You would think the world was coming to an end, given the global investment community’s reaction to Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s press conference on Wednesday. Evidently, we are so addicted to the Fed’s multi-year stimulus program that even a hint that the party may be coming to an end is a major cause of concern.
As for me, the end of the central bank’s quantitative stimulus program is actually good news. It means that our economy and employment would have finally turned the corner. It means that all the stimulus efforts of the Federal Reserve Bank since 2008 has finally paid off. It means that our financial markets can finally be returned to the private sector where risk and reward are the paramount determinants of returns. Why is that such a bad thing?
The markets are reacting as if the Fed is going to withdraw its entire stimulus immediately and allow interest rates to rise overnight, thereby sending the world into oblivion. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Chairman Bernanke went to great pains to assure investors that they will continue to keep a lid on rates until 2015. The Fed will continue to purchase bonds and mortgage-backed securities until they see unemployment drop to at least 7%. After that, they will continue to stimulate until there is enough momentum in the economy to drive unemployment to at least 6.5% or lower.
In addition, at any time in the future if either the economy or unemployment appears to be suffering from the withdrawal of the Fed’s stimulus, the central bank reserves the right to stimulate again. Yet the market appears to want both the stimulus to continue and the economy to grow at the same time, ever hear of wanting your cake and eating it too? In my opinion, that would lead to a massive inflation problem.
Despite the Fed’s continued reminders that they are concerned with a whole host of data points, the financial markets believe that there is nothing more important to the Fed than the health of the stock or bond markets. That is a myopic view. The Fed’s concerns encompass everything from foreign markets, to currencies, to the price of commodities to the actions of the U.S. Treasury, which brings up another issue.
If the current federal taxes and spending rules remain the same, the budget deficit will shrink this year to $642 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That would be the smallest shortfall since 2008. The budget deficit, despite the views of just about every economist, is shrinking quickly. The budget office predicts it will shrink even further over the next two years.
The U.S. Treasury, therefore, will need to sell fewer bonds each month in order to finance the shrinking deficit. The Fed, as readers know, has been purchasing $45 billion/month at these auctions as part of their quantitative easing program. If, as seems likely, the Treasury is going to reduce its issuance of bonds, the Fed is going to be faced with a tough decision.
Either they also taper the amount of buying they are doing each month, or face the unwelcome prospect of crowding out other buyers who are seeking to purchase those same government bonds. If the Fed doesn’t taper, we could actually see interest rates on our sovereign debt drop to unacceptable negative rates of interest.
It would be an ideal time to taper bond buying since, with the economy growing and the government’s need to issue new debt dropping, the Fed could taper without any appreciative impact on the economy or unemployment. It may take the markets a little while to catch on to these ideas, but when they do the markets will realize they have over-reacted.