just before the BEA's advance GDP release is available on the CQER GDPNow webpage, and will be updated on a regular basis to help users make informed decisions about the use of this tool.
So, with that in hand, does it appear that BFI in fact "resumed its advance" last quarter? The table below shows the current GDPNow forecasts:
We will update the nowcast five to six times each month following the releases of certain key economic indicators listed in the frequently asked questions. Look for the next GDPNow update on July 15, with the release of the retail trade and business inventory reports.
If you want to dig deeper, the GDPNow page includes downloadable charts and tables as well as numerical details including the model's nowcasts for GDP, its subcomponents, and how the subcomponent nowcasts are built up from both the underlying source data and the model parameters. This working paper supplies the model's technical documentation. We hope economy watchers find GDPNow to be a useful addition to their information sets.
By Pat Higgins, a senior economist in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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April 28, 2014
New Data Sources: A Conversation with Google's Hal Varian
New Data Sources: A Conversation with Google's Hal Varian
In recent years, there has been an explosion of new data coming from places like Google, Facebook, and Twitter. Economists and central bankers have begun to realize that these data may provide valuable insights into the economy that inform and improve the decisions made by policy makers.
As chief economist at Google and emeritus professor at UC Berkeley, Hal Varian is uniquely qualified to discuss the issues surrounding these new data sources. Last week he was kind enough to take some time out of his schedule to answer a few questions about these data, the benefits of using them, and their limitations.
Mark Curtis: You've argued that new data sources from Google can improve our ability to "nowcast." Can you describe what this means and how the exorbitant amount of data that Google collects can be used to better understand the present?
Hal Varian: The simplest definition of "nowcasting" is "contemporaneous forecasting," though I do agree with David Hendry that this definition is probably too simple. Over the past decade or so, firms have spent billions of dollars to set up real-time data warehouses that track business metrics on a daily level. These metrics could include retail sales (like Wal-Mart and Target), package delivery (UPS and FedEx), credit card expenditure (MasterCard's SpendingPulse), employment (Intuit's small business employment index), and many other economically relevant measures. We have worked primarily with Google data, because it's what we have available, but there are lots of other sources.
Curtis: The ability to "nowcast" is also crucially important to the Fed. In his December press conference, former Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke stated that the Fed may have been slow to acknowledge the crisis in part due to deficient real-time information. Do you believe that new data sources such as Google search data might be able to improve the Fed's understanding of where the economy is and where it is going?
Varian: Yes, I think that this is definitely a possibility. The real-time data sources mentioned above are a good starting point. Google data seems to be helpful in getting real-time estimates of initial claims for unemployment benefits, housing sales, and loan modification, among other things.
Curtis: Janet Yellen stated in her first press conference as Fed Chair that the Fed should use other labor market indicators beyond the unemployment rate when measuring the health of labor markets. (The Atlanta Fed publishes a labor market spider chart incorporating a variety of indicators.) Are there particular indicators that Google produces that could be useful in this regard?
Varian: Absolutely. Queries related to job search seem to be indicative of labor market activity. Interestingly, queries having to do with killing time also seem to be correlated with unemployment measures!
Curtis: What are the downsides or potential pitfalls of using these types of new data sources?
Varian: First, the real measures—like credit card spending—are probably more indicative of actual outcomes than search data. Search is about intention, and spending is about transactions. Second, there can be feedback from news media and the like that may distort the intention measures. A headline story about a jump in unemployment can stimulate a lot of "unemployment rate" searches, so you have to be careful about how you interpret the data. Third, we've only had one recession since Google has been available, and it was pretty clearly a financially driven recession. But there are other kinds of recessions having to do with supply shocks, like energy prices, or monetary policy, as in the early 1980s. So we need to be careful about generalizing too broadly from this one example.
Curtis: Given the predominance of new data coming from Google, Twitter, and Facebook, do you think that this will limit, or even make obsolete, the role of traditional government statistical agencies such as Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the future? If not, do you believe there is the potential for collaboration between these agencies and companies such as Google?
Varian: The government statistical agencies are the gold standard for data collection. It is likely that real-time data can be helpful in providing leading indicators for the standard metrics, and supplementing them in various ways, but I think it is highly unlikely that they will replace them. I hope that the private and public sector can work together in fruitful ways to exploit new sources of real-time data in ways that are mutually beneficial.
