As reported earlier this morning by the Wall Street Journal, President Trump and Treasury Secretary Mnuchin met with Kevin Warsh yesterday to discuss the potential vacancy at the Fed next February.
Warsh already has central banking experience, having sat on the Federal Open Market Committee as a Fed governor from February 2006 until March 2011.
Two and a half years after he resigned from the Fed, he emerged as a vocal critic of FOMC policies, including policies he helped craft. He published an op-ed in the WSJ on November 12, 2013, and it was quite the editorial. As that happened to be the first week of hunting season, we suggested that Warsh had declared open season on his ex-colleagues, and we came up a gimmicky picture to go along with our reporting:
But we also thought his op-ed needed translation. It was written with the polite wording and between-the-lines meanings that you might expect from such an establishment figure. He seemed to be holding back, so we offered our guesses on what he was really trying to say. And with today’s breaking news, we thought we would reprint our translation.
So, if you’re wondering what the current frontrunner as Trump’s choice for the Fed chairmanship really thinks, here are Warsh’s comments on nine topics, followed by our translations.
Pension plan administrators do it. Their actuaries and consultants do it. Professional endowment and foundation investors do it. Financial advisors do it. Private investors may or may not do it, but they probably should.
Even as the Fed’s decision makers are beginning to worry less about recession and more about bubbly stock prices, we’re not yet moved by their attempts to curb the market’s enthusiasm. After all, the fed funds rate sits barely above 1%, which not too long ago qualified as a five-decade low. And other indicators, besides interest rates, aren’t exactly predicting the next bear, either. Inflation is subdued, credit spreads are tight, banks are mostly lending freely and the economy is growing, albeit slowly. It just doesn’t feel as though we’re close to a major market peak.
The world hardly needs another theory of the Fed, especially so soon after its Jackson Hole symposium. But we have a theory, too, and who knows, ours could be as close to the bulls-eye as any of the others. Plus, our theory is easy to explain—it rests on the simple premise that decision makers worry mostly about their reputations. We’ll propose that reputational risks are the primary drivers of central bank policies, and then we’ll use that belief to predict a major policy shift.
It seems every bank, including central banks, publishes a financial conditions index these days. And because financial conditions typically lead the economy, it makes sense to track them. In fact, they might contain even more information than they get credit for. They might offer the elusive “crystal ball” that foretells our economic fortunes.
Sound far-fetched? Spend a few minutes with this week’s pictures and talk, and you’ll be well equipped to judge for yourself. We start with seven of our favorite indicators, shown in the table below:
Worried that recent U.S.–China trade dialog sounds like a Mayweather–McGregor promotional tour? Concerned that we might be headed for a repeat of the Great Depression era’s race-to-the-bottom tariff wars? Or, maybe you’re relieved that diplomats are no longer being diplomatic? Maybe you think it’s about time Washington stood up for American jobs?
However you feel, we suggest stepping back to review your armchair-policymaker options. In particular, we recommend answering two questions, as in the table below:
July auto sales (released today and charted below) remained weak and should trigger a few recession forecasts. In fact, over the past few months we’ve read about half a dozen commentaries linking the recent plunge in auto sales to an imminent recession. And we understand the reasoning, but we’ve yet to buy into it.
We agree that car sellers face a degree of demand saturation while potential buyers suffer from credit saturation, or at least that’s what the data seem to show. We also agree that the saturation twins tend to be late-cycle indicators. But we’d like to add another possible explanation for slowing auto sales, one that yields a different conclusion about recession risks.