Only time for a quick response now – running to an event in five minutes. The FOMC just announced another step toward easing, moving foward with “Operating Twist” as expected. The key paragraph:
To support a stronger economic recovery and to help ensure that inflation, over time, is at levels consistent with the dual mandate, the Committee decided today to extend the average maturity of its holdings of securities. The Committee intends to purchase, by the end of June 2012, $400 billion of Treasury securities with remaining maturities of 6 years to 30 years and to sell an equal amount of Treasury securities with remaining maturities of 3 years or less. This program should put downward pressure on longer-term interest rates and help make broader financial conditions more accommodative. The Committee will regularly review the size and composition of its securities holdings and is prepared to adjust those holdings as appropriate.
The Three Stooges (Fischer, Plosser, and Kocherlakota) once again dissented. My initial take – I didn’t have high hopes for this policy to begin with, and continue to be underwhelmed. $400 billion is too small, and, more importantly, the time horizon is too long. Really, June 2012? Unemployment in the high single digits and they can’t speed this up a bit? Yes, another step toward more easing, but the pace of progress just seems glacial compared to the economic need.
More later tonight.
Now it is time for some extended comments. First off, the Fed sees increasing risks of disappointing news in the months ahead. The August sentence:
Moreover, downside risks to the economic outlook have increased.
was changed to:
Moreover, there are significant downside risks to the economic outlook, including strains in global financial markets.
The downside risks are now “significant,” and we can thank the Europeans for that. I already commented on the twist operation – I tend to think it is too little to have much impact, largely just changing the composition of already safe assets. There was a reaction at the long end of the curve, with the 30 year yield down nearly 20bp. I am sure the Fed is pleased with that; the stock market, however, did not view it as much of a silver bullet, and sold off 2.5%.
What I didn’t have a chance to digest earlier was this:
To help support conditions in mortgage markets, the Committee will now reinvest principal payments from its holdings of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in agency mortgage-backed securities.
That the debt overhang in mortgage markets is weighing on the recovery is not much of a secret. The Fed views that overhang as hampering the effectiveness of monetary policy, and rightfully so. By keeping assets in the mortgage markets, the Fed is hoping to encourage even lower rates and, by extension, a greater pace of refinancing. Worth a try, to be sure. I don’t know that this addresses the critical impediments to refinancing – underwater mortgages and tighter underwriting conditions. Yes, if we allow the loan to value ratio of federally insured mortgages to increase, then we can get some traction. And the Fed’s move may be in anticipation of such action – I am hoping this is so.
Increased opportunities to refinance, however, may not have as much of an immediate impact as would normally be the case. It depends on the ratio of households that refinance into another 30-year mortgage, reducing their payments by extending the payoff date at a lower interest rates versus those that refinance into a 15-year mortgage and reduce their current consumption to save more.
For what it is worth, here is what I am doing. With my children now in kindergarten and first grade, we finally experienced a drop in child-care expenses. The drop just happens to be almost exactly what I need to refinance into a 15-year mortgage. Better to pay down debt than allow my standard of living to ratchet up. And, quite frankly, paying down debt at a more rapid pace is pretty much the best safe investment right now. Holding cash in the bank yields nothing, paying down the mortgage debt at least earns around 4-5% depending on your mortgage, tax-free. That said, in the long-run, by holding rates low, the Fed is contributing to balance sheet restructuring. I just tend to think the process would be quicker and more effective via wage inflation.
The Fed reiterated their expectation that rates will hold near zero through 2013, and once again committed to additional action should it be necessary. Of course, arguably it is already necessary. Still, it is the marker that keeps hopes of another round of quantitative easing alive.
Ezra Klein argues the Fed struck a blow for independence today, coming in slightly above expectations and effectively ignoring the thinly-veiled Republican threat. Yes, kudos to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke on that point. Stan Collender nails this one – the Republicans have effectively put an end to fiscal stimulus, and now hope to derail monetary stimulus as well. I think the Republican leadership is doing themselves a disservice with this line of attack. Quite frankly, the remaining monetary tools are very weak, and the willingness of the Federal Reserve to ramp them up to levels that might be effective is very low. In effect, the Republicans are needlessly taking a hard line position on this one. The Fed isn’t going to come to the rescue. The numbers are simply too big – remember Goldman Sach’s $10 trillion figure for the Fed’s portfolio if they wanted to deliver the correct level of policy accommodation in 2009? Something like that is not even on the outer edges of the radar screen.
Bottom Line: I think Fed official believe they are being bold; I see them as continuing to ease policy in 25bp increments. Expect that to continue. Assuming the economy fails to regain momentum, the Fed will follow up with additional action – QE3 will be the next stop. Ignore the dissents; they are background noise. Don’t expect miracles; expect small moves, the equivalent of 15bp here, 25bp there. The real leverage could potentially come from fiscal policy leveraging the easy monetary policy. Print the money and spend it. Open up the refinancing channel. Overall, make the objective of national economic policy simply be to decisively move us off the zero bound. Not deficits, not the dual mandate, just commit to pulling us off the bottom.
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