What more could the Fed do? (cont’d)

The New York Times joins the chorus of complaints that the Fed has not done enough to jump-start this stalling economy. In yesterday’s lead editorial the gray lady ruefully notes that Ben Bernanke basically ruled out further quantitative easing when he said at the Fed’s June meeting that it would not happen unless there was a heightened risk of deflation. Then the editorial offers a paragraph’s worth of additional measures the Fed could take. One by one:

‘For starters, the Fed could take modest steps, like shifting its portfolio toward bonds with longer maturities, which would help to keep long-term rates low and nudge investors into riskier investments.’

In other words, QE3, or QE2 on steroids. Normally the Fed targets the shortest of short-term rates (the fed funds rate) and does so through its open market purchases and sales of short-term T-bills. And T-bills are the security of choice because the Fed does not want to make too big a splash (at least not directly) in the markets for particular bonds. The logic here is the reverse: of course the Fed wants to make a splash in the bond market by lowering long-term interest rates — that’s the penultimate goal of monetary policy, behind stimulating business investment and consumer spending. In today’s extraordinary circumstances, ending the Little Depression seems more important than not disrupting the bond market. So it’s hard to argue against this one, other than to note that the Fed would probably be monetizing a lot more of the federal debt than otherwise, which could raise inflation fears. (Of note: In the early 1930s Keynes thought the central banks should buy up long-term debt so as to lower long-term interest rates, too. So this isn’t exactly a new idea.)

‘It could reduce the interest it pays on the banks’ huge reserves or even tax the reserves to try to encourage more lending.’

Absolutely. Reduce it to 0%, which was the rate on reserves prior to 2008. Bernanke’s main rationale paying interest on reserves, as I understand it, was to reassure the markets that the huge pools of bank reserves, which the Fed created in response to the crisis, would not lead to a runaway inflation when the economy began to recover and banks loaned those reserves out. The idea was that as the economy recovered the Fed would “soak up” those reserves by raising the interest rate on them so that banks would be less inclined to loan them out. At this point, however, hardly anyone seem to be worried about the inflation threat posed by those reserves. They’re more worried about how they continue to just sit there. Lowering the rate to zero can only help, though maybe not by much.

‘It could also resume buying Treasuries or other securities to provide additional monetary stimulus.’

This is a lot like the first suggestion. It could get more radical if the “other securities” are things like mortgage-backed securities, in which case it’s more like QE1 (when the Fed effectively bought up many of the toxic subprime securities, thereby taking them off the market). This brings to mind the dramatic proposal by Joseph E. Gagnon of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, which has gotten a lot of attention lately. Gagnon: “First and foremost, the Federal Reserve should announce an additional $2 trillion of asset purchases, including longer-term Treasury bonds, agency mortgage-backed securities (MBS), and foreign exchange. This is more than three times the size of the woefully underpowered quantitative easing of late last year (dubbed QE2) and it should be accompanied by a clear statement that more is forthcoming if the economy continues to underperform.” I haven’t digested Gagnon’s proposal yet, but this is what a radical proposal looks like. Krugman and Brad DeLong seem to like it.

‘A more aggressive strategy would be letting inflation rise above the Fed’s comfort level of 2 percent or so to, say, 4 percent. That could help the economy by easing the repayment of debt.’

This would have promise if the Fed could actually control the rate of inflation like that. As I’ve written before, I don’t think it can, not when the economy is in a depression and seems to be tending on its own more toward deflation than to 4% inflation. The Fed has already flooded the banking system with reserves; when they don’t get loaned out (as so many of them haven’t), they don’t raise aggregate demand, the money supply, or the price level.

In sum: The first two steps seem worth taking, but are probably too modest to have much impact. The third step can be about as big as the Fed wants it to be; it has the most potential, though as with QE1 just moving a lot of assets from the private sector onto the Fed’s balance sheet doesn’t necessarily generate a surge of private investment. The fourth step looks impossible at present, even without the inevitable political resistance to the Fed backing down on inflation.

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One Response to “What more could the Fed do? (cont’d)”

  1. Mark Eanes Says:

    I like the second suggestion best. Anything that can be done to promote lending and get money flowing is a good thing right now. I also like the idea of the Fed taking over some of these mortgage-backed securities, especially if it somehow can help with economic growth. If the last suggestion isn’t such a bad one, then if other suggestions were tried and subsequently overshot their mark a bit, then we wouldn’t have to worry too much.

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