The taper is finally here: What the Fed’s move means for the economy


Ben Bernanke, in his final press conference as chairman of the Federal Reserve, announced today that the central bank would be tapering asset purchases to $75 billion a month, down from $85 billion, which has been widely seen as a modest first step toward reducing the Fed’s outsized role in financial markets and the economy.

The move caught many economists by surprise — USA Today survey found that most economists polled said the Fed would maintain its current levels of quantitative easing, as the policy is known, before trimming down in January.

After the financial crisis in 2008, spooked investors started piling into low-risk assets like Treasuries, driving prices dramatically higher. The Fed’s aim in buying these assets was to take safe investments like Treasuries off the market, in order to encourage investors to take more risk and invest in higher-yielding and more productive ventures like stocks, equipment, and new employees.

The ultimate objective was more jobs, and more economic activity.

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Why Does Anyone Think the Fed Will Taper?

Simon Kennedy of Bloomberg claims:

The world economy should brace itself for a slowing of stimulus by the Federal Reserve if history is any guide.

Personally, I think this is nutty stuff. In enacting QE3, Bernanke made pretty explicit he was targeting the unemployment rate; the “full-employment” side of the Fed’s dual mandate. And how’s that doing?

fredgraph (21)

It looks like its coming down — although, we are still a very long way from full employment. And a lot of that decrease, as the civilian employment-population ratio insinuates, is due to discouraged workers dropping out of the labour force:

EMRATIO_Max_630_378 (1)

Moreover, of course, quantitative easing — substituting zero-yielding cash into the money supply for low-yielding assets — is about the Federal Reserve attempting to reinflate the shrunken money supply resulting from the collapse of shadow intermediation in 2008. And the broad money supply remains extremely shrunken, even after all the QE:

And the bigger story is that America is still stuck in a huge private deleveraging phase, burdened with a humungous debt load:

Japan, of course, tapered its stimuli multiple times at the faintest whiff of recovery. Bernanke and Yellen will be aware of this.

Much more likely than abandoning stimulus is the conclusion by the next Fed chair — probably Yellen — that the current transmission mechanisms are ineffective, and the adoption of more direct monetary policy, including helicopter money.

The Latest Bubble?

Subsidies encourage the type of behaviour they are subsidising.

And the Federal Reserve’s QE Infinity is subsidising the market for mortgage backed securities by taking them out of the market at a price floor.

Unsurprisingly, the market for mortgage-backed securities is near all-time highs:

And Wall Street is doing some wild and wacky things.

UBS has just launched a 16-times-leveraged MBS ETN. The ETN, called the ETRACS Monthly Pay 2x Leveraged Mortgage REIT, offers double the return of the Market Vectors Global Mortgage REITs Index – itself an investment vehicle 8x leveraged to mortgage-backed securities.

The idea appears to be that with the Fed acting as a buyer-of-last-resort that prices will take a smooth upward trajectory and that 16:1 leverage makes sense for retail investors as a bet on a sure thing.

Of course, back in the real world, there is no such thing as a sure thing. As Pedro Da Costa recently noted, banks are sitting on the proceeds of MBS purchases, rather than passing on the money to customers in the form of lower interest rates. As the New York Fed’s William Dudley recently noted:

The incomplete pass-through from agency MBS yields into primary mortgage rates is due to several factors—including a concentration of mortgage origination volumes at a few key financial institutions and mortgage rep and warranty requirements that discourage lending for home purchases and make financial institutions reluctant to refinance mortgages that have been originated elsewhere.

Those leveraging up on MBS might want to consider the implications if the Fed were to change its QE3 transmission mechanism — a transmission mechanism that William Dudley is willing to admit is broken — and buy other assets instead of MBS. Without a buyer of last resort with a printing press, prices would seem to be at current levels unsustainable. And those junk MBS products that the market is leveraging up on now in the hope that the Fed will buy them all will be left out in the cold. Such an event would bad news for anyone leveraged 16:1 on MBS.

But such an event would be an ingenious pump and dump, shifting the burden of junk MBS off Bulge Bracket balance sheets and onto the books of not only the Fed — which has already sucked up huge swathes of toxic junk — but also small-time speculators looking to book leveraged gains, but who end up taking the hit. 

Junkie Recovery

A bad jobs report that left headline unemployment above 8% — and much worse when we dig under the surface and see that the real rate is at least 11.7%, if not 14.7% or an even higher figure when we take into account those who have given up looking and claimed disability — has made QE3 seem like an inevitability for many analysts.

Reuters:

U.S. Treasuries rallied on Friday after a weaker-than-expected August U.S. jobs report boosted hopes that the Federal Reserve would buy more bonds to help shift the economy into a gear that could create higher employment.

Goldman Sachs:

We now anticipate that the FOMC will announce a return to unsterilized asset purchases (QE3), mainly agency mortgage-backed securities but potentially including Treasury securities, at its September 12-13 FOMC meeting. We previously forecasted QE3 in December or early 2013. We continue to expect a lengthening of the FOMC’s forward guidance for the first hike in the funds rate from “late 2014” to mid-2015 or beyond.

Jim Rickards:

Fed easing on Sept 13th is a done deal.

Nouriel Roubini:

Quite dismal employment report confirming anemic US economic growth. QE3 is only a matter of when not whether, most likely in December.

Gold has shot up, too, the way it has done multiple times when the market has sensed further easing:

The thing I can’t get my head around, though, is why the Federal Reserve are even considering a continuation of quantitative easing. Here’s why:

If the point of the earlier rounds of quantitative easing was to ease lending conditions by giving the financial system a liquidity cushion, then quantitative easing failed because the financial system already has a huge and historically unprecedented liquidity cushion, and lending remains depressed. Why would even more easing ease lending conditions when the financial sector is already sitting on a massive cushion of liquidity?

If the point of the earlier rounds of quantitative easing was to discourage the holding of treasuries and other “safe” assets (I wouldn’t call treasuries a safe asset at all, but that’s another story for another day) and encourage risk taking, then quantitative easing failed because the financial sector is piling into treasuries (and anything else the Fed intends to buy at a price floor) in the hope of flipping assetsto the Fed balance sheet and eking out a profit.

If the point of quantitative easing was to provide enough  liquidity to keep the massive, earth-shatteringly large debt load serviceable, then quantitative easing succeeded — but the “success” of sustaining the crippling debt load is that it remains a huge burden weighing down on the economy like a tonne of bricks.  This “success” has turned markets into junkies, increasingly dependent on central bank liquidity injections. After QE3 will come more and more and more easing until the market has either successfully managed to deleverage to a sustainable level (and Japan’s total debt level as a percentage of GDP remains higher than it was in 1991, even after 20 years of painful deleveraging — so there is no guarantee whatever that this will occur any time soon), or until central banks give up and let markets liquidate. Quantitative easing’s “success” has been a junkie recovery and a zombie market.

As I see it, the West’s economic depression is being directly caused by an excessive total debt burden — just as Japan’s has been for twenty years; the bust occurred on the back of a huge outgrowth of debt and coincided with the beginning of a painful new era of deleveraging. And the central bank response has been to preserve the debt burden, thus perpetuating the problems rather than allowing them to clear in a short burst of deflationary liquidation as was the norm in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Central banks have been given ample opportunity to demonstrate the effectiveness of reflationism. And yet economic activity remains depressed both in the West and Japan.