Staring at the Floor

This is what the end of the line looks like.

The Federal Reserve announced this afternoon that it was “establishing a target range for the federal funds rate of 0 to 1/4 percent.” This is a bit like a fish issuing a press release that it will hereafter be swimming in water.

The target rate for Fed funds is lowered anew to just above zero, but the effective Fed funds (which is based on actual banking transactions) is already there, and has been for some time. Nonetheless, Bernanke and the boys are right to announce the new lower range for the target Fed funds, which works out to as much as a 75-basis-point cut from yesterday’s target rate. Just don’t hold your breath for an encore performance when the next FOMC meeting commences on January 28-29.

As is now crystal clear, the economy is weak and getting weaker and a similar sucking sound is abundantly clear in prices, as we noted earlier today. To a man with a hammer, the world looks like a nail. For the Fed, a general decline in prices and slumping economic conditions cry out for monetary stimulus. For the moment, the central bank is still able to satisfy. But from here on out it’s time for plan B.

The new world order of unconventional monetary policy easing has begun in earnest this afternoon. Yes, the Fed has been practicing the dark art of quantitative easing for some time. One example: using various central banking levers to lower long-term rates, which is usually the province of market forces. On the surface, there appears to be some traction on this front. The 10-year Treasury yield, for instance, is quickly plunging toward the 2% mark. Just two months ago if was 4%. Of course, it’s not clear if the fall in the 10-year is due primarily to Fed efforts or just the general fear of deflation and recession.

Along those lines, it’s generally unclear just how effective quantitative easing will be, in part because its track record is sketchy and the medicine has been rarely applied. The great deflation of Japan offers the most recent experiment in nontraditional monetary policy. Alas, the jury’s still out on whether it was a success, failure or something in between. Looking for clues about how to proceed from Japanese deflation is a bit like looking for consensus on the Internet: lots of information and precious wrapped in a hurricane of debate.

One quick example comes from a 2006 essay by the San Francisco Fed: “While there is little evidence that quantitative easing [in Japan] stimulated overall lending activity, there does appear to be some evidence that quantitative easing disproportionately supported the weakest Japanese banks.” But there’s no free lunch because “in strengthening the performance of the weakest Japanese banks, quantitative easing may have had the undesired impact of delaying structural reform.”

“Some of these alternative policy tools are relatively unfamiliar,” Russell Jones, global head of fixed-income research at RBC Capital Markets, told Reuters last month. “They may raise practical problems of implementation and calibration of their likely economic effects.”

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t embrace innovation at this juncture, but we shouldn’t expect miracles either. The good news is that quantitative easing comes in many flavors, and so there’s more than one way to skin this monetary cat. Imagination may count for much in these times. If something doesn’t seem to work here, one can trying an alternative effort over there. Good thing, too, since the marginal risk of experimenting at this point is virtually nil relative to the risks of letting economic weakness and deflationary tendencies build.

But it’s hard to overemphasize the fact that we’re now in a gray area of monetary policy, a type of never-never land that has little precedent in the modern era, at least in the U.S. Graham Turner of GFC Economics is correct when he warns that it’s best to keep an open mind about the possible outcomes from here an out. In an October essay in FT’s economist forum he wrote, “There is no guarantee that such a radical monetary policy will succeed. Central banks may have left it too late. Cutting the Fed funds target to 0% is necessary, but is unlikely to suffice. Driving the 30-year Treasury yield down to Japanese style levels, of 1% or so, may not be enough either.”

The key problem is that all this seems to have unfolded in the wake of Lehman Brothers’ collapse in September. Rarely, if ever has such a large economy deteriorated so quickly and with such force and depth. That’s made the challenge immensely more difficult. It was, after all, only a few months ago that oil was climbing to absurdly high records and inflation was still considered a real and present danger.

But that might as well be 20 years ago. The world has changed—radically, and it may change radically yet again. Exactly what does, or doesn’t suffice in monetary policy in the weeks and months ahead remains an open debate. No doubt there’ll be definitive answers after all this is over. The playbook for monetary policy may be rewritten as a result. But for now, it’s anyone’s guess what happens next.

About James Picerno 894 Articles

James Picerno is a financial journalist who has been writing about finance and investment theory for more than twenty years. He writes for trade magazines read by financial professionals and financial advisers.

Over the years, he’s written for the Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, Bloomberg, Dow Jones, Reuters.

Visit: The Capital Spectator

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