Rates and Currencies: Thoughts on the Market

Matthew Hornbach: Welcome to Thoughts on the Market. I’m Matthew Hornbach, Global Head of Macro Strategy at Morgan Stanley.

Seth Carpenter: And I’m Seth Carpenter, Morgan Stanley’s Global Chief Economist.

Matthew Hornbach: And on this episode of the podcast, we’ll discuss whether the election will change Fed policy this year. It’s Thursday, January 25th at 10 a.m. in New York.

Matthew Hornbach: All eyes are on the Fed as 2024 gets underway. Investors are concerned not only about the timing and the magnitude of the expected rate cuts this year, but also on the liquidity in the funding markets, which is intricately linked to the Fed’s ongoing quantitative tightening operations, or QT. Seth, let’s dig right into it. Does the outcome of the U.S. presidential election in November change your team’s baseline view that the Fed will lower rates starting in June?

Seth Carpenter: Matt, I think the short answer to your question is no. So our baseline forecast is, the Fed starts cutting rates in June. And over the second half of the year, it gets a total of 100 basis points worth of cuts in. But that forecast is predicated on the downward trajectory for inflation and the economy’s slowing but not falling off of a cliff, or put simply, it’s based on the Fed following their statutory objectives for stable prices and full employment, and not the political cycle.

Matthew Hornbach: So, Seth, we often hear from investors that they believe that the election will have an impact on Fed policy and we also hear from FOMC participants from time to time about this topic. But why is it that FOMC participants dismiss this wisdom or conventional wisdom amongst investors that the election might interfere with Fed policy?

Seth Carpenter: I think that question has a really simple answer, which is that the FOMC participants, they’re the ones sitting around the table making the decisions, and they don’t see themselves as being influenced by the politics. I mean, I can say I was at the Fed for 15 years. I was a staffer preparing memos, doing briefings to the committee in the 2000 election, the 2004 election, the 2008 election, the 2012 election. And I can honestly say from my firsthand experience, there really wasn’t anything about the fact of the election that was doing anything to influence the way that monetary policy was being decided. Their eyes were fixed on those statutory objectives of full employment and stable prices. But let me turn it around to you, Matt, because I know that you did a lot of homework. You went back through the historical record and you looked at policy decisions in years when there were elections, in years when there weren’t elections. When you do that really careful analysis, what comes out of that pattern? What do you see in the policy decisions that the committee took?

Matthew Hornbach: Absolutely. We looked at actual policy rate changes going all the way back to 1971. So really getting in that period of time when inflation was also a problem in the 1970s and early 1980s. And we went all the way through the present day. And what we found was that the Fed doesn’t shy away from changing policy, whether it be an election year, a general election year, a midterm election year or no election in a given year. They change policy all the time. You know, then we looked at, well, does the policy changes that occur in election years or non election years, does it differ in notable ways? Does the Fed tend to cut rates more in election years or hike rates more in non election years? And we didn’t find any notable pattern at all. It just became very apparent in the data that we looked at that there isn’t a political bias in terms of the policy rate, whether to change it or not, change it, to move it up, to move it down. The Fed seems, based on the data, to act in the best interest of what’s going on in the economy at the time.

Seth Carpenter: That makes sense to me, and that’s very much consistent with my experience there. But let me push a little bit more, because I know that you didn’t just do that wave of analysis and then stop. You always burn the midnight oil here, and you went back through the actual transcripts. Because one thing I know I hear from clients and you must hear it as well, is surely the FOMC has to be aware that the election is going on. How could they not be aware of it? It’s got to come up during the meetings. It has to come up during the meeting. So when you look at the transcripts themselves, what was said during the meetings, how much do they talk about the election?

Matthew Hornbach: They’re definitely aware that there’s an election, as I think most people around the world would be. And when they talk about the elections, you know, typically it comes up almost every election year. You typically get a handful of FOMC participants that bring up the election. 2008 was an interesting exception, where only one person mentioned the election the entire year.

Seth Carpenter: They may have been thinking about other things.

Matthew Hornbach: They may have other things on their mind, like the great financial crisis that was unfolding. But what we found is that not that many people actually bring it up every election year, but there are a handful here in there that talk about it. You typically find that in the first half of the calendar year, there’s not that much discussion about the election. But as the election approaches in November, you get more discussion that ends up showing up in the transcript. So you typically find that the month of October, November and December will have the most discussion about the election by FOMC participants. The second thing we found, Seth, was that when they talk about the election, they typically talk about it in sort of two lines of thinking. One is with respect to fiscal policy. Elections can change fiscal policy, either going into the election or coming out of the election, fiscal policy can differ. And so they typically focus on the state of play with respect to fiscal policy. In 2012, which is when you were there at the fed. I’m sure you noticed that there were lots of discussions about the fiscal cliff. So we noticed that in the transcripts as well. Similarly, in 2016, in December, after the election, in 2016, when the markets were starting to price in the prospect of tax cuts and fiscal stimulus, there was a lot of discussion on the fed at the time about fiscal policy.

Seth Carpenter: Matt, it sounds like you’re staking out the controversial view that the central bank of the country is paying attention to the macroeconomic environment and the main factors that drive the macro economy.

Matthew Hornbach: That’s absolutely right. We also found that they discussed the election in terms of the uncertainty that elections caused businesses and consumers. They typically grow more concerned about business investment as we head into an election and businesses pulling back on that investment for a short period of time, until they have clarity about the election outcome. So that’s generally what they’re talking about when they discuss the election, fiscal policy and uncertainty.

Seth Carpenter: All right. So I feel a little bit relieved that my firsthand experience is fully consistent with all the digging that you did through the transcript through multiple decades.

Matthew Hornbach: Absolutely. So, Seth, with that, let me just thank you for taking the time to talk with me.

Seth Carpenter: Matt, I could talk to you all day, but particularly on this topic, it was a pleasure to be here.

Matthew Hornbach: And thanks for listening. If you enjoy Thoughts on the Market, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts and share the podcast with a friend or colleague today. 

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