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The Case for a Rate Hike on Wednesday

ResponsiblyIrresponsible
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6/13/2016 10:30:00 PM
Posted: 5 months ago
The Fed is highly unlikely to increase the fed funds target range this coming Wednesday to 1/2 to 3/4 percent from its current range of 1/4 to 1/2 percent. Financial markets are pricing in roughly a 2 percent probabilitly, down from close to a 50 percent probability several weeks ago after some relatively hawkish comments from Fed officials and a hawkish, on balance, tone of the post-meeting minutes of the April meeting -- in those minutes, they laid out three criteria for further increases in the fed funds rate:

"Most participants judged that if incoming data were consistent with economic growth picking up in the second quarter, labor market conditions continuing to strengthen, and inflation making progress toward the Committee"s 2 percent objective, then it likely would be appropriate for the Committee to increase the target range for the federal funds rate in June." [https://www.federalreserve.gov...]

This sounds pretty straightforward: continued improvement on the labor market side, which is generally believed to constitute progress on the ex-post inflation side -- though diminished global risks, descent of the exchange rate value of the dollar, and rebounding oil prices likewise are bullish elements, coupled with continued positive Q2 data to confirm the belief of many on the committee that the last two quarters were an aberration.

For context, the second estimate for Q1 RGDP boasted growth of only 0.8 percent. That might sound grim but the fact that (1) we historically have a terrible track record at measuring Q1 RGDP data because of what's called "residual seasonality" (i.e., the failure to properly seasonally adjust); (2) job growth in excess of 200k on average for the first quarter is far above trend and NOT consistent with a material slowdown in RGDP, as even the most pessimistic estimates of trend RGDP growth are now too far below 2 percent; and (3) all the other data -- consumer sentiment, retail and auto sales, jobless claims, financial market stress, housing, and even the inflation numbers -- tell a much rosier story.

Indeed, even after the disaster that was the May jobs report, where only 38k jobs were added (mind you, about 35k can be explained by the Verizon strike, which has since been resolved, and thus those numbers added to the June payrolls), the Atlanta Fed's GDPNOW (real-time GDP forecasts) was unchanged at 2.5 percent (where it remains as of this writing) -- which is materially above trend, consistent with that particular criterion in the Fed's Minutes, and that's consistent with above-trend (i.e., above 100k or so) employment growth, which should generate meaningful progress on the inflation front -- especially with oil rebounding and the core number already making progress, currently sitting at 1.6 percent.

As for the issue of "lingering slack": I'm sorry to say -- and I truly am sorry to have to say this -- there isn't much of it. In some sense, that's a good thing: we're pretty much at full employment! In another sense, it sucks -- because long-term unemployment is still far higher than it's been historically and labor force participation remains depressed relative to pre-recession levels, though more likely than not in line with its long-run trend. Indeed, it was stuck in a range of roughly 62.6 to 62.9 as of last year, and as of two months ago, was a reasonably solid 63. Granted, that sounded like noise, and it might have been, but coupled with -- at the time -- strongly above-trend employment growth, rebounding inflation, still-strong wage growth (average series is up 2.5 on the year over the past several months, Atlanta Fed's median tracker for continuously employed workers is up 3.5 on the year, business-sector compensation is up 3 percent, but the ECI has been lagging somewhat), and robust Q2 GDP forecasts, barring the Q1 aberration, told a really nice story: overshooting the natural rate of unemployment should draw some of these workers back in, consistent with NAIRU forecasts in the 4's and trend growth around 2 percent.

But this last month completely shatters this story. 38k could mean a lot of things: it could mean productivity is actually a lot higher than we think -- i.e., we're mismeasuring it -- and thus, to actually cover existing demand, there isn't much of a need for hiring more workers (this is to say that, with higher productivity, slack declines at a much slower pace; with lower productivity, at a much faster pace). It could also mean that we're pretty much AT the natural rate of unemployment, and workers who were qualified for jobs are now employed -- i.e., the reason employment isn't growing by much is because there is a shortage of suitable workers and/or inefficiencies in the matching process. Of course, that story would make far more sense if we were closer to the trend line, but accounting for the Verizon numbers, we're at 73k. Estimates for the trend line center around 100k, but you could probably construct a confidence interval of about 75k to 125k -- in other words, we're bouncing up and down along the trend line, and can discard a relatively minor miss, ESPECIALLY since payroll employment is measured with error and there are often fairly significant revisions.

