Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Quantitative Easing - Harder to End than to Start

The Federal Reserve changes tack on its change of tack in monetary policy which will make it less credible in the future.

It is still a month away from Halloween but something seems to be scared Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve.  Bernanke was expected to announce that the Federal Reserve would be buying fewer bonds in September but surprised most pundits (including Your Neighbourhood Economist) by deciding not to make any changes with the status quo.  The unexpected bonus of a delay to the start of “tapering” helped push stocks in the United States to record highs but gains were limited by worries about the future direction of monetary policy.  By backing down from a change in policy, the Federal Reserve has made its job of finding an exit from quantitative easing more difficult while also making it trickier for investors to understand the big question that still remains – how far off is the beginning of the end for quantitative easing?

The Federal Reserve began to signal a change in direction in May and June using its own version of forward guidance where central banks outline future policy through using economic data as markers.  The current policy of the Federal Reserves has entailed buying US$85 billion in bonds each month with interest rates set at close to zero – its forward guidance in July put forward an end to bond buying by the time unemployment reached 7% with interest rates to rise once unemployment had fallen to 6.5%.  With unemployment expected to reach its first target by the middle of 2014, there was an anticipation that the Federal Reserve would move to reduce its bond purchases before the end of 2013, so as to ensure a more gradual decline in quantitative easing which would be less painful for the economy. 

Yet, investors drew their own conclusions from the forward guidance and took it as an excuse to sell bonds whose prices had climbed to record highs (for more, see Managing Expectations).  As lower bond prices translates to higher interest rates for bonds, the bond sell-off resulted in interest rates on benchmark US government bonds increasing from around 2% to close to 3%.  This ran contrary to the gradual adjustment which the Federal Reserve was attempting to facilitate to ensure that the nascent economic recovery would not be choked off by higher interest rates. 

The jumpy market reaction along with slower improvements in the US job market were enough to spook the Federal Reserve into keeping the quantitative easing going.  Only time will tell whether the cautious approach was the right call but Your Neighbourhood Economist fears that Ben Bernanke may have been too timid for his own good.  While there is always the possibility of gremlins lurking in the economy somewhere, the timing did seem as good as it will ever be for starting the drawn-out process of tightening monetary policy.

Unemployment in the United States has fallen to 7.3% in August compared to 7.9% in January (even though part of the fall is due to some people not bothering to look for work any more).  And, while the size of the market reaction was a tad overdone, investors always factor in events ahead of time – as such, the bond sell-off was just the normal response to an end to actions by the Federal Reserve which have propped up both the markets for bonds and stocks.  So, any further movements in the financial markets were likely to have been muted.  But as it happens, prices for bonds and stock perked up as investors looked forward to continued efforts by the central bank to prop up the markets.

With the Federal Reserve forgoing an opportunity to pare back its bond purchases in September, market participants are trying to figure out the possible timing for the inevitable change in policy.  The Federal Reserve meets again in October but will have few new bits of economic data to sooth its concerns over the strength of the economy.  The subsequent meeting of the Federal Reserve is in December with this seen by many as the next chance for action. 

The cautious approach by the Federal Reserve does have its costs.  It is a fad among central banks these days to signal in advance of changes to policy, but by choosing not to follow through with the expected change of policy in September, investors will be less likely to believe the Federal Reserve in future.  In the short-term, it is unclear what will be sufficient to trigger the beginning of the end of quantitative easing – weak economic data for the rest of 2013 may see the “to taper or not to taper” saga drag on for a while yet.  The resulting uncertainty and likely volatility in the financial markets may be even more harmful than the expected tightening of monetary policy. 

A central bank is only as good as its word and the Federal Reserve has cheapened its own words.  That is a scary prospect considering the current hands-on management of the economy by the Federal Reserve and how much it will have to do to talk its way out of this management role.

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