The Federal Reserve announced a momentous shift in policy yesterday. Its import was easy to miss because, as always with the Fed, it was written in a jargon only superficially resembling English. But its intention is to take actions that will deeply shift the policy landscape, probably to a much greater extent than Congress’s various stimulus plans.
The Fed announced an American version of what has been called “quantitative easing,” or QE. The Japanese have done this before, and the British got into it a few weeks ago. You can think of it, with no loss of accuracy, as inflation.
QE is what monetary authorities resort to when policy interest rates go to zero, which is where they are now. If you can’t reduce the price of money any further, you simply increase the amount of money. The Fed will be monetizing (purchasing) about $750 billion in mortgage-backed securities and about $300 billion in straight Treasury debt.
They’ve purchased mortgage paper before (last December), but the Treasury debt purchases are new. And the bond market’s reaction to the news was electric, as interest rates fell sharply, particularly for the 10-year note. Inflation-sensitive commodities like oil, gold and copper also shot up 5% or more in price, and are holding those gains this morning. The news is also a mild positive for the stock market, which can benefit from inflation.
What is Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke really trying to do? He wants to unfreeze the “credit crunch” that is making it too expensive or even impossible for U.S. consumers and businesses to borrow money, which was the trigger for the current recession. The Fed directly controls only the shortest-term interest rates. But consumer purchases (including mortgages) and business investments are sensitive to longer-term interest rates. QE is the Fed’s way of trying to reduce real interest rates in the 2 to 10-year range of the spectrum.
This is also the biggest experiment in monetary policy in history. Milton Friedman is known for having explained the genesis of the Great Depression in monetary terms. Bernanke, a close student of the early Depression, is determined to prevent the wicked asset deflation of 1930-32 that ruined so many lives. At what cost? Well, the Fed’s balance sheet just grew by $1.15 trillion: it’s now 50% bigger than it was a day ago. That’s a scary amount of inflation.
What no one really knows yet is the exact linkage between the formation of new money, and the formation of new credit. Bernanke and his Fed are gambling that a giant pulse of monetary inflation will reignite private lending. We can only hope they’ve pointed their fire hose at the right problem.
For every lender, there’s a borrower. The Fed will succeed if the problem in credit markets is the reluctance of lenders to write new loans. But if the problem turns out to be a lack of demand for credit, then all we’ll get out of this is stagflation.