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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Can The Fed Taper?

The Taper Tapir

Back in June, I correctly noted that it was severely unlikely that the Federal Reserve would taper its asset buying programs in September. I based this projection on the macroeconomic indicators on which the Federal Reserve bases its decisions — unemployment, and inflation. The Federal Reserve has a mandate from Congress to delivery a monetary policy that results in full employment, and low and stable inflation. With consumer price inflation significantly below the Fed’s self-imposed 2% goal, and with the rate of unemployment relatively high — currently well over 7% — I saw very little chance of the Fed effectively tightening by reducing his asset purchases.

There exists another school of thought that also correctly noted that the Fed would not taper. This other school, however, believes that the Fed cannot ever taper and that the Fed will destroy the dollar before it ceases its monetary activism. This view is summarised by the Misesian economist Pater Tanebrarum:

While it is true that the liquidation of malinvested capital would resume if the monetary heroin doses were to be reduced, the only alternative is to try to engender an ‘eternal boom’ by printing ever more money. This can only lead to an even worse ultimate outcome, in the very worst case a crack-up boom that destroys the entire monetary system.

So the Misesian view appears to be that the Fed won’t stop buying because doing so would result in a mass liquidation, and so the Fed will print all the way to hyperinflation.

Since talk of a taper began, rates certainly spiked as the market began to price in a taper. How far would an actual taper have pushed rates up? Well, it’s hard to say. But given that banks now have massive capital buffers in the form of excess reserves — as well as a guaranteed lender-of-last-resort resource at the Fed — it is hard to believe that an end to quantitative easing now would push us back into the depths of post-Lehman liquidation. Certainly, in the year preceding the announcement of QE Infinity — when unemployment was higher, and bank balance sheets frailer — there was no such fall back into liquidation. What a taper certainly would have amounted to is a relative tightening in monetary policy at a time when inflation is relatively low (sorry Shadowstats) and when unemployment is still relatively and stickily high. Whether or not we believe that monetary policy is effective in bringing down unemployment or igniting inflation, it is very clear that doing such a thing would be completely inconsistent with the Federal Reserve’s mandate and stated goals.

Generally, I find monetary policy as a means to control unemployment as rather Rube Goldberg-ish. Unemployment is much easier reduced through direct spending rather than trusting in the animal spirits of a depressed market to deliver such a thing, especially in the context of widespread deleveraging. But that does not mean that the Fed can never tighten again. While the depression ploughs on, the Fed will continue with or expand its current monetary policy measures. Whether or not these are effective, as Keynes noted, in the long run when the storm is over the ocean is flat. If by some luck — a technology shock, perhaps — there was an ignition of stronger growth, and unemployment began to fall significantly, the Fed would not just be able to tighten, it would have to to quell incipient inflationary pressure. Without luck and while the recovery remains feeble, it is true that it is hard to see the Fed tightening any time soon. Janet Yellen certainly believes that the Fed can do more to fight unemployment. This could certainly mean an increase in monetary activism. If she succeeds and the recovery strengthens and unemployment moves significantly downward, then Yellen will come under pressure to tighten sooner. 

In the current depressionary environment, the hyperinflation that the Misesians yearn for and see the Fed pushing toward is incredibly unlikely. The deflationary forces in the economy are stunningly huge. Huge quantities of pseudo-money were created in the shadow banking system before 2008, which are now being extinguished. The Fed would have had to double its monetary stimulus simply to push the money supply up to its long-term trend line. Wage growth throughout the economy is very stagnant, and the flow of cheap consumer goods from the East continues. So Yellen has the scope to expand without fearing inflationary pressure. The main concerns for inflation in my view are entirely non-monetary — geopolitical shocks, and energy shocks. Yet with ongoing deleveraging, any such inflationary shocks may actually prove helpful by decreasing the real burden of the nominal debt. Tightening or tapering in response to such shocks would be quite futile.

Sooner or later, the Fed will feel that the unemployment picture has significantly improved. That could be at 5% or even 6% so long as the job creation rate is strongly growing. At that point — perhaps by 2015  — tapering can begin. Tapering may slow the recovery to some extent not least through expectations. And that may be a good thing, guarding against the outgrowth of bubbles.

Yet if another shock pushes unemployment up much further, then tapering will be off the table for a long time. Although Yellen will surely try, with the Fed already highly extended under such circumstances, the only effective option left for job creation will be fiscal policy.

Can Tightening Fight the Collateral Shortage?

Tyler Durden of Zero Hedge claims that any taper in QE will be a response to the collateral shortage — the fact that quantitative easing has stripped an important part of the market’s collateral base for rehypothecation out of the market. With less collateral in the market, there is less of a base for credit creation. The implication here is that quantitative easing is tightening rather than easing credit conditions. The evidence? Breakdown in the Treasuries market resulting in soaring fails-to-deliver and fails-to-receive:

20130621_fails_0

Tyler notes:

Simply put, the main reason the Fed is tapering has nothing to do with the economy and everything to do with the TBAC presentation (rehypothecation and collateral shortages) and that the US is now running smaller deficits!!!

I don’t disagree with this. The ultra-low rate environment (that is still an ultra-low rate environment in spite of the small spike in Treasuries since murmurs of the taper began) on everything from Treasuries to junk bonds is symptomatic of a collateral shortage. Quantitative easing may ease the base money supply (as an anti-deflationary response to the ongoing deflation of the shadow money supply since 2008), but it tightens the supply of collateral.

The evidence on this is clear — expanding government deficits post-2008 did not bridge the gap in securities issuance that the financial crisis and central bank interventions created:

assets

The obvious point, at least to me, is that it seems easier and certainly less Rube Goldberg-esque to fight the collateral shortage by running bigger Federal deficits until private market securities issuance can take its place. Unfortunately quantitative easing itself is something of a Rube Goldberg machine with an extremely convoluted transmission mechanism, and fiscal policy is not part of the Fed’s mandate.

But I am not sure that tightening can fight the collateral shortage at all. The money supply is still shrunken from the pre-crisis peak (much less the pre-crisis trend) even after all the quantitative easing. Yes, many have talked of the Federal Reserve inflating the money supply, but the broadest measures of the money supply are smaller than they were before the quantitative easing even started. This deflation is starting to show up in price trends, with core PCE falling below 1% — its lowest level in history. Simply, without the meagre inflation of the money supply that quantitative easing is providing, steep deflation seems highly likely. I don’t think the Fed can stop.

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.