Curtis: A few years ago, former Fed Chairman Bernanke challenged researchers when he said, "Do we need new measures of expectations or new surveys? Information on the price expectations of businesses—who are, after all, the price setters in the first instance—as well as information on nominal wage expectations is particularly scarce." Do data from Google have the potential to fill this need?
Varian: We have a new product called Google Consumer Surveys that can be used to survey a broad audience of consumers. We don't have ways to go after specific audiences such as business managers or workers looking for jobs. But I wouldn't rule that out in the future.
Curtis: MIT recently introduced a big-data measure of inflation called the Billion Prices Project. Can you see a big future in big data as a measure of inflation?
Varian: Yes, I think so. I know there are also projects looking at supermarket scanner data and the like. One difficulty with online data is that it leaves out gasoline, electricity, housing, large consumer durables, and other categories of consumption. On the other hand, it is quite good for discretionary consumer spending. So I think that online price surveys will enable inexpensive ways to gather certain sorts of price data, but it certainly won't replace existing methods.
By Mark Curtis, a visiting scholar in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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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 rate—which 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.
By Pat Higgins, senior economist, and
Brent Meyer, research economist, both of the Atlanta Fed's research department
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August 30, 2013
Still Waiting for Takeoff...
On Thursday, we got a revised look at the economy’s growth rate in the second quarter. While the 2.5 percent annualized rate was a significant upward revision from the preliminary estimate, it comes off a mere 1.1 percent growth rate in the first quarter. That combines for a subpar first-half growth rate of 1.8 percent. OK, it’s growth, but not as strong as one would expect for a U.S. expansion and clearly a disappointment to the many forecasters who had once (again) expected this to be the year the U.S. economy shakes itself out of the doldrums.
Now, we’re not blind optimists when it comes to the record of economic forecasts. We know well that the evidence says you shouldn’t get overly confident in your favorite economists’ prediction. Most visions of the economy’s future have proven to be blurry at best.
Still, we at the Atlanta Fed want to know how to best interpret this upward revision to the second-quarter growth estimate and how it affects our president’s baseline forecast “for a pickup in real GDP growth over the balance of 2013, with a further step-up in economic activity as we move into 2014.”
What we can say about the report is that the revised second-quarter growth estimate is a decided improvement from the first quarter and a modest bump up from the recent four-quarter growth trend (1.6 percent). And there are some positive indicators within the GDP components. For example, real exports posted a strong turnaround last quarter, presumably benefiting from Europe’s emerging from its recession. And the negative influence of government spending cuts, while still evident in the data, was much smaller than during the previous two quarters. Oh, and business investment spending improved between the first and second quarters.
All good, but these data simply give us a better fix on where we were in the second quarter, not necessarily a good signal of where we are headed. To that we turn to our “nowcast” estimate for the third quarter based on the incoming monthly data (the evolution of which is shown in the table below).
A "nowcasting" exercise generates quarterly GDP estimates in real time. The technical details of this exercise are described here, but the idea is fairly simple. We use incoming data on 100-plus economic series to forecast 12 components of GDP for the current quarter. We then aggregate those forecasts of GDP components to get a current-quarter estimate of overall GDP growth.
We caution that unlike others, our nowcast involves no interpretation whatsoever of these data. In what is purely a statistical exercise, we let the data do all the speaking for themselves.
Given the first data point of July—the July jobs report—the nowcast for the third quarter was pretty bleak (1.1 percent). Things improved a few days later with the release of strong international trade data for June, and stepped up further with the June wholesale trade report. But the remainder of the recent data point to a third-quarter growth rate that is very close to the lackluster performance of the first half.
In his speech a few weeks ago, President Dennis Lockhart indicated what he was looking for as drivers for stronger growth in the second half of this year.
“I expect consumer activity to strengthen.”
Today’s read on real personal consumption expenditures (PCE) probably isn’t bolstering confidence in that view. Real PCE was virtually flat in July, undermining private forecasters’ expectation of a moderate gain. Our nowcast for real GDP slipped down 0.5 percentage points to 1.4 percent on the basis of this data, and pegged consumer spending at 1.7 percent for Q3—in line with Q2’s 1.8 percent gain.
“I expect business investment to accelerate somewhat.”
