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July 18, 2016
Lockhart Casts a Line into the Murky Waters of Uncertainty
Is uncertainty weighing down business investment? This recent article makes the case.
Uncertainty as an obstacle to business decision making and perhaps even a "propagation mechanism" for business cycles is an idea that that has been generating a lot of support in economic research in recent years. Our friend Nick Bloom has a nice summary of that work here.
Last week, the boss here at the Atlanta Fed gave the trout in the Snake River a break and made some observations on the economy to the Rocky Mountain Economic Summit, casting a line in the direction of economic uncertainties. Among his remarks, he noted that:
The minutes of the June FOMC [Federal Open Market Committee] meeting clearly pointed to uncertainty about employment momentum and the outcome of the vote in Britain as factors in the Committee's decision to keep policy unchanged. I supported that decision and gave weight to those two uncertainties in my thinking.
At the same time, I viewed both the implications of the June jobs report and the outcome of the Brexit vote as uncertainties with some resolution over a short time horizon. We've seen, now, that the vote outcome may be followed by a long tail of uncertainty of quite a different character.
But he followed that with something of a caution…
If uncertainty is a real causative factor in economic slowdowns, it needs to be better understood. Policymaking would be aided by better measurement tools. For example, it would help me as a policymaker if we had a firmer grip on the various channels through which uncertainty affects decision-making of economic actors.
I have been thinking about the different kinds of uncertainty we face. Often we policymakers grapple with uncertainty associated with discrete events. The passage of the event to a great extent resolves the uncertainty. The outcome of the Brexit referendum would be known by June 24. The interpretation of the May employment report would come clear, or clearer, with the arrival of the June employment report on July 8. I would contrast these examples of short-term, self-resolving uncertainty with long-term, persistent, chronic uncertainty such as that brought on by the Brexit referendum outcome.
As President Lockhart indicated in his speech, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta conducts business surveys that attempt to measure the uncertainties that businesses face. From July 4 through July 8, we had a survey in the field with a question on how the Brexit referendum was influencing business decisions.
We asked firms to indicate how the outcome of the Brexit vote affected their sales growth outlook. Respondents could select a range of sentiments from "much more certain" to "much more uncertain."
Responses came from 244 firms representing a broad range of sectors and firm sizes, with roughly one-third indicating their sales growth outlook was "somewhat" or "much" more uncertain as a result of the vote (see the chart). Those noting heightened uncertainty were not concentrated in any one sector or firm-size category but represented a rather diverse group.
As President Lockhart noted in his speech, "[w]e had a spirited internal discussion of whether one-third is a big number or not-so-big." Ultimately, we decided that uncovering how these firms planned to act in light of their elevated uncertainty was the important focus.
In an open-ended, follow-up question, we then asked those whose sales growth outlook was more uncertain how their plans might change. We found that the most prevalent changes in planning were a reduction in capital spending and hiring. Many firms mentioned these two topics in tandem, as this rather succinct quote illustrates: "Slower hiring and lower capital spending." Our survey data, then, provide some support for the idea that uncertainties associated with Brexit were, in fact, weighing on firm investment and labor decisions.
Elevated measures of financial market and economic policy uncertainty immediately after the Brexit vote have abated somewhat over subsequent days. Once the "waters clear," as our boss would say, perhaps this will be the case for firms as well.
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