Posts Tagged ‘QE2’

What more could the Fed do?

5 August 2011

I don’t claim to have the answer to this question. Those who propose an answer other than “nothing” don’t get a lot of airtime, but Dean Baker, one of my favorite gadfly economists, is one of them. He writes today that it is wrong, wrong, wrong to say that the Fed has run out of ammunition. While it is true that the Fed has lowered its usual policy target, the federal funds rate, as far as it can go (0-0.25%) and blown through two unusual policy actions known as quantitative easing (QE), there are other options that every policy economist has heard about. (Whether they’re wise options or not is the real question.) I’ll turn it over to Baker:

‘The Fed could do another round of quantitative easing, although this is likely to have a limited impact. It could also target a long-term interest rate, for example putting a 1.0 percent interest rate target on 5-year Treasury bonds.’

QE3 might well happen, although as Baker notes the impact is likely to be limited, as was the case with QE2. Since QE2 did not seem to roil financial markets, my sense is that there will be a QE3, with a slight downward push on medium- and long-term interest rates. But given the low business and consumer borrowing with today’s low interest rates, I doubt that nudging them further down will make a noticeable difference.

Targeting a long-term interest rate implies a more aggressive form of QE, where the Fed buys and sells long-term bonds in such a way as to control the market for those bonds. This is more than it does in its open market operations for Treasury bills, which are about hitting a target for the fed funds rate (the interest rate on loans of reserves between banks), not controlling the T-bill rate. I’m instinctively a bit leery of handing that much control over the bond market to the Fed, and I suspect financial markets would like it even less.

‘Alternatively, the Fed could pursue a path that Bernanke himself had advocated for Japan when he was still a Princeton professor. It could target a higher rate of inflation, for example 4 percent. This would have the effect of reducing real interest rates. It would also lower the debt burden of homeowners, which could allow them to spend more money.’

I’m really skeptical of this one on two fronts.

  1. I don’t think it’s all that easy for the Fed to raise the inflation rate when the economy is stagnant. (The exception — stagflation in the 1970s — was a case where people lost all confidence in the Fed, and it’s not an episode anyone wants to repeat.) All the textbook models I’ve seen of inflation have it coming from either higher aggregate demand (the horse to inflation’s cart, not the other way around, and precisely what’s lacking in this depression) or from an increase in the money supply. And increasing the money supply is not as simple as dropping cash from a helicopter. In the real world the money supply increases as part of a multi-step process: the Fed gives banks excess reserves, banks willingly loan out those excess reserves to willing borrowers, those borrowers spend them, the cash gets deposited into bank accounts, which are part of the money supply. Note the “willing” parts in there — banks have to be willing to loan out their excess reserves, instead of sitting on huge piles of them as they’re doing now, and households and firms have to be willing to borrow money, instead of holding back out of economic anxiety.
  2. Doubling the Fed’s target rate of inflation (it’s now 2%, unofficially) would not only be a political non-starter, likely leading to Congressional hearings or legislation to change the Fed’s charter, but it seems to rely on massive money illusion, i.e., a public too stupid to know what the inflation rate is. Financial markets can make big mistakes, but ignoring the inflation rate is generally not one of them. As Irving Fisher noted a century ago, if the expected inflation rate jumps from 2% to 4%, then nominal interest rates will also jump by 2 percentage points, leaving expected real interest rates (the ones that matter) unchanged. It is true that real interest rates on old loans and the real burden of old debt would fall, which would be good for debtors and ought to provide a net stimulus to the economy. But creditors would regard a planned inflation hike to 4% as theft, which could not be good for confidence overall and might inhibit future lending. Raising the inflation target to the historic norm of 3% would be better, but then we’re back to the question in (1): How?

I’m still looking for alternative stimuli the Fed could try, including different forms that QE3 could take. If you’ve got any ideas, the comments section is happy to have ’em.

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Bummer in the summer (updated)

22 June 2011

In today’s press conference Bernanke acknowledges the obvious: the economy is worse than we thought and likely to stay that way into 2012.  The Fed lowered its official economic growth forecasts and raised its unemployment rate forecasts for 2011-2012. After almost two years of slow but steady recovery and myriad positive straws that one could grasp, the last couple of months have brought mostly lousy news, notably the latest jobs report, which showed a gain of just 54,000 jobs last month, only about a quarter or a sixth as many as we’d need to get unemployment down to normal levels in five years or so.

