Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Who will be the next Fed chair?

On the campaign trail, now President Donald Trump made it pretty clear that he wanted Janet Yellen gone as the Chairperson of the Federal Reserve.  Now in a televised speech on Instagram last week (see here), President Trump offered the biggest clue to his intentions by dropping in the word "hopefully" in his wish that "they will do a fantastic job".  That "hopefully" is, in my view, a definite hint that change is on the way, as if he really had another Yellen term in mind he wouldn't have needed that "hopefully" word. As in so many areas with President Trump, he will break precedence if he doesn't reappoint Chairwoman Yellen, as every Fed chair in modern history who has completed a first term has been nominated for a second term.

So now that I believe it is fairly clear that he has signaled that he will replace her, the media has been looking at the candidates that the President has in mind, and focusing on the daily rumors that appear to emanate from the White House about who is in favor.  But the decision is not as easy as you might think, and for two reasons: i) the President has economic growth objectives that many conservative central bankers might see as unlikely and therefore may try and be more hawkish on monetary policy than otherwise would be the case; and ii) the end of the business cycle expansion is approaching, so the President would likely not want a Fed Chair that is inexperienced in the art of central banking.

This is probably the most important appointment that the President will make in his current term of office, as the likelihood of an economic downturn is extremely high, given that we are coming towards the end of the expansionary phase of the business cycle.  Whoever the next Fed chair is will very likely have to cope with a recession, and will have to position the Fed accordingly.

Therefore, in my view, given that Yellen has effectively dropped out of the race, there are really only 3 candidates left in the running. I will deal with each one separately below:

i) Jerome Powell.  Powell is currently on the Fed Board of Governors, so is no stranger to the Fed.  He was appointed to the Board in 2012 and is a card-carrying Republican as well as a multimillionaire having worked at the Carlyle Group.  He is moderate when it comes to monetary policy views but is not an economist, which may be seen by some as a weakness.  Nevertheless he clearly understands monetary policy well, but may not be the right guy for the job if the economy has another severe recession in the next 4 years.

ii) Kevin Warsh.  Warsh was first appointed an economic advisor at the White House in 2002, and then from 2006 to 2011 Warsh served as a Fed governor, but then resigned to join the Hoover Institution where he is currently employed.  He has been a frequent critic of the Fed, and there are already a website that has been established to lobby against his appointment (see here).  He is definitely seen as more of a hawk, and the consensus is that monetary policy would likely be on a tighter trajectory. He was trained as an economist, so that is a plus, but on the other hand many of his predictions when he was previously employed at the Fed (such as higher inflation if the Fed maintained QE) have not transpired, which doesn't give the markets much confidence in his judgment.

iii) Professor John Taylor, is the only distinguished economics professor among the  candidates. He is the author of the so-called "Taylor rule" which was an effort to use a rule-based setting of monetary policy for modelling purposes.  Taylor was at the US Treasury during the George W. Bush administration and served at the White House under Presidents Carter and Ford.  Through his comments on the maintenance of QE, the markets view him as somewhat hawkish, and the media believes that a Taylor appointment would "spook" the markets.

So what is the perception of the odds for each of these candidates?  The website "Predictit" (see here), has odds based on actual bets, and as of Nov 1st at 11.30am, the odds currently are:

So what is my assessment?  For me this comes in 3 parts - i) who will Trump choose and ii) who would be the best choice in my assessment; and iii) who would actually be best for stockmarket gains?  Let's deal with each in turn.

First, who do I think Trump will choose?  It seems that the President has changed his mind almost daily, so although the latest anonymous leak from the White House stating that Powell is the favorite (see here), I doubt this will be sustained until the announcement.  My belief is that Trump will want to go with an economist and someone who will shake things up at the Fed, as he will want to please his base and also impress other Republicans on Capitol Hill.  So my guess is that Trump will go with Taylor as long as he has Taylor's assurances that he will not enact a rules based policy as this would tend to raise rates faster than would be the case with the other candidates and might then derail the so-called "Trump rally" and spook the markets.  Of course if a Taylor appointment is made, then the markets might still be temporarily spooked until they can get reassurance during the Senate confirmation process.

Second, who do I think would be the best choice for the top job at the Fed?  I believe that continuity is important here, and that likely another Yellen term would actually be best for the country as a whole, as Yellen is already acting on "normalizing" Fed policy, but is doing so at a cautious rate that allows for economic growth to be sustained going forward.

Third, who would be the best choice for the markets?  I think the markets, as the polls show, would prefer Powell, as he possesses the element of continuity, but at the same time is a little more "light touch" on financial regulation than Yellen.

What is almost certain though is that whoever takes over at the Fed (unless it is a Yellen reappointment) will change Fed policy going forward, and that will undoubtedly impact the bond markets and perhaps the pace of interest rate hikes and the withdrawal of the QE stimulus, with its attendant effects on economic growth.  

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