What Bernanke didn’t tell us

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke spoke to reporters for well over an hour at his quarterly press conference this week, but he was vague on the most important question of monetary policy today: what exactly would it take for the central bank to either ramp up or curtail the pace of monthly asset purchases? Since bond buys have effectively replaced interest rates as the dominant tool of Fed policy in recent years, the central bank’s new thresholds, which reference only rates, are not particularly useful.

After all, in the original threshold plan as crafted by its inventor, Chicago Fed President Charles Evans, the Fed would offer a jobless rate trigger for quantitative easing itself.

Asked about this during his briefing, Bernanke said:

We are prepared to vary that as new information comes in. If the economy’s outlook gets noticeably stronger we would presumably begin to ramp-down the level of purchases. But, again, the problem with giving a specific number is that there are multiple criteria on which we make this decision. We will be looking at the outlook for the labor market, which is very important. We will also be looking at other factors that could be affecting the outlook for the economy, for example – I hope it won’t happen – if the fiscal cliff occurs, as I have said many times, I don’t think the Federal Reserve has the tools to offset that event, and in that case, we obviously have to temper our expectations about what we can accomplish.

Likewise, as I said, we will also be looking at the efficacy and costs of our program and if we find that it is not working as well as we had hoped or if various costs are emerging that we had not anticipated then that would also have to be taken into account. We thought it was not constructive, because we ourselves are not sure what we would define as a substantial improvement, as long as costs and other considerations do not emerge, we are looking for something that is substantial, as far as a better job market.

Fed’s numerical thresholds are a bad idea: Goldman’s Hatzius

Updates with Fed decision

The Federal Reserve on Wednesday took the unprecedented step of tying its low rate policy directly to unemployment, saying it will keep rates near rock bottom until the jobless rate falls to 6.5 percent. That’s as long as inflation, the other key parameter of policy, does not exceed 2.5 percent.

Jan Hatzius, chief economist at Goldman Sachs, however, said in a research note published ahead of the decision that the shift may not be very effective.

Would such a move be a good idea? We’re not so sure. Calendar guidance may be theoretically flawed, but it is working reasonably well in practice. Fed officials have managed to keep expectations for the funds rate in the next few years pinned near zero, and the market now understands that this is more of a commitment to the promotion of future economic recovery than an expectation of future economic weakness.

Fiscal tightening + monetary stimulus = ‘borderline insanity’?

It’s a curious pattern being repeated around the industrialized world. Governments are trying frantically to tighten their belts even as the monetary authorities loosen their purse strings. This week in the United States is a perfect example: the Fed looks set to extend its bond purchase program even as Washington fails to reach an agreement to avoid the dreaded “fiscal cliff.”

It’s the sort of dissonant policy that is unlikely to yield very constructive results at a time when the U.S. economy is struggling to achieve a meager 2 percent growth rate.

Thomas Lam, group chief economist at OSK-DMG inSingapore:

The current one-sided policy mix of fiscal tightening and monetary easing is problematic (for example, the UK experimented with this approach –  fiscal consolidation and monetary accommodation – and it clearly failed to generate a sustained recovery).  In some cases, it’s borderline insanity –  it’s like you’re trying the same or broadly similar approach but hoping for a different outcome every single time.

Jobs, triggers and the Fed

As Federal Reserve officials debate whether to use thresholds for inflation and joblessness to guide monetary policy, Friday’s jobs report may be a cautionary tale.  The idea of thresholds is to pick markers for potential policy change – an unemployment rate of 6.5 percent, for instance, as a guidepost for when the central bank might begin to raise rates – so that the market has a better idea of where Fed policy is headed. As the unemployment rate nears that level, the theory goes, investors will gradually start to price in tightening; if the unemployment rate rises again, they’ll price it out.

But some Fed officials, notably the hawkish heads of the Richmond, Philadelphia and Dallas regional Fed banks, oppose the idea. One reason: the unemployment rate alone cannot capture the state of the labor market. Friday’s report show why.

Unemployment in November fell to 7.7 percent, the lowest in nearly four years. But the decline was not a sign of labor market strength – far from it. People were giving up looking for jobs, signaling hopelessness, not hope.

Would you recognize Fed ‘easing’ if you saw it?

By almost all accounts, the Federal Reserve is expected to “stay the course” on its massive bond-buying program after next week’s policy-setting meeting. That would mean a continuation of the $85 billion/month in total purchases of longer-term securities, probably consisting of $40 billion in mortgage bonds and another $45 billion in Treasuries. Laurence Meyer of Macroeconomic Advisers is one of countless forecasters predicting this, calling it the “status quo.”

Problem is, the U.S. central bank’s current policy is not simply to buy $85 billion in bonds — and if it does announce such a program on Wednesday, it should probably be interpreted as policy easing, not a continuation of current policy.

