Distinguished Speaker Series : James Bullard

James Bullard, President and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, spoke to a packed room at the Standard Club on Jan. 16 about Federal Open Market Committee macroeconomic forecasts. His presentation was also transmitted via a live webcast.

The first problem is that all forecasts are required to be based on “appropriate monetary policy assumptions.” But what assumptions are appropriate, asked President Bullard? One could assume that no policy changes occur. Another forecaster could instead include the monetary policy changes that she prefers—and maybe have overly rosy scenarios to show that those policies would work very well. To the contrary, another forecaster could try to incorporate his expectations of the FOMC decisions—and predicting a dire economic situation if he does not agree with the FOMC consensus.

Clearly, there is no perfect way. But this is not an academic endeavor, the speaker emphasized, because these forecasts are necessary to inform monetary policy decisions.

Bullard went over the FOMC forecasts on GDP, inflation, and unemployment for the last few years. There are 12 Fed Presidents and up to seven Governors, providing 19 forecasts. Looking at averages, the FOMC for the last two years got GDP about right, while its forecasts for unemployment were pessimistic and those for inflation too high. The speaker joked that erring on the same side for two years in a row is pretty bad.

The implications for monetary policy, given low inflation and shrinking unemployment, are that there is no change expected to the FOMC rate-raising path because inflation and unemployment balance each other.

Bullard allowed plenty of time for questions. Here is a summary:

  • The FOMC would prefer to arrive at the next recession with a non-zero Fed Funds rate, but if this does not happen they can do another QE. He would prefer to be able to cut rates so he’d rather increase rates in 2015 and if the economy slows down they can always cut.
  • Wages are a lagging indicator because unemployment must move a lot before wages move. Moreover, corporations do not cut wages in recession and therefore are slow in raising wages in expansions.
  • The fall in participation rate is largely explained by demographics. Participation peaked around 2000 and is expected to not increase by a lot.
  • Headline inflation is a better measure than core inflation because food and energy are what people buy every day. If we are concerned about volatility we should use trimmed measures such as the Dallas Fed’s and not exclude stuff that people buy regularly.