Despite the Federal Reserve’s trillions of dollars in newly printed money, workers’ wages and overall U.S. inflation have failed to take off since the recession. Longer-term borrowing costs, from 10-year Treasury yields to 30-year home mortgages, have also compressed without any real signs of reversing. While this has perplexed many economists, transcripts of the U.S. central bank’s crisis-fighting meetings in 2009 show that Janet Yellen, then the head of the San Francisco Fed, was prescient in warning colleagues of these very problems.
The Federal Reserve faces two big challenges in the months and years ahead: how to finally “liftoff” after more than six years of rock bottom interest rates, and how to begin drawing down its $4.5-trillion balance sheet after three massive rounds of bond purchases. But, it turns out, those questions were being raised at the U.S. central bank as far back as 2009.
The last seven days has been a glaring example of fallout from the cross-border carry trade. That’s the sort of trade, well known in currency markets, where investors borrow funds in low-rate countries and invest them in higher-rate ones. Some $4 trillion is estimated to have flooded into emerging markets since the 2008 financial crisis to profit off the ultra accommodate policies of the U.S. Federal Reserve, Bank of Japan, European Central Bank and the Bank of England. Now that central banks in developed economies are looking to reverse course and eventually raise rates, that carry trade is unraveling fast, resulting in the brutal sell-off in emerging markets such as Turkey and Argentina over the last week.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.