The $45 billion in longer-term Treasuries is part of a program called Operation Twist that offsets those purchases with $45 billion in sales of shorter term Treasuries. In June, Fed policymakers extended Twist to the end of the year, meaning the market — which rallies each time the Fed eases policy — should have priced in an end to the $45 billion shuffle in the Fed’s portfolio of assets. It also means that there is really only $40 billion in outright bond-buying happening today, as part of the Fed’s third round of quantitative easing (QE3). Not $85 billion.

Bernanke’s structuralist concession: Fed chief quietly downgrades U.S. economic potential


For the first time, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has given credence to the idea that America’s long-term economic potential may have been permanently scarred by the turmoil of recent years. In a speech to the Economic Club of New York, Bernanke said:

 The accumulating evidence does appear consistent with the financial crisis and the associated recession having reduced the potential growth rate of our economy somewhat during the past few years. In particular, slower growth of potential output would help explain why the unemployment rate has declined in the face of the relatively modest output gains we have seen during the recovery.

True, Bernanke came nowhere near saying monetary policy was impotent to improve the situation. Indeed, he argued that the weaker potential growth “seems at best a partial explanation of the disappointing pace of the economic recovery.”

Bank safety is in the eye of the beholder

Too-big-to-fail banks are bigger than ever before. But top regulators tell us not to worry. They say the problem has been diminished by financial reforms that give the authorities enhanced powers to wind down large financial institutions. Moreover, supervisors say, the new rules discourage firms from getting too large in the first place by forcing them to raise more equity than they had prior to the financial meltdown of 2007-2008.

New York Fed President and former Goldman Sachs partner William Dudley said in a recent speech:

There has already been considerable progress in forcing firms to bolster their capital and liquidity resources. On the capital side, consistent with the Dodd-Frank Act, Basel III significantly raises the quantity and quality of capital required of internationally active bank holding companies. This ensures that the firm’s shareholders will bear all the firm’s losses across a much wider range of scenarios than before. This should strengthen market discipline. Meanwhile, to the extent that some of the specific activities that generate significant externalities are now subject to higher capital charges, this should cause banks to alter their business activities in ways that reduce both the likelihood and social cost of their failure.

At the Fed, there’s a way to raise rates — but is there a will?

The Federal Reserve has kept its key federal funds rate at near-zero for four straight years, and it expects to keep it there for at least two more. But with each trip around the sun, outsiders wonder whether central bank policymakers will act without hesitation when the time finally comes to tighten monetary policy?

This week, the official with his hand on the Fed’s interest-rate lever, so to speak, asked that same question. Simon Potter, head of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s open market operations, was at NYU‘s Stern School of Business discussing the various ways the central bank can tighten policy: the federal funds rate; the interest rate on excess bank reserves; reverse repurchase agreements. Potter runs the unit that carries out Fed policy in the market, and sits in on most policy-setting meetings in Washington. Asked by a student about the inflationary or deflationary risks associated with tightening policy in the future, he had this to say:

The real heart of that question is a willingness one. I’m pretty confident we have the technical ability to raise rates. The hard part will be the willingness in some people’s minds. What I’ve seen among most people in financial markets is they’re pretty sure that the Fed will raise rates when it’s appropriate to do it… Definitely compared to 2009-2010, the type of hedge funds and people who took large bets thinking this would lead to high inflation have given up on that bet.

The trouble with the Fed’s calendar guidance on rates

Sometimes, communication can be the art of what not to say. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke took pains this week to make clear that the central bank’s indication that it will likely keep rates low until mid-2015 does not mean it expects growth to remain weak for that long.

By pushing the expected period of low rates further into the future, we are not saying that we expect the economy to remain weak until mid-2015; rather, we expect – as we indicated in our September statement – that a highly accommodative stance of monetary policy will remain appropriate for a considerable time after the economic recovery strengthens.

The comments speak to a key problem with the notion of calendar-based forward guidance, first adopted by the Fed in August of 2011: each time officials push the date further into the future, they risk dampening financial market sentiment, thereby having the opposite effect to the stimulus it intended.

How big will the Fed’s QE3 end up being?


Polling data courtesy of Chris Reese

We’ll know it when we see it. That’s essentially been the Federal Reserve’s message since it launched an open-ended bond-buying stimulus plan that it says will remain in place for as long “the outlook for the labor market does not improve substantially.” Which begs the question: how much larger is the central bank’s $2.9 trillion balance sheet likely to get?

Minutes from the Federal Reserve’s October meeting point to solid support within the central bank for ongoing monetary easing via asset purchases well into 2013.

A number of participants indicated that additional asset purchases would likely be appropriate next year after the conclusion of the maturity extension program in order to achieve a substantial improvement in the labor market.