Forget about big hair, Ray-Bans, and Donkey Kong. Don’t even think about Live-Aid, Thriller, and E.T. Above all else, the 1980s were the gravy days of the money supply aggregates.
Beginning in late 1979, the Fed built its policy approach around the aggregates—primarily M1 but occasionally M2, and policy makers also monitored M3 while experimenting with M1B and, later, MZM. But those were just the “official” figures. Economists and pundits debated the Fed’s preferred measures while concocting their own home-brewed variations.
Notably, the Fed allowed interest rates to fluctuate as much as necessary to achieve its money growth targets. Fluctuate they did—rates soared and dipped wildly as a direct result of the Fed’s policy. The world, meanwhile, watched the action as attentively as a Yorkie watches breakfast, studying every wiggle in every M. Missing one wiggle could have meant the difference between exploiting the volatility that the Fed unleashed or being sunk by that same volatility.
And to make sense of it all, the world looked to the most famous economist of his day, Milton Friedman. By converting a large swath of his profession to his strict brand of Monetarism, Friedman more than anyone else had triggered the monetary frenzy.
But then, almost as quickly as the frenzy blew in, it blew right back out. With none of the Ms living up to their billings as economic indicators, the Monetarists drifted from view. Not in five minutes but in five years, give or take a couple, their period of fame was over. Friedman’s reputation as an economics savant fell particularly hard—his highly publicized forecasts proved inaccurate in each year from 1983 to 1986. And the Fed once again redesigned its approach, first deemphasizing and eventually dropping its money growth targets.
But maybe the Monetarists came closer to explaining the economy than their critics allowed?
Maybe the best indicator—I’ll call it “MDuh”—was somehow hidden in plain sight?
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:
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.