The FOMC will meet on Wednesday with the markets feeling confident that there will be no change in monetary policy. This means that the $85bn per month rate of balance sheet expansion will probably remain in place. But recently chairman Ben Bernanke has conceded, rather reluctantly, that the Fed’s exit strategy from quantitative easing will soon need to be reconsidered by the committee, and the debate could start at this month’s meeting. In any event, with economists now upgrading their forecasts for US GDP for the first time in quite a while, the markets are increasingly focused on whether the exit can be handled successfully.

The first question is whether the exit will be gradual or abrupt. The chairman’s personal preference is very well known: it should be gradual, and extremely well flagged in advance. But Mr Bernanke might not be in office after next January, and there are others on the FOMC who could have different ideas. Furthermore, economic and market circumstances could change. In 1994, GDP growth and inflation both rose markedly, and the Fed slammed on the brakes without any warning. The resulting 3 per cent rise in the Fed funds rate delivered a major shock to the financial system. 

IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde discusses global economic priorities at the Brookings Institution, April 12, 2012

IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde discusses global economic priorities at the Brookings Institution, April 12, 2012

The Spring Meetings of the IMF and the World Bank will be the focus of market attention this week. IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde has set the ball rolling, with a speech calling for policy makers to “seize the day”. She is asking for a repeat of the “London moment” in February 2009, when G20 leaders announced a co-ordinated plan to rescue the global economy.

However, while her recommendations for action are perfectly sensible, there is an air of familiarity about them. They include a call for more financial resources for the IMF; delayed fiscal tightening in some countries, combined with longer term plans for budget consolidation;  easy monetary policy in the developed economies; continued reform of the financial system; renewed labour market reforms; and measures to promote fairness and eradicate poverty. With no atmosphere of crisis surrounding the Spring Meetings, there seems little chance of anything dramatic emerging on any of these fronts this week. 

No-one can deny that the weakness of the housing market remains at the heart of the economic crisis in the US. In fact, it is the American equivalent of the sovereign debt crisis in the eurozone. The overhang of housing debt is forcing US households to run large financial surpluses in order to pay down their liabilities, just as the the overhang of sovereign debt in the eurozone is forcing governments to improve their financial balances. And that is resulting in weak economic activity on both sides of the Atlantic. The question of what should be done about it is now coming to the centre of the economic debate in the US. Diagnosing the problem is relatively straightforward. Solving it is not. 

A couple of months ago, financial markets realised that the developed economies were slowing sharply, while the policy response from central banks and finance ministries was slow, or confused, or in some cases, like the debt ceiling debacle in Washington, directly damaging. Since then, some policy makers have woken up and smelled the coffee. There have been significant policy shifts in the US, and at the ECB. But there has been no progress whatsoever in the eurozone sovereign debt crisis. Last week, that became by far the most urgent problem facing the global economy. 

The recent fall in equities represents a belated recognition by the markets that the global economy has been much weaker than consensus economic forecasts indicated earlier in the year. Unlike last summer, when the same thing happened, the markets have also begun to recognise that policy makers have little ammunition left in the locker to combat the downturn.

The political will needed to ease fiscal policy, even temporarily, has evaporated on both sides of the Atlantic. And monetary policy has been hamstrung by the rise in inflation, which has clearly changed the thinking of the Fed. So where is the escape route?