It’s notable that the imminent end of the Fed’s quantitative easing, all $600 billion of which will be over by the end of the month, brings few calls for another round — everyone seems to agree that we’re in a liquidity trap, in which further monetary stimulus fails to stimulate, because interest rates are already practically 0%, banks are not eager to lend, and companies are not eager to invest in new capital.*

Our best hope, it seems to me, is an almost nihilistic one: the economy somehow recovers on its own, through black-box mechanisms that we still don’t really understand. Business confidence returns, hiring finally picks up, and the economy roars forth. This may be a vain hope, but the “animal spirits” of investors (and consumers) that Keynes wrote about in The General Theory are not really visible, despite the several monthly surveys of business sentiment that are out there.

Our next best hope is another fiscal stimulus. It won’t be like the first one, which is about to run out and was too small anyway, not with a Republican majority in the House that believes spending = death and doesn’t even want to avert a financial crisis by raising the debt ceiling unless the Democrats agree to massive long-term spending cuts. But I could see the two parties agreeing on a big set of tax cuts, which is the usual form that a fiscal stimulus takes anyway (e.g., 1964, 1981, 2001).  That has a couple of disadvantages: (1) the “multiplier” effect of a tax cut on GDP is typically empirically estimated to be smaller than that of a spending increase of equal size, because not all of a tax cut gets spent; (2) tax cuts are hard to reverse, as everyone hates seeing their taxes go up, so they could make the long-term debt problem much worse. Still, it’s probably the only politically viable option for a fiscal stimulus.

* The last part of that statement (companies are not eager to invest in new capital) is less true than I had thought. As the Wall Street Journal article linked to below notes, a survey of banks indicated that small businesses were demanding more loans, at least in the first quarter of the year.

UPDATE: This Associated Press article from the next day’s newspapers adds some helpful detail. The headline from the Syracuse Post-Standard’s version of that article says it all: “Slow Economy a Puzzle: Fed chief flummoxed, says troubles could last a while.” My quick take:

(1) The economy has long been in a liquidity trap (Krugman’s definition, i.e., a slump in which monetary policy is no longer effective).

(2) Bernanke has long suspected this himself, but as Fed Chairman he feels obligated to try to stimulate the economy through monetary policy, via unusual, unprecedented channels “that just might work” like QE2.

(3) QE2 has failed to measurably stimulate the economy, because the economy was in a liquidity trap.

(4) Liquidity trap or not, it’s not easy for the Fed to just throw in the towel, so a QE3 might well happen. But I doubt the Street will get all that excited about it, considering what a dud QE2 seems to have been.

Monetary policy IS currency manipulation

13 November 2010

Everyone from the Chinese to Alan Greenspan is slamming the Fed’s new round of longer-term bond purchases (QE2) as a back-door plot to weaken the dollar. The logic is that the bond purchases should lower interest rates, thereby lowering the demand for dollars and causing the dollar’s price to fall, thereby raising U.S. net exports. That much is true, but it leaves one thing out:

That’s exactly how expansionary monetary policy is supposed to work!

It’s even in a lot of macroeconomics principles textbooks:  When the Fed lowers interest rates, the lower rates are supposed to raise GDP by spurring household consumption and business investment (that much is in every principles textbook) and secondarily by lowering the demand for U.S. bonds, thus lowering the demand for dollars and weakening the dollar, thus raising U.S. exports and lowering our imports.  This effect is sketchier than the effects on consumption and investment, since net exports are very volatile and do not respond quickly to changes in exchange rates, but it is there.

So why exactly is it currency manipulation when it’s part of QE2 (which is only expected to reduce interest rates by about 20 basis points and so far has actually seemed to raise them a bit, due to inflationary expectations and the Fed’s surprise decision to concentrate its purchases on medium- rather than long-term bonds) but not when it’s part of the Fed’s zero-federal-funds-rate policy?  I’m thinking the selective outrage might have something to do with President Obama’s meetings with Asian and G-20 leaders this week.  The Chinese are happy to grasp at this new straw in order to deflect attention from their more blatant attempts to keep the yuan low, the Europeans are seeking some company for their draconian budget-slashing misery, and Greenspan is bandwagon-jumping as usual.

P.S.  Although I think this particular criticism of QE2 is bogus, I am against QE2 for a host of other reasons, which I’ll get to in another post sometime.