Does the Fed Have Street Cred?

Merrill Lynch's answer may surprise investors and advisors who follow ‘mispricing’ of the Federal Reserve

A study by Merrill Lynch finds the biggest challenge in the near future for Janet Yellen, above, and the Fed is just managing market expectations of interest rates. (Photo: AP) A study by Merrill Lynch finds the biggest challenge in the near future for Janet Yellen, above, and the Fed is just managing market expectations of interest rates. (Photo: AP)

The biggest challenge for the Federal Reserve over the next two years is “to manage market expectations for interest rates,” according to a report issued by Merrill Lynch on Thursday. “It is safe to say that many bond investors are confused and frustrated by the Fed communication,” it noted.

What’s behind the confusion and what exactly is needed to guide the markets in a rising-rate environment after last summer’s tapering drama? The Merrill experts lay out exactly what happened and what needs to change.    

They also draw a clear conclusion on the level of clarity the Fed has been sharing of late, which should be good news for investors and advisors seeking less volatility in both the fixed-income and equity markets.

“The Fed has had a tough time communicating its policy intentions,” Ethan Harris and several other economists explained. “At the start of last summer, tapering talk caused a sharp sell-off in the bond market. A few months later, the Fed surprised the markets by not tapering.”

In recent months, there’s been confusion around how to interpret the “dot plot,” which shows forecasts by various members of the Fed Open Market Committee of how high the federal funds rate will be at different times in the future, and whether there is a “six-month rule” for interest-rate hikes, the economists say.

The confusion, the Merrill experts say, stems from the “uncharted territory” of both a weak recovery and the use of “unconventional policy.”

The Fed also suffers from a “very awkward communication structure.”

In contrast, Norway’s central bank, which has used forward guidance for a decade, employs a simple and transparent process. “With just seven members, the committee is small enough to be efficient and big enough to get a diversity of views,” the report explained.

“These published forecasts, including the interest-rate projection, are derived from a consistent set of underlying assumptions,” it added. “By contrast, the Fed has a very awkward structure.”

Indeed. The FOMC has 19 members and 11 regional presidents, including four voting positions that rotate each year. It also has 13 different research groups.

“The official forecasts are not derived from a careful discussion with consistent assumptions, but are delivered by spreadsheet without a systematic discussion,” the economists explained.

The group relied on different and inconsistent means of communication.

“In our view, all of this means lots of head fakes for the markets and headaches for investors,” the Merrill analysts said.

What makes for good guidance?  

Olystein Olsen, governor of the Norges Bank, says first and foremost, economic agents must indeed understand the “announced reaction pattern.”

Second, the conditionality of the guidance must be very clear and easily understood.

Third, the Fed’s guidance must affect agent “expectations.”

Fed Report Card

Merrill Lynch economists using these standards conclude the Fed, in fact, has done a good job at guiding agents’ expectations.

Over the last three business cycles, the market consistently mispriced the Fed, expecting rate hikes much too early. But then, in 2011, the Fed announced “calendar guidance.”

In general, the markets looked for rate hikes around the corner, sometimes three years too early.

However, recent expectations have moved out beyond a year. The market is now pricing in about 100 basis points of rate hikes in the first year of tightening and less in the second year, the report states. “And yet in the past two cycles, a year and a half before the first rate hike, the markets were pricing in 140-150 bp in rate hikes in the first year of the tightening.

“Clearly, the Fed has been quite effective, at least so far, in convincing the markets that the tightening cycle will be much slower and later than normal."

As for the conditional nature of the Fed’s promises, the Fed seems to be succeeding on this measure as well. “In particular, the markets seem to have correctly interpreted the Fed’s unemployment rate thresholds,” the economists say. 

As for the Fed's impact on agent expectations, while there will be some short-term deviations, Yellen and her supporters should “continue to jawbone the markets back in line,” the Merrill team concludes. The Fed is expected “to likely lean on low inflation to justify a slow exit.”

Its overall conclusion is even clearer: “While there have been plenty of bumps along the road, the Fed’s forward guidance has worked quite well in anchoring expectations. We expect the Fed to defend their exit strategy rigorously and effectively against likely challenges in the years ahead.”

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