QE or Not QE: The Consequences Are The Same

It may look, swim and quack like one, but Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell insists that the Fed’s recent reinflation of its balance sheet past the $4 trillion mark isn’t quantitative easing. Oh no, he says, just because the Fed’s portfolio recently rebounded to $4.175 trillion at the middle of January, up from a six-year low of $3.76 trillion since the beginning of September, doesn’t mean that the Fed is back to its old QE ways, which had pushed the Fed’s balance sheet to a steady $4.5 trillion between 2014 and 2018 when it started to shrink.

But QE by any other name is still QE.

At least one voting member of the Fed’s monetary policy committee has expressed some concern about the recent boost in the Fed’s balance sheet – more than $400 billion in just the past four months.

“The Fed balance sheet is not free and growing the balance sheet has costs,” Robert Kaplan, the president of the Dallas Fed, told reporters at a recent Economic Club of New York event, according to the Wall Street Journal. “Many market participants believe that growth in the Fed balance sheet is supportive of higher valuations and risk assets. [That’s Fed-speak for a bubble]. I’m sympathetic to that concern.”

For the past 12 years, ever since the financial crisis in 2008, the Fed has swollen the size of its balance sheet – its holdings of U.S. Treasury and government-insured mortgage-backed securities – from less than $1 trillion to more than four times that. Its first burst of bond-buying took place in 2008, during the depths of the meltdown when its portfolio more than doubled in less than a year. It then gradually increased to more than $3 trillion over the next five years, at which time QE took it to $4.5 trillion, where it held steady until 2018, when the Fed started to allow its holdings to run off as they matured, until its recent policy U-turn.

And what was the direct result of all that buying? Continue reading "QE or Not QE: The Consequences Are The Same"

The Fed's Newest Service: Portfolio Insurance

Every generation believes that they know more than the previous generation. Then, as they get older, they slowly start to realize that their elders aren’t as dumb as they thought. It's normal.

What's different today is that we seem to think, or at least many people do, that not only are we wiser today than everyone who has come before us but that humankind has been doing everything wrong for the past 5,000 years or so of civilization. Whether it's morally wrong to eat meat, or how many genders there are, or who can marry who, or whatever, it seems that we've been misguided since the beginning of time.

This attitude also manifests itself in the economic sphere. Based on the Federal Reserve’s recent actions, they appear to believe that everything we knew or thought we knew about economic cycles and bull and bear markets has been all wrong. Thousands of years of boom and bust cycles could have been eliminated, apparently, if only the proper monetary policy fixes had been applied.

Quite clearly, the Fed’s new mandate is that if economic growth starts to sputter, or the stock market moves beyond a correction, or some international crisis – Brexit, Megxit, Iran, North Korea, trade wars, you name it – threatens to upset the applecart, it will immediately turn its monetary policy tools into high gear.

Before now, economic growth and stock prices were pretty much allowed to take their own course, with some attempts to smooth out the worst excesses. It was considered to be both normal and healthy for markets and economies to go up and down periodically, as long as the general trend was upward. Now, however, that appears to be not only quaint, old-fashioned thinking but just plain wrong. There is no reason, the thinking goes, for us to suffer any economic pain as long as we have the policy tools to avoid it. Continue reading "The Fed's Newest Service: Portfolio Insurance"

Ignorance Is Bliss

Are the financial markets not paying attention? Or is that a good thing?

I keep asking myself those questions while I watch the major U.S. stock market indexes soar to new heights on a regular basis, while bond prices retreat – and yields rise – after hitting crisis levels early in the year.

The markets are saying: everything is just fine. The economy is humming along, consumers are spending, everyone who wants one can get a job, but just in case, the Federal Reserve is keeping interest rates low and monetary policy accommodative. How can things possibly get any better?

But are we getting a little too comfortable?

Stock prices are rising, and bond prices are falling even as the main Democrat presidential hopefuls try to top one another with the most profligate government giveaways they can think up – Medicare for All, free college tuition, student loan forgiveness, free health care for illegal aliens, reparations for slavery, you name it – while their peers in the House are trying desperately to drive President Trump from the White House, so they don’t have to face him on Election Day next year.

To say that there is a huge disconnect between the political world and the financial world is a huge understatement.

At some point, will investors look over this depressing – and rather scary – landscape and take their chips off the table? Or do they really believe that all of this silliness will eventually blow over and Trump – whom the financial markets seem to like, or at least are comfortable with – will arise victorious after the impeachment witch hunt plays itself out and the current field of Democrat presidential wannabes thins out? Continue reading "Ignorance Is Bliss"

That Precious Fed Independence

Well, what do you know? That precious Federal Reserve independence we keep hearing about turns out to be a crock.

That reality was exposed in the most blatant terms last week when William Dudley, just a year removed from his serving as the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York – the second most powerful position on the Fed, just below the chair – argued in a Bloomberg op-ed that the current Fed should do absolutely nothing to try to fix the economy if President Trump is hell-bent on destroying it through his tariff war with China. The Fed, he said, shouldn’t “bail out an administration that keeps making bad choices on trade policy, making it abundantly clear that Trump will own the consequences of his actions.”

But he went well beyond that, urging the Fed to use its monetary policy to help defeat Trump in the 2020 president election.

“There’s even an argument that the election itself falls within the Fed’s purview,” he said. “After all, Trump’s reelection arguably presents a threat to the U.S. and global economy, to the Fed’s independence and its ability to achieve its employment and inflation objectives. If the goal of monetary policy is to achieve the best long-term economic outcome, then Fed officials should consider how their decisions will affect the political outcome in 2020.”

Thank you, Mr. Dudley, for that admission. Some of us have suspected, Continue reading "That Precious Fed Independence"

The Fed's Tower Of Babel

There was a profusion of communications and opinions from the Federal Reserve last week. The challenge now is to try to make sense of it all.

The first thing that caught my attention was the release of a survey conducted by the New York Fed measuring how well the Fed communicates its intentions to market makers. It didn’t do so well.

The bank found that a majority, or 15 out of 24, of the primary dealer banks that bid on U.S. Treasury debt auctions and make a market in government securities found the Fed’s communications prior to its July 31 decision to lower interest rates to be “ineffective” or close to it. “Several dealers indicated that they found communication confusing, and several characterized communications from various Fed officials as inconsistent,” the New York Fed said.

A similar survey of money managers found only slightly better results, with exactly half, or 14 of 28, giving the Fed “low grades for communications effectiveness.”

Then, at the Kansas City Fed’s annual “symposium” in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Athanasios Orphanides, a professor at MIT, released a paper including suggestions on how the Fed can improve how it communicates its policy-making process. While the paper commends the Fed for increasing the amount of information it provides to the public over the past three decades – it surely has – there’s room for improvement in how it communicates that information. Specifically, Orphanides recommended that Fed members provide more details about their confidence or uncertainty in their various economic projections and how those might change given different scenarios or over time.

While all of the information the Fed already provides, and the prospect of more, is good in theory, the problem is that the Fed is providing too much information, which is creating more confusion and uncertainty, rather than less, about exactly where it stands collectively, while businesses, investors and consumers crave simple guidance on the direction of future Fed policy so they can make more intelligent decisions. Continue reading "The Fed's Tower Of Babel"