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December FOMC: It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It
Josh Wright, Chief Economist | Economist Corner
Friday, Dec 21, 2018

After the December FOMC meeting, investors and pundits are chewing on what exactly has upset financial markets so much and where we go from here. No one seems to have a compelling answer. Should the Fed have been more dovish? Could it have been more dovish? Yes, but barely – and yet barely could have made all the difference. 

Most economic data have continued to look healthy, with the notable exception of softer inflation but the equally notable inclusion of labor market data in general and wage data in particular. Since the Fed sees inflation as a lagged phenomenon, trade restrictions could add new price pressures, and given the expectations it had communicated in the lead up to the December FOMC, there’s only so much the Fed could have done to respond to the latest moves from the market. Fewer hikes expected next year, some discussion in the press conference of flexibility to change course as required – that was all reassuring. The choice to dilute instead of delete the key reference to “further gradual increases” in interest rate was a significant disappointment though, and as the Fed frequently reminds us, the FOMC statement is the committee-approved policy signal, whereas the interest-rate projections are just a compilation of individual views. 

Equally important was the press conference, where it was all about the tone. Chairman Powell came off as remarkably nonchalant about recent financial market gyrations (“a little bit of volatility”). Despite his references to policy being flexible, there was a missed opportunity to make soothing noises, even without making any commitments. If Powell had spoken at greater length and in greater detail about the asset prices the Fed is monitoring and how it thinks about their relationship to the real economy, that could have tipped the balance. 

Admittedly, Powell may well have been in a no-win situation. If he had sounded more concerned, that probably would have been read as a sign that the market’s worst fears were likely to come true. But this isn’t just a question of sounding sympathetic. It’s a question of sounding attentive. A more detailed discussion of financial conditions and the transmission mechanisms from the markets to the real economy would have demonstrated concern without necessarily sounding pessimistic. For all his eloquence and plain-spokenness, Powell ran afoul of one of the first rules of good communication: show your concern, don’t just tell about it. In other words, his concision may have proved counterproductive this time. 

(Some have argued, based on a widely circulated intra-day chart of stock prices, that the culprit for the latest sell-off is Chairman Powell’s reaffirmation in the press conference that the Fed would not be adjusting its so-called “quantitative tightening” program of reducing its crisis-inflated balance sheet. That seems hard to believe. Quantitative tightening has been perhaps the most carefully broadcast move by a central bank ever, and Fed policy makers have been painstakingly explicit about their desire to take the Fed’s balance sheet out of the conversation). 

This is where the market psychology comes in. In a correction period, investors are searching for a firmer sense of the outlook and so they are extra-temperamental. Of course, that’s exacerbated by what appears to be a critical mass of political uncertainties regarding global growth, domestic politics, and geopolitics. 

Going forward, if the economic data continue to remain reasonably healthy, the Fed and markets will have to have a conversation about markets versus the real economy, and financial conditions indexes will loom large. This will require some homework, because there are a lot of these indexes, each with its own source data and unique way of structuring them. Since many were developed during the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2009, they may require a fresh look for the current environment. While feeding a wide variety of indicators into a headline summary statistic is useful, a lot of information gets lost in the process. Already, analysts are posting estimates of how many rate-hike equivalents have been synthesized from the last few months’ market moves, arguing that this also undermines the case for further Fed hikes. Such quantitative assessments usually rely heavily on key assumptions – and thus a lot of tire-kicking. 

In the meantime, the market isn’t happy and it’s not clear what it will take to turn that around. Perhaps this is a year-end shake-out and we’ll rebound in January, but this could be a turn for the worse until further notice.

about the author

As chief economist at iCIMS, an industry-leading provider of talent acquisition software, Josh Wright leads a team of data scientists in analyzing emerging trends in the U.S. labor market