The Federal Reserve's Beige Book: A better mirror than crystal ball
The Beige Book: An analysis of the purpose and value of the Federal Reserve's Beige Book.
Published March 1, 1999 | March 1999 issue
In the wake of the Stock Market Crash of 1987, one of the most compelling questions for the nation's economy was how the Federal Reserve might react. Would the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC)the policymaking arm of the Fedinject more money into the economy? Was such a loosening of monetary policy justified? Was a "wait-and-see" attitude more prudent? Reliable economic statistics would not be available for weeks or months; still, policymakers needed to determine what, indeed, was going on with the economy in the days following the Crash. On what information would the Fed base its decision making?
A November 1987 Business Week article provided an answer: "Thousands of ... tidbits have poured into the Federal Reserve System's Washington headquarters since Bloody Monday. ... The regional Feds survey businesses in their districts, tapping more than 300 members of various Fed boards, as well as hundreds of informal contacts, to compile the 'Beige Book' on regional business conditions. ... Even 'eyeball evidence'like Minneapolis Fed President Gary H. Stern's car counts at the local mallsgo into the information stream."
For many Americans, this reference was their introduction to the Beige Book, a previously obscure document that had only been public since 1983, but that would soon become a regular feature of business news pages and would take on oracular properties for many media and Fed watchers. Briefly, the Beige Book is a largely anecdotal compilation of economic reports from each Federal Reserve district, from which a national summary is then drawn, and which is submitted to the Federal Reserve Board and released to the public two weeks prior to FOMC meetings, or eight times a year. The Beige Book is just one piece of information used in the making of monetary policy; the FOMC relies most heavily on forecasts generated from national models and on more current data and information than the Beige Book contains. Still, the release of this document prompts many to search for clues to Fed policy amid the mostly matter-of-fact recitation of current economic conditions. But is such faith in the prophetic powers of the Beige Book justified? Also, how did such a document develop and how did it come to take on such importance?
An analysis by researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis suggests an answer to the first question: While the gathering of regional information for the Beige Book provides value to the FOMC as a reflection of the economy, the national summary based on the compilation of regional reports does not improve upon private sector forecasts. Consequentlybecause the Beige Book does not improve upon private sector forecasts, and because the FOMC looks at an array of forecasts and national indicators, and Board staff generates its own forecaststhe Beige Book is not a good indicator of the future course of monetary policy. But before we continue an investigation into the reliability and value of the Beige Book as a predictor of economic growth, it is useful to recount the history of this document and its use by the media.
[For those curious about the incident described above and who would like to investigate the Fed's post-Crash Beige Books for themselvesas well as periods dating back to 1970, when such records were first keptplease visit the only electronic archive of Beige Books and Red Books (as they were known prior to 1983). Current Beige Books are also placed on the Web site upon release to the public.]
E Pluribus Unum
When a Federal Reserve bank president gives a speech about the economic prospects of his particular district, he brings a wealth of information to the podiumboth qualitative and quantitativegathered by his staff of economists and researchers. This regional focus reassures the president's listeners that he has his hand on the pulse of the district's economy and that he will convey this message to the FOMC, and also ensures that the FOMC has viewpoints representative of the entire country. To varying degrees, it has always been so.
The FOMC was formed by the Banking Act of 1933 (and did not include voting rights for the Board of Governors), changed in the Banking Act of 1935 to include the Board of Governors and to closely resemble the present-day FOMC, and amended in 1942 to give us the current voting structure, which consists of the seven members of the Board of Governors, the president of the New York Fed and four other Fed presidents who serve on a rotating basis. These Acts were an attempt, among other things, to centralize the Fed's policymaking while preserving input from Federal Reserve bank presidents. (It should be noted that while Federal Reserve bank presidents vote on a rotating basis, they all attend each FOMC meeting and contribute to the debate on monetary policy.) The early FOMC at first met quarterly to consider its business; today, the FOMC meets eight times a year, but decisions regarding monetary policy are not limited to formal meeting dates, as the chairman can call a teleconference of the FOMC at any time.
This system for making monetary policyregional viewpoints in the making of national policyis one of the hallmarks of Fed structure and has not been without its critics over the years. From the beginning, opinions differed on the need for-and the location of-geographic representation on the Board, and the debate continued with the formation of the FOMC. Also, debate about Fed structure is never far from Capitol Hill; in 1964, for example, hearings were held that considered, among other things, abolition of the FOMC. In his testimony, then Board Governor George Mitchell said: "I think that regional representation from men whose day-to-day business activities keep them in touch with industrial, commercial and banking developments in the major centers of the Nation brings to the committee qualitative judgments and insights that aggregative statistics will always lack."
