Monday 29 June 2009

Last Call for Monetization?

In the past three weeks there have been several indications that the Federal Reserve is reconsidering the extent and perhaps necessity of its extraordinary liquidity provisions to the Treasury market. How far have the chairman and governors pulled back from their quantitative easing policy?

On June 3rd Chairman Bernanke commented in Congressional testimony that federal deficits cannot continue forever. In fact the deficits can continue, but the Fed’s $300 billion Treasury purchase plan will end unless additional funding is authorized by the Fed governors. At this past week’s FOMC meeting the board specifically did not authorize further Treasury purchases. The Fed is also letting one of its emergency liquidity programs expire and curtailing two others. None of these developments is an overt change in policy, but they are assurances that the chairman and the board view these liquidity measures as crisis expedients and not as permanent institutions of monetary and economic policy.

It is easy to forget that the Fed policy of direct support for credit markets was an emergency response to the crisis of confidence that overwhelmed the financial system last fall. Fed purchases of various securities supplied liquidity to non-functioning markets; they were not intended to be permanent. The Fed said as much at the time, though in the ensuing months market focus shifted from the programs themselves to the lack of a clear strategy for absorbing the excess money supply from the economy.

In March the market reaction to the financial crisis was at its peak. Treasury prices had been driven to historical highs by sustained panic buying of US Treasuries. Treasury interest rates and rates on 30-year fixed rate mortgages were at record lows. But even though mortgages rates were extraordinarily low the Fed judged that the reeling economy could not tolerate the surge in interest rates that would occur if Treasury prices began to fall. The governors may have suspected that the Treasury market would begin to drive prices lower and rates higher on its own as credit conditions normalized

In that context the Fed announced its $300 billion Treasury purchase in the FOMC statement of March 18th. The governors may also have been worried about the impact of the federal deficit on the bond market whose reaction was then an unknown quantity. But despite the Fed backstop the Treasury market fell relentlessly after March 18 with the 10-year rate rising more than 1.5%. More dangerously the dollar index fell 10% from March 18th to June 2nd. For the currency markets the Fed Treasury program has had one meaning, monetization of the Federal debt. Judging by the subsequent rise in Treasury rates the Fed governors may have known that the $300 million committed would be insufficient to hold the line on Treasury rates. But that relatively minor amount had a deadly effect on the dollar. The merest suspicion that monetization of US debt was possible sent the dollar into a three month swoon. The inflation that would result from a rapidly falling dollar and the effect of a collapsing dollar on the Treasury market itself could undo much of the economic and rate stabilization that the Fed was striving to achieve.

The Fed concern about the Treasury market was for the economic effect of higher interest rates on the US economy, particularly on the housing market thought by many to be at the heart of the economic collapse. But higher Treasury yields and mortgage rates have not, at least so far, choked whatever positive change in the economy has occurred since March. 30-year fixed mortgages have gained more than a point but the housing market has stabilized; new home and existing home sales in May were both in the center of the range they have exhibited since January.

The Personal Consumption Expenditures Index has revived since last December. It gained 0.9% in January, 0.4% in February, 0.3% in May, was flat in April and lost 0.3% in March. The half year prior to January had six negative months in a row. Non Farm Payrolls were substantially improved in May at -345,000, with the three month moving average (-500,000) having gained almost 200,000 since March (-691,000). Consumer sentiment numbers have moved up steadily since the beginning of the quarter. The economic situation that prompted the Fed quantitative easing has returned to more normal territory.

The Treasury market has also stabilized in the past two weeks. After reaching 4.00% the yield on the 10-year note had declined to 3.54% on the Friday close. The government Treasury auctions, a record $104 billion in the past week alone, have been subscribed at higher rates than normal. The bond markets are not demanding substantially higher rates on American debt, despite the vast continuing supply of US issuance.

The key to the extension of the Fed Treasury program is the attitude of the credit markets. It is relatively simple. If bond purchasers do not demand higher yields for US debt, then whatever the long term effect of the ballooning US debt and inflation the government will not be forced to pay higher rates. If Treasury prices are not falling the Fed will not have to support the market with further Treasury purchases and the currency markets will not be stampeded away from the dollar by monetization.

Foreign central banks have been unusually critical of the US government’s fiscal and debt policy. The Chinese were so again this week. But what matters are not the banker’s words or their musings about a world reserve currency. What matters is action. As long as the Chinese, Russians, Japanese and private investors continue to buy US Treasuries, the Fed will not have to choose between supporting the US economy and supporting the dollar.

It is a delicate balance but so far the Fed has, with the cooperation of the Treasury markets, kept the pointer right in the middle of the scale. The Fed has managed to mitigate the scare it threw into the currency markets in March with its recent statements and actions.

There are still a huge amount of Treasuries to be sold over the next three months and the economic situation is still dangerous. But the Fed view as reflected in the FOMC statement, no more quantitative easing and a slight though significant withdrawal from the credit markets may be the right and artful balance between keeping down US interest rates and avoiding a dollar panic in the currency markets.

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