To make a long story short, most of the "lingering" slack isn't actually slack. The decline in the LFPR is explained by demographics (about half of the decline itself is baby boomers retiring), increasing returns to education, early retirement, hysteresis, crowding out of jobs for the least skilled, etc. More likely than not, the persistence in the LFPR is a function of approaching its long-run trend line.

But here's the real story: The real problem isn't demand-side at all. It's supply-side -- and, specifically, long-run supply side. Productivity sucks, labor force growth is horrid, baby boomers are retiring, the Great Recession dealt a significant blow to the economy's long-run potential, and so on. These aren't within the purview of monetary policy, especially if there isn't actually a pool of workers sitting on the sidelines that could be drawn in via easier money and stronger wage growth: that was my argument about a year ago -- run the economy somewhat hot and see if we can draw discouraged workers back in. After yet another year of stagnant LFPR numbers and declining forecasts of long-run equilibrium rates and trend real GDP growth, I'm willing to concede defeat on this point.

It's also incredibly hard to actually move much on the fed funds rate when the rest of the world is in easing mode -- though much of the recent calmness in financial markets, I will readily admit, is precisely because the Fed HAS NOT moved on rates, nor have they talked about moving on rates until more recently (i.e., before the jobs report but after the release of the May Minutes for the most part).

Therefore, the three criteria -- further progress in labor markets, on the inflation front, and in second quarter data -- have all been met. Not raising in June would have credibility implication, and may very well explain the rather bewildering expectation dynamics whereby financial markets persistently project a shallower path for the fed funds rate than the Fed itself. If this reflected perceptions of risk, differences in forecasts (i.e., TIPS breakevens are still low, but might reflect measurement issues) or in their perceived model of the economy, or just measurement issues, the Fed needn't worry much -- but my hunch is that it reflects flaws in the Fed's communication: i.e., they say they'll do something, i.e., raise rates, and then flip without sufficient justification for flipping.

I haven't been one to jump aboard the "slow and gradual" train. I called it "reasoning from a price change." I was right then and remain right to this day. But being right is far less important than (the Fed) being credible.

Therefore, the Fed must now raise rates on Wednesday.
~ResponsiblyIrresponsible

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Tedder
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6/14/2016 1:45:25 AM
Posted: 5 months ago
@OP

You argue for a 25 basis point rate increase to ensure the Fed keeps credible, but make the case against in your very first paragraph. Markets -- with knowledge of the Fed's April minutes, dismal May jobs report, etc. -- expect the rate to keep unchanged (your 2% statistic). Or, in other words, to hike rates and thereby surprise 98% of the market now would do more damage to credibility than not.

Moreover -- and, in my opinion, more importantly -- I find your motivations behind a rate hike to be misguided. The dual mandate tells the Fed to keep prices in check and maintain full employment. Inflation is certainly a non-issue while it's still below ~1%, and to say we've reached full employment is an insult to a generation that's underemployed, making insufficient wages, and still struggling -- month to month -- to get by. The starting point for a decision about rate increases should be the welfare of those persons, not a credibility concern (that 98% of the market expects anyway).

We always have the option to raise rates. We are in no hurry. The risk of raising them too quickly far outweighs any "credibility" benefit we "must" have. Let's wait until the right time and avoid another dip.
ResponsiblyIrresponsible
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6/14/2016 2:50:02 AM
Posted: 5 months ago
At 6/14/2016 1:45:25 AM, Tedder wrote:
@OP

Hey, for starters, welcome to DDO! It's always great to find people who are interested in economics -- monetary policy in particular -- and you've raised some excellent arguments that are admittedly hard to defeat, but I'll try. This response will probably be fairly lengthy, so my apologies if I go on to a second post.

You argue for a 25 basis point rate increase to ensure the Fed keeps credible, but make the case against in your very first paragraph. Markets -- with knowledge of the Fed's April minutes, dismal May jobs report, etc. -- expect the rate to keep unchanged (your 2% statistic). Or, in other words, to hike rates and thereby surprise 98% of the market now would do more damage to credibility than not.

There are two responses I'd make to this:

(a) I think that shift in market expectations from one lackluster jobs report, when all of the other data I highlighted suggests that the economy is ripe for a second rate hike, already suggests a weakening in credibility. If financial markets took the line I highlighted from the minutes seriously, the probability of a June hike would not have cratered to the extent that it did.

Consider the policy reaction the Fed wants to communicate, for instance. In an ideal world, financial markets would generally place the same weight on incoming data releases as the Fed does -- i.e., if the Fed were regularly tabulating the probability of moving at the next meeting (obviously it doesn't do this, so we face some measurement issues when comparing Fed forecasts to market forecasts), it should fluctuate commensurate with movements in the market-implied probability. Yellen has stressed, rightfully so, that we shouldn't focus excessively on one jobs report, especially when all the other data is overwhelmingly positive, global and financial risks (which prevented a Q1 hike, i.e., the central force holding BACK a rate hike) have receded, and forecasts haven't much moved since that report. Yellen even hinted in her last speech that her forecast hasn't moved much: there might be more risk behind there forecast than there was several weeks ago, but if the modal forecast hasn't much changed, delaying a rate hike indefinitely -- in reality, to September since the idea of moving at a non-press conference is very unlikely -- creates a series of problems, especially if they want the "optionality" to move three times this year and, to that end, want to move sooner in the year, gauge the effects on financial markets and the real economy, and decide whether it's appropriate to proceed forward.

Not moving because of one jobs report sends a misleading signal to financial markets that will complicate signaling of future decisions, notwithstanding the fact that jobs reports unquestionably carry more weight than most other data points.

(2) This falls into the "circularity' problem delineated in research by Bernanke and Woodford in the late 90s. Let's say the market-implied reaction function has three variables -- forecasts of goal variables based on incoming data, expectations of the Fed's reaction function (including perceptions of "discretion" or the residual in the Fed reaction function equation), and risks to those forecasts. In other words, changes in the market-implied probability are due to either of these three variables. Forecasts probably haven't changed much unless models financial market participants use are materially different from the Fed's, which is incredibly unlikely. There might be some additional risk, but the Verizon strike and myriad other positive data (including, for instance, rising oil prices and calm financial markets) probably more than offset it. I'd say -- and this might be the heart of our disagreement, but we can't really confirm this without physically estimating these equations -- the markets shifted their expectations because of the perception that the Fed would overreact to this one release (i.e., the perception that the Fed places considerable weight on jobs report).

In other words, the reason financial markets don't expect a rate hike is because they think the Fed would never actually go through with it, be it for PR reasons or otherwise, after a weak jobs report. That's a potentially dangerous precedent, and moving in spite of that is actually beneficial -- why? Because it leads to better expectation dynamics in the future and allows the Fed to be truly data dependent because, as you mention, the goal of monetary policy is maximum employment and stable inflation: it's not to pander to financial markets. The real credibility concern is not in directly following the guidance they provided in their last minutes and affirmed in subsequent speeches, but in completely ignoring it in favor of one data point that is almost surely an outlier.

There's also a recent argument raised in research by Jeremy Stein and Adi Sunderam. Their argument is that if the Fed suggests that it is excessively concerned about financial volatility and thus conducts policy in an "inertial" way -- i.e., not moving when markets don't expect it -- any actual change in the fed funds rate will magnify the change in long-term interest rates because the actual change in policy is perceived as a fraction of the change the Fed actually wanted to make and judged appropriate based on the data. In other words, policy becomes more restrictive than the Fed would like following a rate hike, and thus the "benefits" associated with not moving (because the path is ultimately more important than any particular rate increase) dissipate.

Moreover -- and, in my opinion, more importantly -- I find your motivations behind a rate hike to be misguided. The dual mandate tells the Fed to keep prices in check and maintain full employment. Inflation is certainly a non-issue while it's still below ~1%, and to say we've reached full employment is an insult to a generation that's underemployed, making insufficient wages, and still struggling -- month to month -- to get by.

A few responses here.