Of course, the importance and dominance of national policy over regional considerations is understood; that is, the FOMC would not alter monetary policy to address an economic concern pertinent to just one district. But, as Mitchell testified and many other FOMC members have suggested, regional input still plays a role in the formulation of that policy. As Fed Governor Laurence Meyer said in a 1998 speech: "The presidents, in addition to having regional information, also tend to have real-time information about consumer spending, business investment, and wage and price developments, for example, gathered from speaking to firms in their districts." (Reprinted in The Region, June 1998.)
For the purposes of the Beige Book, Federal Reserve banks receive such information from a variety of sources: boards of directors, advisory councils on regional business activity, branch bank directors and a network of contacts from business, agriculture and labor. Each bank then prepares a report on the economic conditions of its district, and from the compilation of these reports a national summary is distilled.
From Red to Beige and Private to Public
Prior to 1970 and the arrival of Arthur Burns as the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, the FOMC made comments in a set pattern, known as a "go-around." Burns was not a fan of this formalized process. Also, Burns was not a consensus builder when it came to making monetary policy, as was his predecessor, William McChesney Martin, who listened to everyone's input before making his decision. "Burns did exactly the reverse. He began his first meeting by saying he would not be bound by the old ways and that there would be no set order for discussion," according to Donald F. Kettl's Leadership at the Fed (Yale University Press, 1986).
Burns also decided it would be a more efficient use of the FOMC's time to have the reports on district conditions prepared in advance and compiled for the Committee's edification. Burns' directive formalized and broadened the information-gathering process, and thus was born the Red Book, which was the predecessor to the Beige Book. The FOMC minutes of May 5, 1970, shed further light on Burns' intent: "Chairman Burns observed that one purpose of the new report, as he understood it, was to permit the Committee to draw to a greater extent than at present on the knowledge of Reserve Bank people, including the directors. The emphasis was placed on qualitative information, such as opinions and judgments ..."
Aside from the color of their covers, the Red and Beige books differed in one important way: The Red Book was prepared for policymakers only, and was not intended for public consumption. Despite this, readers of the Red and Beige books will not find much difference in content, although during the early years there was more individuality in the various reportsin terms of length and, occasionally, style.
The Red Book became public in 1983 following a request by the long-time delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives for the District of Columbia, Walter E. Fauntroy. Actually, what Fauntroy requested was that the Green Bookwhich contains the Fed's national models and economic forecastsbe made public. However, the Board deemed this unwise and the Red Book was offered in its place. To mark the change, the color red was dropped and beigeit was for a time also called the Tan Bookadorned the new cover. The text of the new document was little changed, although care was taken to delete any references to specific businesses or names; Board staff also began to review the Beige Book prior to its release to the public and to Fauntroy's House subcommittee.
However, one other significant change was made: To detract from the implied importance of the document in FOMC policymaking, the release of the Beige Book was timed for two weeks prior to an FOMC meeting. It was thought that by building in a two-week gap, the media and others would recognize that the information was not timely and, therefore, did not have a major influence on policy.
The Media Discovers the Beige Book
For a number of years, concern about a possible overinterpretation of the Beige Book was moot because little attention was paid to the document. But that changed following the Stock Market Crash of 1987 and the subsequent attention that was focused on the Fed. An electronic search of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Washington Post reveals little or no mention of a Beige or Tan Book prior to 1987, after which the references climb from six articles in 1988, to 18 five years later and 45 in 1998. Even as late as December 1988, an article in the Wall Street Journal suggests that the public was still becoming accustomed to the report: "A number of analysts mentioned the 'Tan Book,' a publication of the Federal Reserve Board, as having a negative impact on both gold and silver ..." (WSJ, Dec. 1, 1988.)
That reference also suggests that the public had already begun reading the tea leaves of the Beige Book to make their moves in the market. But some traders were savvy to the report, according to another story in the same issue of the Wall Street Journal: "Traders said the report eased fears among many investors that the Fed would push interest rates higher to cool the economy. But some market strategists suggested that complacency could be costly. They said the report probably won't carry much clout with the Fed decision makers, who are looking at more current data."
But this wasn't universally understood. Earlier in 1988, a March piece in the Washington Post, which reads as a sort of introduction to the Beige Book and Fed information gathering in general, suggests that the report was influencing the markets: "... stock traders and other financial market participants decided the book's message was one of greater strength in the economy than they had been expecting. To the markets, that meant that the Fed was not likely to seek lower interest rates any time soon, and the traders' actions sent long-term interest rates up and bond prices down." (WP, March 27, 1988.)
