Reuters blog archive
When the U.S. Federal Reserve launched its third round of quantitative easing, or QE3, it was hailed as an "open-ended" policy that would last as long as needed. Most important for investors, the pace of the bond buying - which started at a somewhat arbitrary $85 billion per month - would be "data dependent." Especially throughout the spring, officials stressed they were serious about adjusting the dial on QE3 depending on changes in the labor market and broader economy. But as the unemployment rate dropped to 7.3 percent last month from 8.1 percent when the program was launched in September, 2012, the bond-buying has effectively been on auto-pilot for 14 straight months.
Now, some are wondering whether the decision not to at least tinker with the program has made the first so-called taper a bigger deal than it needed to be. "When you don't react to small changes in the data with small changes in the policy then the markets tend to read more into it when you do change policy," St. Louis Fed President James Bullard said last week after a speech in Arkansas. "It makes policy a little more rigid than it maybe should be."
Bullard, who in June cited falling inflation when he dissented against a Fed policy decision to stand pat, continued:
"I've actually talked with my staff about this because we haven't actually changed the policy. If it had been me I would have been more willing to change it meeting-to-meeting and be more responsive to incoming data. But there is a certain reluctance on the part of the committee to go there."
By Alister Bull
Christina Romer, former chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers and a strong advocate for Janet Yellen to take over from Ben Bernanke as the next chair of the Federal Reserve, slammed the Fed in a lecture last week that accused the U.S. central bank of being too meek and of fighting the wrong battle by being fixated on asset bubbles.
Romer, sometimes touted as a potential candidate to fill one of the 3 vacancies on the Fed's Board in Washington, or maybe run a regional branch (Cleveland has an opening), also discussed deliberately aiming for 3 or 4 percent inflation, as well as targeting nominal GDP.
Federal Reserve officials have largely acknowledged by now that leading markets to believe the central bank would reduce its bond buying stimulus in September and then failing to do so was a communications blunder.
For Zach Pandl, a former Goldman economist now at Columbia Management, this means the Fed may have to reshape its guidance to financial markets – even if the exact contours of the changes remain unclear.
You have to give Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke credit for standing his ground on data-dependence. Despite widespread suspicions, including on this blog, that the central bank would begin reducing the pace of its bond-buying stimulus in September simply because the markets were expecting it, the Fed chose to hold off in the face of a still-fragile economy.
Here’s how Bernanke addressed the issue of the market’s surprise at the Fed’s decision at his press conference:
It’s hard to shake the feeling that the Federal Reserve is about to begin pulling back on stimulus not just on the back of better economic data, but also because financial markets have already priced it in. The band-aid ripping debate over an eventual tapering of bond purchases that started in May was so painful, Fed officials simply don’t want to go through it again.
If anything, recent data have been at best mixed, at worst worrisome. In particular, August job growth was disappointing and labor force participation declined further.At the same time, inflation remains well below the central bank’s objective.
By Rob Cox
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
The press literature for “Money for Nothing,” a new documentary about the Federal Reserve, says director Jim Bruce partly funded the movie by betting against financial stocks during the crisis of 2008. That’s clever marketing. Judging by the film’s astute analysis of the past century of U.S. monetary policy, it’s also believable.
Central banks in Europe have followed in the Federal Reserve’s footsteps by adopting “forward guidance” in a break with tradition. But, as in the Fed’s case, the increased transparency seems to have only made investors more confused.
The latest instance came as something of an embarrassment for Mark Carney, the Bank of England’s new superstar chief from Canada and a former Goldman Sachs banker. The BoE shifted away from past practice saying it planned to keep interest rates at a record low until unemployment falls to 7 percent or below, which it said could take three years.
Lost in the bizarre Yellen vs. Summers tug-of-war into which the debate over the next Federal Reserve Chairman has devolved, is the notion that President Barack Obama is getting a second shot at revamping the U.S. central bank.
The perk of a two-term president, Obama will get to appoint another three, potentially four officials to the Fed’s influential seven-member board of governors in Washington. This may buy the president some political wiggle room when it comes to his pick for Fed chair, since he might be able to placate Republicans with one or two “concession” appointments. Every Fed governor gets a permanent voting seat on the policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee.
As Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke delivered what may have been his last testimony on monetary policy before Congress, most of the world’s attention was focused on what hints he might give about the timing of an eventual reduction in the pace of asset purchases.
Tucked in the actual semi-annual monetary policy report Bernanke delivered to lawmakers on Capitol Hill was a little-noticed reference to growing worries about the potential for an extended period of low savings, associated in part with long-stagnant wages, to thwart long-run economic progress.
Call it the great wagon circling.
Central bankers are talking tough in the face of the wild gyrations in financial markets. But it's becoming increasingly clear they are sweating - and drawing up contingency plans to assuage the panic that's taken hold since Chairman Ben Bernanke last week sketched out the Fed's plan for winding down its QE3 bond-buying program. U.S. policymakers in particular must have predicted investors would react strongly. But now that longer-term borrowing costs have spiked to near a two-year high, they look to be entering full-blown damage control.
Here's Richard Fisher, head of the Dallas Fed, speaking to reporters in London on Monday: