Column – Yellen delivers; tougher times ahead: James Saft

November 14, 2013

By James Saft

(Reuters) – On the standards by which these things are judged, Janet Yellen’s confirmation hearings went well, meaning markets rallied with little volatility.

Speaking before the U.S. Senate Banking Committee, the Federal Reserve Chair nominee was dovish, but not so much as to scare the horses.

“I consider it imperative that we do what we can to promote a very strong recovery,” Yellen, currently the Fed’s vice chair, told the panel.

Considering that the current recovery, though long in the tooth, has only produced tepid jobs growth and below-target inflation, a “very strong” recovery is going to require the continued administration of stimulants.

For risk assets that was good but not unexpected news.

The S&P 500 rose a half a percent, 10-year U.S. government bond yields fell by a couple of basis points, or about 1 percent. All in all a creditable performance in markets, especially considering Yellen has good reason to not appear too dovish ahead of her confirmation votes.

While Yellen gave the impression that she and the FOMC would certainly considering tapering before too long, she didn’t seem to be in a great, tearing hurry about it.

“It’s important not to remove support especially when the recovery is fragile and the tools available to monetary policy should the economy falter are limited,” she said. “I believe it could be costly to withdraw accommodation or to fail to provide adequate accommodation.”

That statement is both true and perhaps a bit worrying.

Yellen is acknowledging that, as monetary policy is scraping at the lower bound of the possible, her arsenal is not well stocked.

At this point that arsenal would boil down to doing more of what you’ve already done (with mixed results) or saying you will do more, or do it for longer, or do it with less regard to the risks.

If the Fed did taper and found the economy listing into a recession, it could buy more bonds, it could buy other assets, as the Bank of Japan is doing, or it could pledge to buy bonds and hold rates lower for longer.

None of those is tried and tested, so the Fed has good reason, it seems, to let things run for a bit.

SPRING CLEANING?

That probably means the Fed will not announce a taper in December.

March is the next logical target date. Yellen will be in the chair, and a press conference at which the reasons could be explained is already scheduled.

One thing we did not learn much about at the hearing is the possibility that the Fed introduces some new form of forward guidance, essentially promising to keep rates lower for longer, perhaps, as suggested in recent Fed research, by tying a rise to a move down in the unemployment rate to as low as 5 percent.

Yellen did show some skepticism about the unemployment rate, acknowledging that it perhaps flatters the employment situation by undercounting discouraged workers.

The idea, though, of taking away bond buying slowly while softening the blow with forward guidance has some attractions.

Bond buying is not only unproven, it is a large redistribution of wealth upward, one which is having a diminishing effect on the real economy.

And, as Steven Englander, foreign exchange strategist at Citigroup, points out, there will be some real limitations on how long the Fed can carry on buying $85 billion of bonds per month.

If the Fed carries on buying $45 billion per month of Treasuries, it will be buying a large portion of all of the longer-dated debt the U.S. issues next year. With the Fed already holding more than 40 percent of the longer-term (five years maturity and over) Treasuries in existence, this leaves them open to charges that they are affecting fiscal policy and distorting the market.

So a taper, then, in March, with the Fed buying fewer Treasuries while pledging to keep rates lower for longer could, from several points of view, offer advantages. More of its firepower would be ‘reaching’ Main St, via subsidizing mortgage borrowing and concentrating on employment.

That’s not to say this will work well, or is wise.

Forward guidance is a policy which rests on the premise that markets will believe what the Fed tells it, which is further premised on the idea that the Fed knows what it ought to tell markets.

Look at Britain, where the Bank of England has had to revise its forward guidance, bringing closer the date of an expected hike, after an unexpectedly (to the bank) quick recovery in employment.

The problem is the markets never believed the BOE in the first place, and were pricing in a rate rise sooner than it was promising one.

The Fed arguably has both more power and credibility than the BOE, but may find itself with both threatened if it relies too much on them as an easy tool.

(At the time of publication, Reuters columnist James Saft did not own any direct investments in securities mentioned in this article. He may be an owner indirectly as an investor in a fund. For previous columns by James Saft, click on)

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