The Beige Book's luster as a crystal ball hadn't dimmed by 1993, according to a December Wall Street Journal story: "Prices recovered in the afternoon following release of the Federal Reserve's Beige Book report, which provides anecdotal evidence of economic activity around the country. 'The Beige Book had kept the market a little bit concerned through the morning,' Mr. Alexy said. 'But it basically said economic activity is expanding at a moderate pace and it cited prices as being very stable. That was the kind of outlook the market was able to deal with.'" (WSJ, Dec. 9, 1993.)
But is that the kind of outlook for which the Beige Book was intended? More such citations are available for 1993, but let's jump now to 1998 to see how the media and Fed watchers have used the Beige Book in recent months. From a Dec. 10, 1998, Reuters report in the New York Times: "The overall market rallied after the Federal Reserve said in its beige book summary of economic conditions that the nation's economic expansion continued in November ..." Another article in that same issue says that the Beige Book "could point to a future cut in interest rates."
A November Wall Street Journal article suggests that the recent Beige Book will likely be cited as one of "the bits of evidence" at the upcoming FOMC meeting "by those who want to cut short-term interest rates again." (WSJ, Nov. 5, 1998.)
In March 1998 the following report appeared in the Wall Street Journal: "For most of the session, bond prices were at a virtual standstill, hovering close to the previous day's closing levels. However, a somewhat hawkish tenor in the Fed's latest Beige Book, a periodic report on economic conditions across the 12 Federal Reserve districts, pushed the market down slightly." (WSJ, March 19, 1998.)
And so, roughly 15 years after it was made public, and nearly 30 years after it began as a document meant to mirror the condition of the economy, the Beige Book has become a crystal ball used to predict not only the direction of the economy, but also the response of monetary policy.
The Minneapolis Fed Study
Of course, all of these citations (and many more left unmentioned in other newspapers and in other media) beg the question: How much attention should the media, Fed watchers and the general public pay to the Beige Book as a predictor of the national economy and monetary policy? The short answer isnot much. The longer answer is provided by research at the Minneapolis Fed that investigated two questions: First, does the Beige Book national summary help predict growth in real output during the quarter in which the Beige Book is released? Second, does the Beige Book national summary improve upon the real growth predictions of professional private sector forecasters?
Since both of these questions are quantitative, rather than qualitative, we needed to convert the qualitative information in the Beige Book into a quantitative measure. Two economists at the Minneapolis Fed assigned consistent quantitative measures to each national summary since the Red Book started in 1970.1 We will refer to this quantitative measure as the Beige Book score.2
We first examined whether the Beige Book score provided any help in predicting growth in real output during the quarter in which the Beige Book was released. Regression analysis showed that the Beige Book score was statistically significant in predicting current quarter real growth. The Beige Book score, by itself, explained about 30 percent of the uncertainty in current quarter real growth.3 (See chart.)
|Real GDP Growth: percentage computed from initial estimates of real GDP.||Beige Book Output Score:
For overall output, economists assigned a score between +2 and -2 in increments of 0.5 with +2 indicating very strong and expanding economic conditions and -2 a very weak and declining economy.
But this leads us to our second, and more important, question: Given private sector forecasts, does the Beige Book really add to our knowledge of the economy? Does it provide any new quantitative information about current economic conditions that is not already captured in the predictions of private sector forecasts made at the same time?
Professional private sector forecasters have made predictions about real growth, inflation and other economic variables for more than 30 years. Recent research suggests that private sector forecasts are quite accurate.4 Since private sector forecasters look at much of the same economic data that the Fed does in compiling the Beige Book, their forecasts may already capture what we know about economic conditions at a particular time. Private sector forecasters have a strong economic incentive to make accurate predictions, and we should expect that they would seek out any relevant information to help them make accurate forecasts.
Because we wanted to determine whether the Beige Book gives us more information about economic conditions than private sector forecasts alone, we needed data on private sector forecasts since the Red Book's inception in 1970. The only quarterly survey of private sector forecasters that began before the Red Book is the American Statistical Association-National Bureau of Economic Research Survey of Professional Forecasters, which began in 1968.5 We found that the ASA-NBER prediction of current quarter real growth, by itself, explained about two-thirds of the uncertainty in real growth. That is, the private sector forecasts explained more than twice as much of the uncertainty in current quarter real growth as the Beige Book score alone.
In answer to our second question, our analysis showed that the Beige Book does not provide more accurate predictions of current quarter real growth once the private sector forecasts have been taken into account. We found that in a regression of current quarter real growth on the private sector forecast and the Beige Book score, the coefficient on the Beige Book score is not statistically significant.6 Therefore, while the Beige Book does have some predictive power, the media and Fed watchers would do well to put aside the Beige Book and focus on private sector forecasts in their attempts to predict monetary policy.