First, inflation isn't below 1 percent. Even the most recent reading on the headline number is slightly above 1 (https://research.stlouisfed.org...), but even then that isn't the index to go by -- especially when we consider the so-called "base effect" of the year-over-year numbers, the fact that only recently rebounded (and thus isn't factored into these numbers, though if we remove oil from the equation, we're at or above 2), and oil is on balance a bullish factor for the US economy (i.e., nominal GDP growth is far more important than inflation, especially when the factors restraining inflation -- oil and the dollar -- are likely transitory, and have already begun to wane).

Second, I'd rely on smoothed measures of inflation over the headline number because these are factor better predictors of future inflation and reflect, generally, only monetary factors than more transitory supply shocks (e.g., oil). The core number is about 1.6 percent, trimmed mean (perhaps the best forecast of future headline inflation and it's less correlated with oil prices than core (via passthrough)) is about 1.8 percent (http://www.dallasfed.org...) and has been solid for a pretty long time, the median CPI grew a whopping 2.5% (again, it's been there for a while -- since October if I recall correctly) and trimmed mean CPI is at 2 percent (https://www.clevelandfed.org...). I have far more faith in these numbers than in the headline, which is more likely than not noise.

More to come in a moment.
~ResponsiblyIrresponsible

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ResponsiblyIrresponsible
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6/14/2016 3:13:39 AM
Posted: 5 months ago
At 6/14/2016 1:45:25 AM, Tedder wrote:

Response #2, following from the above:

The dual mandate tells the Fed to keep prices in check and maintain full employment. Inflation is certainly a non-issue while it's still below ~1%, and to say we've reached full employment is an insult to a generation that's underemployed, making insufficient wages, and still struggling -- month to month -- to get by.

So, by those smoothed measures I mentioned in my last post), we're either at, above, or only somewhat below target, and because there are 1-to-2 year lags associated with monetary policy, it would make sense to make a second move, especially if the intention is to move sooner but at a more gradual pace (which isn't possibly if they delay hikes until after the headline number is above 2) -- and even there, there are obviously credibility concerns if they renege on their "sooner and more gradual" approach. There's also research from the Dallas Fed suggesting that the Phillips curve, which a lot of Fed officials discount, is nonlinear and convex (https://www.dallasfed.org...), i.e., the missing disinflation from the post-recession years need not mean that a recovering labor market approaching full employment won't lead to rapid wage acceleration, as the measures of wage growth -- particularly the median wage tracker that adjusts for people who change jobs and for the likelihood of labor market "polarization" that would skew the average figure -- suggests.

Your other point, with due respect, seems like a rather silly emotional appeal. I'm not trying to insult anyone, especially not a generation whose college graduates have an unemployment rate of 2.4 percent. Indeed there are people, particularly in African American and Hispanic communities, who haven't shared in the fruits of the recovery to the same extent as the majority of people. But, as Yellen remarked in her speech, these inequities are largely outside the purview of monetary policy, and the solution might be fiscal policy devoted to combating distributional inequities, which might take the form of financing education and jobs-training programs.

As for wages, I have a few responses to that: (a) Which measure? The measures I cited show fairly robust wage growth; (b) wages are known to be a lagging indicator, and considering that we're just not closing in on unemployment and likely are dealing with what Daly and Hobijn call "pent up wage deflation," it's likely that further increases in the average figure will emerge in the next few months -- if not, we can adjust the rate path accordingly; and (c) The primary reason that wage growth will be tepid even in the future is lackluster gains in productivity, which again is outside the purview of monetary policy.

I'm not trying to say that this generation is doing wonderfully -- below 2 percent trend growth is a disaster, but I don't believe that monetary policy is the proper lever to ameliorate that. My assessment that we're at or near full employment is not only shared by a large number of members of the Fed, including Yellen herself (though she probably thinks there's more slack than I do), but by virtually all of the research on the labor force participation rate finding that the overwhelming majority is due to demographics and structural forces that the Fed has nothing to do with. Even looking at the vacancies-to-hires number (i.e., a record number of vacancies) and labor-market churn (a measure of labor market sentiment I didn't mention in my OP) suggests a skills mismatch is play, evident in the famous Beveridge curve.

