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Three observations about current monetary policy (the last one is the most important)

Summary:
If you follow such things, you know that earlier this week, the U.S. central bank shifted its bias from patient waiting to a bias toward rate cuts. Here are three observations about this moment in monetary policy. 1. The market reaction has been interesting as bond yields have tanked while equity prices have climbed. Such a dynamic is not a mystery, as both movements reflect a dovish turn by both the U.S. Fed and the European Central Bank. Also, as has been the case throughout the expansion, low yields for fixed income investments can juice risk appetites for stocks. But there’s also an ongoing argument between the two sides of the market, with the bond market more worried about global growth (and thus expecting bigger Fed rate cuts i.e., not just insurance cuts, but recessions cuts*) than

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If you follow such things, you know that earlier this week, the U.S. central bank shifted its bias from patient waiting to a bias toward rate cuts. Here are three observations about this moment in monetary policy.

1. The market reaction has been interesting as bond yields have tanked while equity prices have climbed. Such a dynamic is not a mystery, as both movements reflect a dovish turn by both the U.S. Fed and the European Central Bank. Also, as has been the case throughout the expansion, low yields for fixed income investments can juice risk appetites for stocks.

But there’s also an ongoing argument between the two sides of the market, with the bond market more worried about global growth (and thus expecting bigger Fed rate cuts i.e., not just insurance cuts, but recessions cuts*) than equities.

If the bond market is right, there are two big risks afoot. One is that the stock market takes a big hit. That’s not infrequent in these volatile days, and trust me, my heart bleeds not for big selloffs. But if tighter financial conditions persist, that becomes another risk factor for growth. Which prompts the second risk: if the bond market’s expectations of significant rate cuts, say >150 basis points, is correct, we’d end up uncomfortably close to the dreaded zero lower bound.

ZLB risk was a big theme of the Fed conference I attended a few weeks ago in Chicago, and numerous papers stressed the benefits of alternative Fed policies, mostly QE. I found them moderately convincing but a) the funds rate is still the big gun, and b) I’m therefore more convinced than ever that if the next downturn is of any significant magnitude, the fiscal response will be the key determinant of how damaging it is to economically vulnerable people.

2. Just in case you were wondering, there’s still lots of room for real wages to rise, a fact that holds even if believe that we’re solidly at full employment. In fact, even more so if that’s your take. The reason is that labor’s share of national income is at an historically low level, as shown in the first figure below. And if we’re truly at full employment, the added bargaining clout of middle- and lower-wage workers should enforce this result. (This is the BLS version of this variable, which is more pessimistic than some other series, but they all show the same thing.)

Three observations about current monetary policy (the last one is the most important)

Source: BLS

Put aside for a moment another important fact: wage growth hasn’t much bled into price growth for a while now. If you worry that full capacity labor markets will generate inflationary wage gains, consider that non-inflationary gains can be “paid for” by a shift from profits to wages, which also has the advantage of being somewhat equalizing (only “somewhat” because such aggregate shifts say nothing about how labor income itself gets distributed).

The figure below updates an estimate by Josh Bivens on how many years it would take for faster compensation growth to regain labor share. The “low” scenario is for slow real wage growth, 0-1 percent, which leads to little claw back of labor share. Steady real wage growth of 1.5 percent (“middle”) gets labor share back to around 2009 levels by 2025 and real wage growth of 2 percent gets back to 2007 levels by then.

Three observations about current monetary policy (the last one is the most important)

Source: My analysis of BLS data.

3. Finally, and I’ll shortly have more to say about this, something very important–and under-reported–from my perspective occurred in Fed Chair Jerome Powell’s press conference earlier this week. Numerous times, he referenced discussions at the Chicago “FedListens” conference on how important high-pressure labor markets are to people and places left behind in periods of slack. In my presentation at the conference, I stressed these points as well, adding that the flat Phillips Curve creates an opportunity for the central bank to maintain and prolong the benefits of full employment until the price data solidly signal otherwise. From the perspective of accelerating inflation, high pressure labor markets must now be considered innocent until proven guilty!

I give Powell and the board a great deal of credit for engaging in these discussions and even more so, for elevating what they’ve learned in the echo chamber of the Fed’s public comments. The FedListens!

*I take this language from a recent GS Research note which is behind a paywall.

Jared Bernstein
Jared Bernstein joined the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in May 2011 as a Senior Fellow. From 2009 to 2011, Bernstein was the Chief Economist and Economic Adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, Executive Director of the White House Task Force on the Middle Class, and a member of President Obama’s economic team. Prior to joining the Obama administration, Bernstein was a senior economist and the director of the Living Standards Program at the Economic Policy Institute, and between 1995 and 1996, he held the post of Deputy Chief Economist at the U.S. Department of Labor.

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