So What is the Value of the Beige Book?
As described above, the gathering and reporting of regional information has evolved from a collection of anecdotal information presented orally at FOMC meetings, to a more systematic compilation of regional business and economic information. Still, even today, in an era of national economic models and a wealth of economic data, this formalized Beige Book process is largely anecdotal and is viewed with a certain amount of skepticism by some academics. Alan Blinder, former Fed vice chairman, once characterized this process as the "ask your uncle" method of gathering information. (Journal of Economic Perspectives, Spring 1997.)
However, there may be some merit in asking your uncle. Such "reality checks" may give policymakers the "stories" that help them make sense of the statistics and models that they pore over prior to each FOMC meeting. This context can then become a communicative tool for the Fed, so when policymakers explain their actions to the public they can place their decisions within the framework of the "real" economy and not just some abstract models. Also, there are times when the most sophisticated economic models can't bring insight to a current economic phenomenon. In such an instance, asking your uncle may provide helpful insight. Of course, the uncle in this case is more valuable than the derogatory term implies: The Fed gathers its Beige Book information from hundreds of sources across the country, andas noted at the beginning of this articlethis process certainly proved instructive in the days and weeks following the 1987 Stock Market Crash.
In the end, our analysis leads us to conclude that, in the case of the Beige Book, the parts are greater than the whole. This may seem contradictory. How can regional reports be of value when the measure of those reports, the national summary, doesn't help us make policy? Maybe it's worthwhile to turn that question around. How can we make policy without knowing what is really occurring in the economy? Also, to quantify and aggregate the information in the Beige Book, which was never intended for quantification and aggregation, may not do the Beige Book justice. The Beige Book may tell stories that go beyond the numbers. The economist Robert E. Lucas once wrote: "How does one acquire knowledge about reality by working in one's office with pen and paper?" (Econometrica, March 1993.) Pen and paper models can tell us much about what is going on in the economy, but this does not deny that it is beneficial to look out the window and observe what is really happening.
David S. Dahl, Public Affairs economist, Edward Lotterman, former Minneapolis Fed regional economist, and Stanley L. Graham, economist and Minneapolis Fed adviser, analyzed the Beige Books and Red Books used in the study described in this article; they also offered analysis in the preparation of this report.
1 To quantify and evaluate Beige Book information, two Minneapolis Fed economists read and scored the national summary of 265 Red/Beige books. Scores were given for economic condition and change for six aspects of the economy-output, labor markets, inflation, consumer spending, construction and manufacturing. For economic conditions, each aspect was given a score between +2 and -2 in increments of 0.5, with +2 indicating very strong and expanding conditions, and -2 indicating very weak and declining economic conditions; for other scores: 1 indicated that the rate of growth accelerated, 0 meant no change and -1 that growth decelerated. With regard to the condition score for output, which is a proxy for real gross domestic product, one economist scored 263 out of 265 reports, another 241.
2 As noted in this article, the Beige Book was a confidential document between 1970 and 1983 (when it was known as the Red Book); one of the questions under investigation in this analysis was whether the predictive power varied between the Red and Beige Book eras. The answer: There was no important difference in the predictive power of the scored national summary between the Red Book period and the Beige Book period.
3 Until 1992, the official measure of real growth was real GNP growth. Since 1992, the official measure of real growth has been real GDP growth. Our statistical analysis compared the Beige Book score with the initial estimate of real growth for the quarter. We chose the initial estimate that corresponded to the official measure of real growth in each quarter.
4 Keane and Runkle show, for example, that the price forecasts of professional forecasters appear to be neither too high nor too low on average. (Michael P. Keane and David E. Runkle, "Testing the Rationality of Price Forecasts: New Evidence from Panel Data," American Economic Review, vol. 80, no. 4, September 1990, pages 714-735.) Those forecasts also appear to accurately take into account the effect of past inflation, unemployment, oil price changes and other economic variables on future inflation.
5 Since 1990, the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia has conducted this survey. Another well-known survey, Blue Chip Economic Indicators, started releasing quarterly forecasts of real growth in 1978, eight years after the Red Book started.
6 We should note that this result differs somewhat from a recent Dallas Fed study. (Nathan S. Balke and D'Ann Petersen, "How Well Does the Beige Book Reflect Economic Activity? Evaluating Qualitative Information Quantitatively," Research Department Working Paper 98-02, Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, June 1998.) This study found that a Beige Book score was statistically significant, but it only improved the forecast by a small amount. Moreover, we think the Dallas Fed study overestimated the predictive power of the Beige Book score because of a methodological error. The Dallas study assumes that the error term was not correlated over time, but it was. This implies that the Dallas regression model will overstate the true predictive power of the Beige Book score.