Thanks, Congress: Data delay means no Fed taper
The legacy of the recent government shutdown may well be that it got the Federal Reserve off the hook from pulling back on its stimulus at least through the rest of the year.
In addition to the other headaches it caused, the shutdown is likely to make the next few months' economic data unreliable enough that the central bank won't be able to start pulling back on its $85 billion a month bond-buying program, according to several economists.
"They're going to approach each of the economic reports—no matter what the reports are representing in terms of data—ith a healthy dose of caution, and that is the right approach," said Tom Porcelli, chief U.S. economist at RBC Capital Markets. "Tapering is off the table for this year. It's becoming more of a 2014 event."
No data is more important to the Fed than the monthly nonfarm payrolls report, which will arrive 18 days late when the September count is released Tuesday morning.
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Other than the tardiness, that month's data won't be affected by the October shutdown.
However, the next few months likely will be cloudy.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics' report features two counts: the establishment survey, which talks to employers and constitutes the aggregate job number count, and the household survey, which is a poll of individuals and is used to compute the unemployment rate, which stands at 7.3 percent.
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The household survey uses a sample week for its count, which in this month's case would have been the week of Oct. 11, during which the government was shut down.
While the BLS would have the option of switching the survey week, the likely result is still that the Fed will find the data too noisy to be a reliable gauge of employment trends.
Consequently, the Fed and Chairman Ben Bernanke probably will not be inclined to begin the tapering that ostensibly has been on the table since May, when the central bank chief first raised the idea.
Porcelli, who forecasts that the September report will show 185,000 new nonfarm jobs and a status quo jobless rate of 7.3 percent, said the taper could get delayed until possibly the second quarter of 2014.
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That's an opinion that is gaining traction among his peers.
"The Fed is out of play through to March," David Rosenberg, economist and strategist at Gluskin Sheff, said in a report Monday morning. "The dearth of data and the fact that the government shutdown will likely cause the Fed to take down its (near)-term macro call even more mean taper is pushed out and liquidity will surely be a positive market underpinning in coming weeks and months."
Joshua Dennerlein, economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, already had extended his tapering call to January from December and said the government data issues mean that tapering could be delayed even further.
"If the Fed is uncertain about the actual underlying economy or the nature of the data, they're going to just wait in the face of that uncertainty," said Dennerlein, whose September forecast is for 170,000 new jobs and a steady jobless rate. "They'd rather err on the side of caution."
Financial markets paid little mind to the Washington impasse, focusing instead on a slightly better than expected earnings season and the prospect that the Fed will stay in full money-printing mode.
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Fed policy is predicated primarily on both the jobless rate and inflation, though the central bank looks at all aspects of the economy. Forecasts for gross domestic product have been trending lower as well, with full-year 2013 growth likely to be below 2 percent.
The Fed will need to find the proper calculus on when to begin slowing its bond-buying, though that will be a separate decision from when to raise interest rates.
"They don't want to lose control of the market," said Steve Blitz, chief economist at ITG. "At some point, talk needs to be backed up by action and they need to do something."
—By CNBC's Jeff Cox. Follow him on Twitter @JeffCoxCNBCcom.