Alastair Thomas at ECM Asset Management considers impact of unemployment

Alastair Thomas, head of Rates & Treasury Management at ECM Asset Management – Wells Fargo’s sub-credit boutique – has looked into the implications of US and UK unemployment rates on monetary policy.

The central banks of the US, the FOMC or “Fed”, and the UK, the Bank of England (“BoE”) have tied their monetary policy to explicit unemployment levels as well as inflation. Since 1977 the Fed has had a dual mandate to target maximum employment as well as stable prices and moderate long-term interest rates. Only in December 2012 did they state a specific unemployment rate of 6.5% above which they would not raise rates so long as longer term inflation projections were not more than 2.5%. This was a change from their “date-based” guidance whereby they did not expect to raise rates before a certain date. In March 2013 the Fed had expected unemployment to be 6.7 to 7.0% in Q4 2014 and 6 to 6.5% in 2015. Fed Chairman Bernanke also stated in June 2013 that the Fed’s 6.5% target was a “threshold, not a trigger”. At that same time he also said that “when asset purchases ultimately come to an end, the unemployment rate would likely be in the vicinity of 7%” although he subsequently backed away from this 7% figure in September as unemployment continued to fall. US unemployment hit 7.0% in November and 6.7% in December 2013. We expect it to continue to fall at the current pace as initial claims remain very low and reach 6.5% this autumn.

The BoE is mandated to target CPI inflation of 2%. In August 2013, the BoE introduced its own unemployment threshold of 7.0% above which it would not raise rates so long as inflation expectations were anchored. Just like the Fed they have emphasised that the level would not be a trigger for rate rises but one where they consider more carefully whether rate rises are warranted. In August 2013 the BoE expected unemployment only to drop to 7% in 3Q 2016. Back then their forecasts looked extremely dubious as they showed 7.3% being hit by the end of 2014 and then only another 0.3% drop in the following 2 years. In their November quarterly inflation report the BoE revised their forecasts substantially indicating the 7% level would be reached in Q3 2015 with a 40% chance of reaching it by the end of 2014. In reality unemployment has fallen more rapidly and is already at 7.4% and likely to hit 7.0% before the year-end.

The logic of linking monetary policy to unemployment is that falling unemployment is indicative of a reduction in the level of spare capacity in the economy. If spare capacity is reducing employers may need to hire more staff and pay more to get the employees they want, leading to overall wage growth which is likely to feed into higher prices generally. Since the central banks want to limit excessive inflation they use interest rate rises and/or remove provisions of liquidity (such as QE) which might otherwise fuel inflation.

The problem is that if declines in unemployment do not result in wage growth, perhaps because workers are happy to have a job and not push for pay rises or the unemployment rate has only fallen due to a shrinking workforce, then the central banks might decide they had set the unemployment “thresholds” too high. They would not want to be accused of killing off economic recovery by raising rates or removing other accommodative policies prematurely. In early December we expected the Fed to “strengthen” their forward guidance on rates to reduce the risk that the fall in unemployment would result in increased rate expectations. In December the Fed said that it will likely be appropriate to maintain the current Fed funds target range (of 0 to 0.25% where it has been since December 2008) well past the time that the unemployment rate declines below 6.5% especially if projected inflation remains below their 2% longer-run goal. However, the Fed also clearly states that, because monetary policy affects the economy with a lag, it will be necessary to begin moving away from a highly accommodative policy before the economy reaches maximum employment (which they see as between 5.2 and 5.8%). This is probably why they also announced in December that they would reduce quantitative easing (“QE”) by $10bn in January – the start of the removal of accommodative policies. The minutes show that “most” officials want to taper QE at a “modest” pace and finish QE in the second half of 2014. The minutes show that the Fed had little desire to change the unemployment threshold as some had expected or change the inflation thresholds. We expect a further $10 billion of QE tapering each month with QE finishing before the year end. The removal of the large treasury purchaser will pressure longer rates higher.

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