The July data were pretty disappointing on this score. The durable-goods numbers released a few days ago were quite weak, causing our nowcast, and those of the others we follow, to revise down the third-quarter growth estimate.
“I expect the rebound we have seen in the housing sector to continue.”
Check. Our nowcast wasn’t affected much by the housing starts data, but the existing sales numbers produced a positive boost to the estimate. Our nowcast’s estimate of residential investment growth in the third quarter is well under what we saw in the second quarter. But at 5.3 percent, the rebound looks to be continuing.
“I expect the recent improvement in exports to last.”
Unfortunately, the July trade numbers don’t get reported until next week. So we’re going to mark this one as missing in action. But as we said earlier, that June trade number was strong enough to cause our third-quarter nowcast to be revised up a bit.
“And I expect to see an easing of the public-sector spending drag at the federal, state, and local levels.”
Again, check. The July Treasury data indicated growth in government spending overall.
So the July data are a mixed bag: some positives, some disappointments, and some missing-in-actions. But if President Lockhart were to ask us (and something tells us he just might), we’re likely to say that on the basis of the July indicators, the “pickup in real GDP growth over the balance of 2013” isn’t yet very evident in the data.
This news isn’t likely to come as a big surprise to him. Again, here’s what he said publicly two weeks ago:
When I weigh the balance of risks around the medium-term outlook I laid out, I have some concerns about the potential for ambiguous or disappointing data. I also think that it is important to be realistic about the degree to which we are likely to have clarity in the near term about the direction of the economy. Both the quantity of information and the strength of the signal conveyed by the data will likely be limited. As of September, the FOMC will have in hand one more employment report, two reports on inflation, a revision to the second-quarter GDP data, and preliminary incoming signals about growth in the third quarter. I don't expect to have enough data to be sure of my outlook.
It’s still a little early to say with any confidence we won’t eventually see a pickup this quarter, and we can hope that the incoming August numbers show a more marked improvement. All we can say at this point is that after seeing most of the July data, it still feels like we’re stuck on the tarmac.
By Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist,
Patrick Higgins, senior economist, and
Brent Meyer, economist, all in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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July 05, 2013
A Quick Independence Day Weekend, Post-Employment Report Update
From what I gather, a lot of people took notice of this statement, from Chairman Bernanke’s June 19 press conference:
If the incoming data are broadly consistent with this forecast, the Committee currently anticipates that it would be appropriate to moderate the monthly pace of purchases later this year. And if the subsequent data remain broadly aligned with our current expectations for the economy, we would continue to reduce the pace of purchases in measured steps through the first half of next year, ending purchases around midyear. In this scenario, when asset purchases ultimately come to an end, the unemployment rate would likely be in the vicinity of 7 percent, with solid economic growth supporting further job gains, a substantial improvement from the 8.1 percent unemployment rate that prevailed when the Committee announced this program.
That 7 percent assessment to which the Chairman was referring comes, of course, from the outlook summarized in the Summary of Economic Projections, published following the June 18–19 meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee.
Here are the unemployment forecasts specifically:
The highlighted numbers represent the “central tendency” projections for the average fourth quarter unemployment rate in 2013, 2014, and 2015 (in blue) and the “longer run” (in green). Naturally enough, getting to a 6.5 percent to 6.8 percent unemployment rate in the fourth quarter of 2014 is pretty likely to imply the unemployment rate crossing 7 percent sometime around roughly the middle of next year.
So, how do things look after the June employment report? As is our wont, we turn to our Jobs Calculator to answer such questions, and come up with the following. If the U.S. economy creates 191,000 jobs per month (the average for the past 12 months), and the labor force participation rate stays at 63.5 percent (its June level), and all the other important assumptions (such as the ratio of establishment survey to household survey employment) remain the same, then the economy’s schedule looks like this:
Note also the implication of this statement...
[T]he Committee decided to keep the target range for the federal funds rate at 0 to 1/4 percent and currently anticipates that this exceptionally low range for the federal funds rate will be appropriate at least as long as the unemployment rate remains above 6-1/2 percent , inflation between one and two years ahead is projected to be no more than a half percentage point above the Committee's 2 percent longer-run goal, and longer-term inflation expectations continue to be well anchored.
...which certainly aids in understanding this information, from the last Summary of Economic Projections:
I will leave it to the principals to articulate whether today’s report materially changes anything contained in last month’s projections. In the meantime, enjoy your weekend.
By Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director of the Atlanta Fed
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February 22, 2013
Nature Abhors an Output Gap
In The Washington Post, Neil Irwin highlights a shortcoming that I know all too well:
Throughout the halting economic recovery that began in 2009, the formal economic projections released by the Congressional Budget Office, White House Council of Economic Advisers, and Federal Reserve have displayed quite a consistent pattern: This year may be one of sluggish growth, they acknowledge. But stronger growth, of perhaps 3.5 percent, is just around the corner, and will arrive next year.
Consider, for example, the Fed's projections in November of 2009. Sure, growth would be slow in 2010, they held. But 2011 growth, they expected, would be 3.4 to 4.5 percent, and 2012 would 3.5 to 4.8 percent growth. The actual levels of growth were 2 percent in 2011 and 1.5 percent in 2012.
What's amazing is that the Fed's newest projections, released in December of 2012, look like they could have been copy and pasted from 2009, just with the years changed: They forecast sluggish growth in 2013, 2.3 to 3 percent, followed by a pickup to 3 to 3.5 percent in 2014 and 3 to 3.7 percent in 2015.
I, for one, am guilty as charged, and feel pretty fortunate that the offense is not a hanging one. In fact I don't think Irwin's indictment is overly harsh, and he is on the right track when he offers up this explanation for the last several years' persistently overly rosy projections:
Economic forecasters tend to look at past experience and extrapolate; in the past, when there has been a recession, the very forces that caused the recession become unwound, sowing the seeds for expansion...
Here is a basic fact about macroeconomic forecasting. The truly powerful driver of forecasts is mean reversion, which is the tendency of models to predict that gross domestic product (GDP) will move toward an average trend over time. This fact holds true whether we are talking about formal statistical analysis or the intuitive judgmental adjustments that all forecasters apply to their formal statistical models.
Forecasters are not completely robotic, of course. Irwin is correct when he says "forecasters tend to look at past experience and extrapolate, but forecasters do leaven past experience with incoming details that alter judgments about what is the mean—the "normal state," if you will—to which the economy will converge. But whatever is that normal state, our models insist that we will converge to it.
Nothing illustrates this property of forecasting reality better than this chart, which supplements the latest economic projections from the Congressional Budget Office:
The potential GDP line in that chart is the level of production that represents the structural path of the economy. Forecasters, no matter where they think that potential GDP line might be, all believe actual GDP will eventually move back to it. "Output gaps"—the shaded area representing the cumulative miss of actual GDP relative to its potential—simply won't last forever. And if that means GDP growth has to accelerate in the future (as it does when GDP today is below its potential)—well, that's just the way it is.
Unfortunately, potential GDP is not so simple to divine. We have to guess (or, more generously, estimate) what it is. That guessing game has been harder than usual over the past several years. Here is the record of the CBO's potential GDP since 2009:
I think this picture is a fairly representative record of how views about the potential level of U.S. GDP has evolved over the past several years. What has not been resolved is the debate over what conclusions should be drawn from persistent overestimates of potential and serial misses to the high side on GDP projections.
Irwin seems to be of two minds. On the one hand he offers very structural-sounding reasons for poor forecasting experience:
... the financial-crisis-induced recession of 2008–2009 was so deep that it had deep-seated effects that go beyond those explained by those traditional relationships. It messed up the workings of the financial system, and banks are still trying to figure out what the new one looks like.
On the other hand, he makes appeals to very traditional explanations tied to deficient spending and insufficient policy stimulus (though even here structural change may be one reason that stimulus has been insufficient):
Breakdowns in the financial system mean that low-interest rate policies from the Fed don't have their usual punch. An overhang of household debt means that consumers hold their wallets more than usual. Federal fiscal stimulus to offset those effects is now long-over...
This much, in any event, is clear: Given any starting point where the level of GDP is below its potential level—that is, given an output gap—forecasts will include a bounce back in GDP growth above its long-run average, at least for a while. That's just the way it works.
If, contrary to conventional wisdom, you believe that the true output gaps are much smaller than suggested in the CBO picture above, you might want to take the under on a bet to whether GDP forecasts will prove too optimistic once again.
By Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director of the Atlanta Fed
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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.
By Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed
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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.
By Dave Altig, senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed
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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.
By Dave Altig, senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed
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