Bullard weighs in on his colleague’s challenge to the ‘Bernanke doctrine’

Earlier this month, Fed Governor Jeremy Stein made waves that are still rippling with a speech on the risks of credit bubbles. The policymaker said that the U.S. central bank could use interest rates, as opposed to the more conventional tool of regulation, to cool overheating in junk bonds and other markets.

With worries growing that the Fed’s easy-money policies are inflating dangerous bubbles in financial markets, the speech could portend an earlier-than-expected reversal of quantitative easing or raising of ultra low rates. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what St. Louis Fed President James Bullard had to say about Stein’s speech, when he visited New York University last week:

“My main takeaway from the speech … was that he pushed back against the Bernanke doctrine. The Bernanke doctrine has been that we’re going to use monetary policy to deal with normal macroeconomic concerns, and then we’ll use regulatory policies to try to contain financial excess. And Jeremy Stein’s speech said, in effect, I’m not sure we’re always going to be able to take care of financial excess with the regulatory policy. And in a key line he said, raising interest rates is a way to get into all the corners of the financial markets that you might not be able to see, or you might not be able to attack with the regulatory approach. So I thought this was interesting. And I would certainly think that everybody should take heed of this. This is an argument that, maybe you should think about using interest rates to fight financial excess a little more than we have in the last few years.”

A Stein in Bernanke’s shoe: Is there a bubble in corporate bonds?

Financial markets are again on edge about the direction of Fed policy following the surprisingly hawkish minutes of the January meeting released last week, even if most still expect the central bank to keep buying bonds at the current $85 billion monthly pace at least until the end of the year.

Federal Reserve Board Governor Jeremy Stein, an academic economist who joined the central bank last May, surprised Fed-watchers in his latest speech by focusing entirely on the risks of recent monetary stimulus and saying very little about its benefits. In particular, Stein, a corporate finance expert, raised the possibility that a bubble might be forming in the corporate bond markets, which has seen yields fall to record lows and issuance to record highs.

While the speech was riddled with caveats, Wall Street took it as an unusually stern warning about the potential side effects of quantitative easing from Fed’s inner-sanctum, the influential, presidentially-appointed Board of Governors in Washington. Stein argued:

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.

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.

Don’t fear inflation boogeyman: BofA’s Harris

Worries about potential side-effects of unconventional monetary policy on financial markets are at least exaggerated, if not a near figment of the imagination.

This appears to be the conclusion of a comprehensively-argued research note by Bank of America Merrill Lynch global economist Ethan Harris.

The risk investors need to focus on is disinflation, not inflation; yet, remarkably, over the last several years critics of the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing have “hijacked” the inflation debate, Harris says.

QE3 debate kicks into high gear: Get ready for an assembly line of Fed speeches

Is it full steam ahead for the Fed’s QE3 or is the U.S. central bank having second thoughts? Next week’s veritable assembly line of speeches from Fed officials could help answer that question. Vice Chair and possible Bernanke successor Janet Yellen kicks off the week with remarks to an AFL-CIO conference. She is followed by numerous regional Fed presidents, the bulk of them with hawkish tendencies: Esther George, Jeffrey Lacker, Charles Plosser and Dennis Lockhart on Tuesday, St. Louis’ James Bullard on Wednesday and Thursday, and finally, Cleveland Fed President Sandra Pianalto Friday. Oh, and the Fed’s regulatory point person, board governor Daniel Tarullo, testifies before the Senate Banking Committee on Thursday. The topic is a now-perennial one: “Wall Street Reform.”


Fed speaks, but does market listen?

Jonathan Spicer contributed to this post

When the Fed adopted thresholds for its low interest-rate policy last December, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said they would make “monetary policy more transparent and predictable to the public.” But now that the policy is fully in place, it doesn’t seem that the public and the Fed are predicting the same thing at all. Not even close.

In their policy statement following a two-day meeting that wrapped up Wednesday, Fed policymakers removed any reference to date-based policy guidance, saying only that exceptionally low rates would remain in place as long as unemployment remains above 6.5 percent and inflation is not seen to top 2.5 percent. But as recently as December, the Fed’s statement suggested policymakers did not believe those thresholds would be met until at least mid-2015.

The market, as personified by traders ofU.S.short-term rate futures at the Chicago Board of Trade, believes differently. According to CME Group’s FedWatch, which uses fed fund futures prices to estimate market expectations, traders were pricing in a 55 percent chance of a first rate hike by October 2014 – eight months before the Fed’s forecast last month. Threshold-based policy does not seem to have brought the market and the Fed onto the same page – not even to the same year.

Will the Fed adopt thresholds for bond buys?

Tim Ahmann contributed to this post

Suddenly top Wall Street firms are talking about the possibility that the Fed might adopt numerical thresholds for asset purchases, in the same way it has done with interest rates more broadly.

Writes Mike Feroli, chief economist at JP Morgan and a former NY Fed staffer:

Perhaps the most interesting element of Fed policy at the current juncture is how they communicate the conditions that will lead to a slowing or a halt in asset purchases. The speed with which the Committee produced the numerical threshold rate guidance is a reminder that the Bernanke Fed can get their homework done early, but even so we do not look for any news on this front next week.

First, the discussion of this topic is still in its infancy; even the numerical threshold guidance took a few months of debate to finalize. Second, since the introduction of the Chairman’s press conference the FOMC has shown a strong preference to make big decisions – and ones potentially subject to public misunderstanding – at meetings associated with a press conference. There is no press conference scheduled for next week’s meeting. Third, given the complicated task of quantifying the costs of balance sheet expansion, it’s not even certain the Fed will ever communicate the economic conditions that would slow or stop their asset purchases.

Goldman hones in on Fed statement watchword: “Initially”

It’s that time again: Fed watchers are already parsing possible changes to the January policy statement, even before it is released. Goldman Sachs economists in particular have identified one passage ripe for some type of tweak — one that could signal the appetite for continued bond buys:

With Treasury purchases under the new regime already underway, the statement that Treasury purchases would ’initially’ occur at a pace of $45 billion per month will have to be adjusted. If ‘initially’ is replaced with another modifier such as ‘at the present time’ rather than deleted, it would suggest downside risks to the size of     the Treasury program later this year.