The Fed’s forecasts look pretty similar to what I wrote on Monday but there are some interesting points:
First, there was barely any change at all to the 2012 growth forecasts – the range edges down a little to 2.6-4.7 per cent – and elsewhere we learn that the Fed staff actually upgraded their growth forecasts because of the lower interest rates, currency etc brought on by expectations of QE2. That shows strong confidence in the effectiveness of the policy.
People are missing the really important part of the Fed minutes: the videoconference meeting on October 15th. It tells us some vital things:
- The Fed gave serious consideration to targeting a term interest rate (presumably something such as the ten-year). It chose not to do so, but if it got this much attention, it must be a serious option if inflation continues to drift down or QE2 fails to anchor market interest rates.
- The Fed is considering big changes to its communication practices, including on-the-record press briefings by the chairman, after the fashion of the European Central Bank or the Bank of Japan. Vice-chair Janet Yellen has been put in charge of a subcommittee to investigate communications policy.
Today’s publication of the latest FOMC minutes will probably unveil significant downward revisions to the Committee’s inflation and gross domestic product forecasts for 2011, as well as a large upward revision to its unemployment forecast. More interestingly, the minutes will show whether the FOMC is broadly united on the strategy of quantitative easing which it has now adopted. Is the FOMC clear about how QE is intended to work? I raise the question because Mr Bernanke’s most recent speech made the rather startling claim that the policy should not even be called “quantitative easing” in the first place. Not all of his colleagues on the FOMC, and few of his outside critics, appear to agree with him.
The term “quantitative easing” first came into prominence about a decade ago, when the Bank of Japan was being urged by economic commentators to take direct measures to increase the money supply, after its zero interest rate policy had failed to reverse deflationary forces in the economy. In an article co-authored by Mr Bernanke in 2004, the Bank of Japan was defined as conducting a policy of QE when it “added liquidity to the system beyond what is needed to achieve a (short term interest) rate of zero”. The Bernanke paper suggested that this was normally done “through open market purchases of bonds or other securities which have the effect of increasing the supply of bank reserves”. These are the standard definitions, which have been widely used by economists ever since.
Compare this with what Mr Bernanke said last week:
This isn’t what was meant to happen. The euro is falling sharply today. Equities are also down and credit spreads have widened since the weekend. Peripheral debt is falling in value, so yields are rising (see four charts, below).
These are classic stress reactions in the markets… which the Irish bail-out was meant to stop, if not reverse. The worry is that politicians will continue to look for – and find – problems in domestic economies. (Portugal is lined up next, and then Spain.) The lack of reaction to Ireland’s bail-out tells us very clearly to look for a Europe-wide problem and a Europe-wide solution.
Tensions in the eurozone banking system are not going away. At least one bank, maybe more, has been borrowing heavily from the European Central Bank’s “marginal lending facility” in recent days – a backstop mechanism for those banks who find themselves suddenly short of funds. Use of the facility, which incurs a penal 1.75 per cent interest rate, has been above €2bn for 11 consecutive days now and this morning rose above €3.6bn.
The level of borrowing is not yet at record levels but, interestingly, use of the facility has been heavier than in early May, when the crisis over eurozone’s public finances was at its most intense – and before the European Union’s bail-out system was put in place.
If the Irish bail-out was intended to calm markets, it has failed. Yields on Irish debt are the most stable they have been for weeks, shifting a few basis points and staying above 8 per cent. The cost of credit insurance has risen and the ECB is apparently still buying Irish bonds.
Euro officials will be worried, and Irish officials furious. This suggests that Ireland’s lack of funds was not what was driving bond yields up. Did EU officials pressure Ireland to accept a bail-out for nothing?
Ireland is not Greece, and the markets know it. After the Greek bail-out, there was a dramatic, if temporary, fall in yields of about 4 percentage points. Of course, relief centred on more than just Greece’s small economy: the bail-out proved that eurozone members would stick together.
The Irish bail-out – arguably not needed – was different.
Ireland’s bank bail-out plans came as a relief to the European Central Bank, after providing another example of the increasingly political role being played by the euro’s monetary guardian. Alarmed at the massive amounts of liquidity it was pumping into Irish banks, the ECB lobbied hard behind the scenes for action to shore up the country’s financial system.
A successfully completed rescue, helped by the International Monetary Fund, would reduce the immediate pressure on the ECB, which welcomed Dublin’s decision in a statement late on Sunday – but not allow the Frankfurt-based institution to escape the political area. It is pushing hard for bolder reforms of the eurozone’s system of government – demanding tougher surveillance of fiscal and other economic polices, backed up with sanctions, to prevent crises from erupting.
Fresh ECB involvement would be required were the eurozone’s financial crisis to engulf Portugal or Spain. Even if it does not, the ECB is still likely to be active in buying government bonds under an emergency programme launched when the eurozone crisis was at its most intense in May. “The ECB has become part of the game to an extent it was not before,” said Jörg Kramer, chief economist at Commerzbank in Frankfurt.