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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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:
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.
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?
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.
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?