Guest Author: Edward Harrison, Credit Writedowns (See bio at end of article.)
So, what about QE3? My sense is that political pressures to remove both fiscal and monetary stimulus are too much to bear – both from politicians as well as from internal Fed dissent. In late March when the Fed hawks were trying to grab the bully pulpit to disabuse us of the possibility of QE3, I said pressure from the hawks would anchor the debate on QE such that QE2 would end as anticipated, followed by economic weakness without an immediate QE3. We are now experiencing that weakness. But I expect the economy would have to be in or near recession before the Fed acts with more QE.
Barry Ritholtz has a good post up by Invictus on this topic, Revisiting Bernanke’s 2002 Playbook, using Ben Bernanke’s 2002 helicopter speech for clues as to what one could expect if QE3 were implemented at some point in the future.
Now, I parsed part of this speech in December of last year. My conclusion was this:
Judging from Bernanke's previous writing, he seems to think a combination of fiscal and monetary stimulus are what are needed to prevent debt deflation from becoming entrenched in a way that turns cyclical unemployment into structural unemployment. Based on Bernanke's commentary on 60 Minutes last night, I believe he will continue to prescribe more cowbell, "nonstandard means of injecting money", unless political forces or internal dissent stop him.
Here’s the part Invictus focuses on that I did not. I have underlined the part relevant to QE3:
So what then might the Fed do if its target interest rate, the overnight federal funds rate, fell to zero? One relatively straightforward extension of current procedures would be to try to stimulate spending by lowering rates further out along the Treasury term structure–that is, rates on government bonds of longer maturities. There are at least two ways of bringing down longer-term rates, which are complementary and could be employed separately or in combination. One approach, similar to an action taken in the past couple of years by the Bank of Japan, would be for the Fed to commit to holding the overnight rate at zero for some specified period. Because long-term interest rates represent averages of current and expected future short-term rates, plus a term premium, a commitment to keep short-term rates at zero for some time–if it were credible–would induce a decline in longer-term rates. A more direct method, which I personally prefer, would be for the Fed to begin announcing explicit ceilings for yields on longer-maturity Treasury debt (say, bonds maturing within the next two years). The Fed could enforce these interest-rate ceilings by committing to make unlimited purchases of securities up to two years from maturity at prices consistent with the targeted yields. If this program were successful, not only would yields on medium-term Treasury securities fall, but (because of links operating through expectations of future interest rates) yields on longer-term public and private debt (such as mortgages) would likely fall as well.
You should recognize much of this argument from Randy Wray’s post highlighting the fact that QE2 was the equivalent of issuing treasury bills. However, if you recall I mentioned in November that the FOMC considered offering unlimited quantitative easing to target long-term interest rates. Ultimately, one can influence the price or the quantity of something, but not both. And the Fed decided to influence quantity when its stated aim during QE2 was to influence price. Ostensibly this was because of political pressure. Read the Invictus piece because it is clear from Bernanke’s writing there that he really thinks fiscal policy is more effective than quantitative easing to the degree you want to add stimulus. And it is also clear that the US has the same political problems regarding budget deficits and fiscal policy as the Japanese.
But, of course, Bernanke has no input into fiscal policy and right now fiscal policy is a dead issue in Washington. Interest rates are already zero percent. So, Bernanke has decided to fall back on the only thing he has left and print money.
Therefore, as I stated at the end of the recent post on Raghuram Rajan’s views on monetary policy, if the economy swoons the Fed will be forced to take more drastic action and that means targeting rates with an unlimited supply of QE as well as other measures.
In the November post on the FOMC considering offering unlimited quantitative easing to target long-term interest rates, I further commented the following:
the Federal Reserve understands it could have done more but is actually only committed to QE-lite as I have called this round of QE. Likely, political constraints or internal dissent explains why the Fed took this route. Here is what the Fed could have done:
- Buy municipal bonds. [David] Blanchflower had said "they are also allowed to buy short-term municipal bonds, and given the difficulties faced by state and local governments, this may well be the route they choose, at least for some of the quantitative easing."
- Set an interest-rate target. As authors here have indicated (see here), the Fed has absolute control over the full spectrum of rates if it is willing to offer unlimited supply of liquidity to target those rates. This is what is meant when the Fed says "participants also noted potentially large risks, including the risk that the Federal Reserve might find itself buying undesirably large amounts."
- Buy only the longest duration Treasury assets. The Fed could have targeted long-lived assets like 10- and 30-year paper. This would have had the largest impact on mortgage rates.
QE3 is still a pretty long way off. But these are the types of policy moves one could expect, something to keep in mind if the economy weakens further.
QE2: Captainblogain, your Ship is Sinking by Warren Mosler
De-Financializing the Economy by Rick Davis
QE2 End Games - Mr. Bernanke's Dilemma by Rick Davis
QE2: Extend or End? by Dirk Ehnts
China Stops Buying U.S. Debt? Could be a Good Thing by Michael Pettis
The Week Ahead: Hype About End of QE2 is Overblown by Jeff Miller
The Great Debate©: Inflation or Deflation? by Robert Huebscher
Will There be Life After QE2? by Steven Hansen
QE2 is a Double Edged Sword by Steven Hansen
USA Funding Growth Worldwide by Steven Hansen
Unconventional Monetary Policy and Central Bank Communications by Janet Yellen
Yellen Says QE Saved Us - Who Can Prove Her Wrong by John Lounsbury
Edward Harrison is the founder of Credit Writedowns and a former strategy and finance executive with twenty years of business experience. He started his career as a diplomat and speaks six languages, a skill he uses to provide a more global perspective. Edward holds an MBA in Finance from Columbia University and a BA in Economics from Dartmouth College. He is a regular contributor at Seeking Alpha, Naked Capitalism, and Roubini Global Economics. Edward has often spoken on television and radio in the US, the UK, Canada and Russia.