Thursday, 28 November 2013

Federal Reserve – preparing to taper

With crunch time coming up, the Federal Reserve puts in the groundwork for a key change in policy

In the long march of dealing with the aftermath of the global financial crisis, the recent baby steps taken by the Federal Reserve may be one of the most crucial parts of the journey.  The Federal Reserve is considering lowering the interest rate on reserves it holds for banks as part of a move to offset upcoming reductions (tapering) in its bond purchases which currently amount to US$85 billion each month.  This tapering is perhaps the most important policy change in the past 12 months with the health of the global economy in the balance, so the Federal Reserve is anxious to ensure all goes well.

The actions of the Federal Reserve have been keenly felt across the globe with stock markets everywhere buoyed by the extra cash sloshing around the international financial system.  This abnormal state of affairs where central bank policy dictates the movement of stock prices is increasingly creating distortions through excessive gains in stock prices.  A pickup in the US economy would mean that the extra stimulus is no longer needed, but a smooth transition as the Federal Reserve changes tack will be key to sustaining any economic recovery in the United States and elsewhere.

As such, the Federal Reserve has been keen to soften the blow to the stock markets with policies that act as a stimulus as it cuts back on the bond buying which has been the main focus of its expansionary policy.  The mere rumour that the Federal Reserve would buy fewer bonds resulted in the interest rates on 10-year US government bonds jumping from around 1.7% in May to almost 3.0% in September.  Forward guidance, with future hikes in interest rates linked to unemployment, was tried as a means to signal the intent to help the economy but investors did not buy it (see prior blog for more).  

Changes to interest rates on banks’ reserves which are under consideration will only probably have a minimal effect but it is the signalling by the Federal Reserve that may be more important.  By showing a willingness to continue to support the economy, the Federal Reserve eases concerns that its actions will trample over the nascent economic recovery.  Some of the best successes of monetary policy have taken effect through nothing more than the suggestion of future action, such as the promise by the European Central Bank to do whatever it takes” to save the euro.  This convinced enough people that it put paid to the Eurozone crisis without a single bond being purchased or interest rate being changed.  

Your Neighbourhood Economist was previously critical of the Federal Reserve for not taking the opportunity to begin tapering in October but the extra couple of months have been put to good use in ensuring that the change in policy goes smoothly.  All eyes will now look to the next meeting of the Federal Reserve (17th to 18th December) when tapering may be announced especially if US job data released on the first Friday in December is seen as positive.  The Federal Reserve is taking a cautious line but it is worth ensuring that there are no stumbles in the finishing stretch.

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