QE2

The Fed decision was fairly close to what was anticipated in this earlier blog – all “twist” and no “shout”. However, on balance, the statement was slightly more dovish than I expected. Concerns about downside risks to economic activity were at least as great as in last month’s FOMC statement, with new downside risks from financial strains being specifically mentioned, and this has swayed the majority of the committee to introduce a slightly more aggressive operation “twist” than expected. Inflation concerns, while marginally greater than in the August FOMC statement, are clearly insufficient to impress the committee, which remains biased towards further easing even after today’s announcement.

 

Opinion is sharply divided about what the Fed intended to signal in the statement issued on Tuesday. Some have seen the statement as very dovish, because it said that the Fed intended to leave short rates at “exceptionally low levels” until mid 2013 – the first time that a specific date of this sort has ever been set by the FOMC.

Others, however, concluded that the statement contained nothing really new, since the markets had already assumed that short rates would be close to zero for the next two years. Furthermore, the fact that there were three dissents from the majority decision has led some to deduce that the further large step to more quantitative easing (QE3) is still a long way off. On this view, nothing really changed. 

Ben Bernanke

Ben Bernanke. Image by EPA.

The financial markets seem determined to interpret today’s statement by the Fed chairman in a dovish light, but a careful reading of his words does not support that point of view. True, Mr Bernanke outlined the possible ways in which monetary policy might be eased further if recent economic weakness should prove more persistent than expected. But he gave equal weight to the possibility that “the economy could evolve in a way that would warrant less-accommodative policy”.

There was no hint in the text about which of these outcomes he considered the more likely. We already knew from yesterday’s FOMC minutes for the June meeting that the committee is split about the likely evolution of policy, and we were waiting to see today whether the chairman would throw his weight behind either the doves or the hawks. He failed to do either. 

The US employment numbers for May seemed to surprise the markets, but in fact they confirmed what we already knew from a string of earlier data releases, which is that the economy has slowed very markedly in recent months. The debate now is whether this slowdown has been triggered mainly by transitory factors – the fallout from the Japanese earthquake, stormy weather, and a spike in gasoline prices above $4/gallon – or whether it reflects a more fundamental malaise in the economic recovery.

The equity markets have remained fairly upbeat about this, and most economists are still strongly of the view that this is just another mid-cycle slowdown of the sort which occurred last year. This still seems to be the most probable outcome (as I will argue here on Sunday). But what if this optimism is wrong? Is there a Plan B? 

Many investors fear that the Fed’s impending exit from QE2 will have a very damaging effect on the financial markets. Whether they are right will depend on the nature of the exit, and its impact on bond yields. 

The financial markets remain torn between their concerns over “black swans” (exogenous shocks from oil prices, food prices, and the Japanese earthquake) and the improving state of the global economy.  

This has been a week for seismologists, nuclear scientists and military strategists, rather than for economists. (And they call economics the dismal science!) 

If he were still alive today, what would Milton Friedman think of his disciple, Ben Bernanke? This is a matter of some concern to the Fed Chairman. 

After a week which has been replete with important economic and political news from the US, the bulk of the incoming information has confirmed what we knew already. The Fed has embarked on QE2, more or less exactly as expected. The Republicans took the House but not the Senate, and the President’s initial reaction suggests that the Bush tax cuts will probably be extended, which was the central case before the election. And the economy continues to grow at a pace which is neither fast enough to bring unemployment down, nor slow enough to threaten a double dip. While all of this was broadly as expected, there have been some interesting (and mostly encouraging) developments which are worth noting.

So what do we know today that we did not know a week ago? Three things: 

The Fed statement just released indicates that the central bank intends to purchase a net total of $600bn of longer term Treasury securities between now and the end of 2011 Q2, at a pace of around $75bn per month. This was almost exactly in line with what the market had been led to expect, so there was no surprise in the extent and timing of QE2. However, there was no further softening in the Fed’s statement that interest rates are likely to remain exceptionally low for an “extended period”, which may have disappointed some observers who were looking for this language to shift in a dovish direction. Overall, the markets initial reaction was a shrug of acceptance that the Fed has done just about what it told us it would do, but certainly no more.