MacroScope

Fed stimulus benefits still outweigh risks, Lockhart tells Reuters

The Federal Reserve is cognizant of the potential costs of its unconventional policies, but the economic benefits from asset purchases are still far greater than the potential costs, Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart told Reuters in an interview from his offices.

What follows is an edited transcript of the interview.

The December meeting minutes seemed to signal a shift in sentiment at the central bank toward a greater focus on the policy’s costs. How concerned are you about the risks from QE? Has the cost/benefit tradeoff changed for you? What’s your sense of how long you’ll need to keep going?

I would not say at this point that, in any respect, the costs, which are largely longer-term and speculative, outweigh the benefits of maintaining a highly accommodative climate that is being contributed to by both large-scale asset purchases and our interest rate policy. Having said that, I think policymakers have to be aware that in a policy such as quantitative easing or large-scale asset purchases, continuing to build up the challenge of reversal of that policy, or the challenge of normalization, has to be on your mind. I don’t think we’ve gotten to the point where the costs outweigh the benefits. I’m a believer, although of course it’s very hard to isolate cause and effect in the real world, that our policy has benefited the economy and that the improving situation that we are now seeing is at least in part a result of monetary policy.

How does QE3’s effectiveness compare to prior rounds of asset purchases?

Let me first answer that by arguing that each round had a different purpose. The first round had largely a liquidity provision purpose. The second round was, for the most part, to reverse declining inflation expectations that looked dangerous, worrisome. This round, my characterization of it is, to give a boost to the economy, to add to momentum, as it seemed to be emerging from a long period of sluggish growth. So each round in a way was focused on a different kind of problem.

We have a long way to go, particularly in the employment realm, before the economy reaches its full potential. Therefore the continuation of this highly accommodative stance that includes the efforts of quantitative easing, is appropriate, is a sensible policy.

The fallacy of Fed ‘profits’ (and ‘losses’)

Richard Fisher, the Dallas Fed’s colorfully hawkish president, enjoys touting the remittances that the central bank makes yearly to Treasury, earned, circularly enough, mostly on the returns of the Treasury bonds the Fed holds. Here’s Fisher in September 2010:

All the emergency liquidity facilities that the Federal Reserve instituted were closed down and did not cost the taxpayers of this great country a single dime. Indeed, last year, as we finished up this work, the Federal Reserve paid $47.4 billion in profits to the Treasury. Imagine that! A government agency that (a) created programs that actually worked as promised, (b) made money for the taxpayers in the process and (c) undid the programs – all in the space of about 28 months – once they had done their job.

The amount has only grown since then, as the Fed expanded its asset purchases in an effort to support a subpar economic recovery, totaling a record $88.9 billion for 2012.

Show and tell: Fed’s balance sheet not as big as you thought

Size matters, and Federal Reserve’s balance sheet is not as big as shrill critics of QE3 would lead you to believe.

True, $3 trillion is serious money. It represents a tripling in the size of the Fed’s balance sheet since 2008, before the U.S. central bank unleashed the first round of its aggressive campaign of so-called quantitative easing. It is now on round three, and has committed to keep buying bonds until it spies a substantial improvement in the outlook for the labor market.

But as a percentage of GDP (gross domestic product), the Fed’s balance sheet is still smaller  than those of the Bank of Japan, European Central Bank, and Bank of England, notching under 20 percent of GDP compared with over 30 percent of GDP for both the BOJ and ECB.

Market/economy disconnect?

Italy comes to the market with a five- and 10-year bond auction today and, continuing the early year theme, yields are expected to fall with demand healthy. It could raise up to 6.5 billion euros. A sale of six-month paper on Tuesday was snapped up at a yield of just 0.73 percent. Not only is the bond market unfazed by next month’s Italian elections, which could yet produce a chaotic aftermath, neither is it bothered by the scandal enveloping the world’s oldest bank, Monte dei Paschi, which is deepening by the day.

Even before this week (it also sold nearly 7 billion euros of debt on Monday), Italy had already shifted 10 percent of its annual funding needs. Clearly it, and Spain, is off to a flying start which removes a lot of potential market pressure.

But the disconnect with the miserable state of the two countries’ economies should still give pause for thought. Flash Q4 Spanish GDP figures, out later, are forecast to show its economy contracted by a further 0.6 percent in the last three months of the year, with absolutely no end to recession in sight. That looks like a good opportunity to detail the state of the Spanish economy and how it could yet push Madrid towards seeking outside help. Italian business confidence data are also due.

The dangers of a bloated ECB balance sheet

Central balance sheets across the industrialized world have increased rapidly in response to the financial crisis, as recently noted on this blog. In Europe, the balance sheet of the ECB and the 17 national central banks that share the euro currency has grown to around 3 trillion euros after the ECB injected more than a trillion into the market in 3-year loans and loosened its collateral standards.

At above 30 percent of gross domestic product, the ECB’s balance sheet has overtaken that of the Bank of Japan, which has been grappling with deflation for some two decades and started from a much higher level. It is also bigger than that of the U.S. Federal Reserve, which has aggressively responded to two financial crises in five years by tripling the size of its balance sheet to nearly $3 trillion today.

Historically, a central bank’s job is to maintain price stability and the value of its currency. The ECB’s non-standard measures have aimed to do just that as the euro zone debt crisis threatened the viability of the euro currency. But a growing and deteriorating balance sheet also comes at a price.

Greek crisis: not as tragic as subprime

Markets are all over the Greek debt crisis this week and this will surely continue next week, but a stand-back analysis shows that the situation is not catastrophic and not as contagious as the U.S. subprime crisis when it comes to the impact on global markets.

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Christopher Probyn, chief economist at State Street Global Advisors, says the Greek crisis involves only tens of billions of dollars, as opposed to $3 trillion in the subprime saga.

Goldman Sachs says the ramifications of an outright default in Europe would be considerable yet far smaller than subprime.