The starting point for a decision about rate increases should be the welfare of those persons, not a credibility concern (that 98% of the market expects anyway).

I don't think the two of them are really that at odds. A credible central bank that acts in the best long-term interest of the public is central to societal welfare, especially when most Fed officials estimate that we're more likely in the future to hit the zero lower bound per a given shock, in which case strong forms of forward guidance become the central signaling mechanism of monetary policy. If the central bank loses credibility, it's much harder to actually make adjustments to policy in the future when they're actually necessary -- as a result, financial markets will never "do the heavy lifting for the Fed" (as Mike Woodford's 2005 paper finds to be optimal), and rate increases will always take the public by surprise. Amid the first tightening cycle in a decade, and possibly the most important one since we're climbing back from zero, I think credibility is more important than ever -- and it isn't even as though the data tell a completely different story such that they're at odds with the story the Fed's been telling about the economy.

We always have the option to raise rates. We are in no hurry. The risk of raising them too quickly far outweighs any "credibility" benefit we "must" have. Let's wait until the right time and avoid another dip.

I don't think they outweigh the credibility benefit at all, though I do agree that the risk of raising too fast outweighs the risk of raising too slowly. That's why I'm not advocating a steep pace of rate increases, but rather one that matches the Fed's criteria of "sooner and more gradual." I'm not even suggesting that the Fed move X times this year: in fact, I'd prefer that they move AWAY from time-based guidance, which the line I cited from the May minutes effectively constitutes by mentioning June explicitly, much like the October statement from last year did ahead of the December liftoff. What I am saying, though, is that making promises and following through on those promises is important -- and perhaps other criteria ought to be applied to future rate increases other than the three the Fed outlined: that's perfectly fine, but without the Fed communicating a clear and transparent policy reaction function, it can't even respond to the adverse shocks that you suggest make raising too early so concerning -- i.e., the plan is throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

The thing is, they communicated a policy reaction function in the minutes and those three criteria have been met. Another rate hike is not the end of the world, especially if financial markets believe that the path will be gradual -- and the relative flattening on the long end of the yield curve suggests that they do indeed perceive this to be the case (and that they perceive, if you look at implied forward real interest rates, that the equilibrium real interest rate in the long run is lower than the Fed's projection, which applies via the Williams and Laubach model much slower trend growth). If the risks you're highlighting were to materialize, that isn't a problem: we can merely adjust the future path of policy accordingly as part and parcel of a data-dependent reaction function. But for that reaction function to be effective, financial markets must perceive the Fed as data dependent, which is why it can't blindly disregard commitments such as the one in its May post-meeting minutes.
~ResponsiblyIrresponsible

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ResponsiblyIrresponsible
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6/14/2016 3:17:56 AM
Posted: 5 months ago
At 6/14/2016 3:13:39 AM, ResponsiblyIrresponsible wrote:

*just now closing in on the natural rate

My apologies.
~ResponsiblyIrresponsible

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ResponsiblyIrresponsible
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6/14/2016 6:31:01 AM
Posted: 5 months ago
Sources for responses above:

Yellen's speech: http://www.federalreserve.gov...
Bernanke and Woodford (1997): http://papers.ssrn.com...
Stein and Sunderam (2015): http://www.people.hbs.edu...
Kumar and Orrenius (2015): https://www.dallasfed.org...
Aaronson et al. (2014): https://www.federalreserve.gov...
Balakrishnan et al. (2015): https://www.imf.org...
Cooper and Luengo-Prado (2014): https://www.bostonfed.org...
Woodford (2005): http://www.columbia.edu...
Laubach and Williams (2015): http://www.frbsf.org...
Atlanta Fed Wage Tracker: https://www.frbatlanta.org...
Trimmed Mean PCE: http://www.dallasfed.org...
Median CPI and Trimmed Mean CPI: https://www.clevelandfed.org...
Unemployment rate for college graduates with bachelors degrees: https://research.stlouisfed.org...
Headline PCE: https://research.stlouisfed.org...
Core PCE: https://research.stlouisfed.org...
Job openings: https://research.stlouisfed.org...
Business sector compensation per hour: https://research.stlouisfed.org...
~ResponsiblyIrresponsible

