Jerome Powell drops a major hint into the true state of the US job market -- and it suggests the Fed is making a big mistake

Chip Somodevilla/Getty ImagesFederal Reserve Board Chairman Jerome Powell.
  • The Federal Reserve on Wednesday raised interest rates for a sixth time since the financial crisis and signalled it would continue to do so given what it sees as an improving economic outlook.
  • Fed Chairman Jerome Powell, however, conceded that the likely economic effects of tax and budget measures underpinning the central bank’s stronger forecasts were “very uncertain.”
  • Moreover, he depicted wage growth as the ultimate signal of a tighter job market, saying “we’ve seen only modest increases in wages.”

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell should heed his own advice.

One statement in particular during Powell’s debut press conference said pretty much everything about the state of the US job market – improving but still short of full health.

“We will know the labour market is getting tight when we do see a more meaningful upward move in wages,” Powell said in response to a reporter’s question as to whether he was satisfied with the pace of wage growth, which remains lacklustre by most accounts.

“We’ve seen only modest increases in wages,” he said. “I’ve been surprised by that.”

That insight, as obvious as it may seem, conflicts with the Fed’s policy of raising interest rates preemptively, even as inflation continues to undershoot its target, essentially on concerns that a 17-year-low 4.1% jobless rate may already be beyond what officials consider “full employment.”

According to the Fed’s models, this should generate substantial inflation – despite years of running evidence to the contrary.

The Fed on Wednesday raised rates for the sixth time since the financial crisis, to a range of 1.50% to 1.75%, arguing in its policy statement that “the economic outlook has strengthened in recent months.” Yet as Bloomberg’s Jeanna Smialek put it, “Fed officials swear by their data dependence, and the numbers look strikingly similar to when the policy-setting committee last met.”

Indeed, recent reports on wages and retail sales have raised new questions about the economy’s underlying strength.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s closely watched GDP Now measure has been radically downgraded from an initial estimate of 5.4% annualized gross-domestic-product growth for the first quarter to an expected rate of just 1.8%.

Gdpnow forecast evolutionPlay GIFAtlanta Fed

A familiar error?

It would not be Fed officials’ first time becoming overly optimistic around springtime – only to curb their enthusiasm as the year progresses.

The charts below from a San Francisco Fed study published in 2015 show the extent to which the central bank’s forecasts were consistently above actual growth rates.

Overoptimism1San Francisco Fed
Overoptimism2San Francisco Fed

After years of downward forecast revisions that strained the central bank’s credibility, the Fed finally settled in 2016 on expectations that maybe the economy’s growth rate would not exceed 2%, having been permanently affected by the Great Recession, slowed by changing demographics, or a combination of the two.

Arguably, this excess optimism has led to an overly tight monetary policy, potentially inhibiting the creation of millions of new jobs. Powell himself conceded during congressional testimony that the jobless rate could fall as low as 3.5% without generating undue inflation.

Yet in the wake of tax cuts and spending increases, the Fed boosted its outlook for US gross domestic product growth this year to 2.7% from 2.5%, and to 2.4% from 2.1% next year. Against this backdrop, the Fed signalled continued gradual interest rate hikes in 2018, 2019, and maybe even 2020.

The changes come even as Powell conceded during his first press conference that the likely economic effects of the new fiscal-policy measures were “very uncertain.”

Fed officials “broadly speaking … believe there will be meaningful increases in demand from the new fiscal policies for at least the next, say, three years,” Powell said.

That’s a bigger impact than most economists expect given the skewed nature of the tax cuts toward wealthier people, who are more likely to save than spend. The International Monetary Fund recently warned that while the measures should boost growth for the next two years, there will be payback around 2020.

“In the United States, some of the current boost in activity will be paid back later in the form of lower growth once the fiscal stimulus moves into reverse and the incentives from investment expensing expire,” IMF staff members said in a report prepared for this week’s G-20 meeting in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

This indicates the Fed is conducting policy based more on hopes for stronger growth than on evidence thereof, with potentially harmful consequences for a recovery that is already nine years long.

As Tim Duy, a University of Oregon economics professor who is an avid Fed watcher, wrote in a recent blog: “When the Fed turns hawkish and steps up the pace of rate increases, is when we need to be increasingly concerned that, like all good things, this expansion will come to an end.”

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