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ResponsiblyIrresponsible
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6/14/2016 8:55:32 PM
Posted: 5 months ago
RGDP forecast for second quarter rises to 2.8 percent from 2.5 percent after a strong retail sales report:

https://www.frbatlanta.org...
~ResponsiblyIrresponsible

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ResponsiblyIrresponsible
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6/15/2016 5:56:56 PM
Posted: 5 months ago
Unfortunately, Tedder doesn't seem to be returning: it's interesting that he created his account with, seemingly, the sole purpose of responding to my thread and -- without basis in fact or logic -- calling my views "misguided." I guess he won't be responding to the extensive and well-sourced posts I put together even when I went through the trouble to pull up the links for him -- yes, the initial post was from memory. Oh well.

With that said, let's dig a bit deeper into some of his comments because I think his position -- the markets don't expect it, so we can't do it -- is incredibly common among people who more likely than not don't know what they're talking about, especially when the Fed has made no mystery of the fact that the dual mandate supersedes in every case circumventing financial volatility, though there may be a balancing act insofar as that volatility inhibits them from achieving their dual mandate.

But there's a big difference between financial volatility and prolonged market turbulence. The biggest mistake in Tedder's post is in attributing the "dip" in stock prices earlier this year to the December liftoff: this is far from the case. Stock prices ROSE on the day of the December Fed meeting; the dollar was essentially unchanged, as well. That can only happen if the rate increase was priced in, and we know for a fact that it was because the fed funds futures implied probability was in excess of 70 percent in the lead-up. This is classic EMH (efficient markets hypothesis): asset prices only move in response to surprises, but today's prices incorporate all known information as of today.

A few days after the meeting and, surely, in the beginning of 2016, financial markets GLOBALLY were in a state of tumult. Was this because of the rate hike? Doubtful: it was already priced into global markets, and we saw no such tumult in the lead-up to the meeting -- this is to say following the October 2015 meeting, which was the starting point in the shift in market expectations, and the October jobs report, which likewise dispelled myths of a "labor market deceleration" (and the same will more likely than not be the case for this recent jobs report), we saw share prices adjust downward, credit spreads widen somewhat (which is a problem, btw, because of EME dollar-denominated debt, but that's another issue: that's a much more interesting argument against a rate hike), etc., but we saw no similar, prolonged financial turbulence. But we did see turbulence in late August of last year -- we also saw the 10-year Treasury dip and fed funds futures shift their expectations of a rate hike BACKWARD; this isn't to say that they discounted the move entirely because they reacted favorably (shares up, expected rate path down) to comments by Bill Dudley the next week saying that a September hike was "unlikely." But it is impossible to actually look at that data which is entirely inconsistent with an expectation of imminent liftoff and attribute that to... expectations of liftoff.

So, what was the cause in both cases? Weak global demand, turbulence in China, uncertainty over the Chinese yuan, uncertainty over Euro Area monetary policy over EME dollar-denominated debt, etc. One cause that is less compelling that Jim Bullard has put forward is that financial markets "priced in" the four rate increases the Fed projected last December, and thus calmed down after the March projections reduced that by half. This supports the "they only calmed down because the Fed stopped talking about rate hikes" story, but it's also less compelling because there was never a time when financial markets priced in four hikes -- you were hard-pressed to find a time when they were pricing in TWO hikes. They even pushed their rate-hike expectations back to 2017 at a point. I know that there's a "don't let the facts get in the way of a good story narrative," and that's being invoked by people who want to scold the Fed for making what was by all accounts a well-telegraphed and reasonable decision (even though I didn't support it at the time for other reasons) to safeguard its credibility last December. But the facts just do not add up.

Morals of the above:

(a) Don't reason from a price change. Try to figure out WHY asset prices moved as they do before drawing conclusions.

(b) Credibility is extremely important.

(c) Commitments are extremely important -- putting out rate hikes indefinitely IN DEFIANCE of a previously articulated policy reaction function, especially one which had time-based elements, is not a precedent the Fed wants to consider.

(d) Monetary policy is really, really complex, and there really aren't these crystal-clear, black-and-white answers. If you'd like that, feel free to pursue a degree in marketing or management or women's studies.
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