Greg Ip

Articles by The Economist’s U.S. Economics Editor

Archive for December 2008

Will the Fed’s unconventional monetary policy work?

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Ground zero
Out of conventional ammunition, the Fed uses its balance-sheet to battle the slump
CENTRAL bankers ordinarily strive to be boring. But these are not ordinary times. On December 16th the Federal Reserve unveiled a three-part assault on America’s slump that lit up the news wires like a pyrotechnic display.

Dec 18th 2008 | WASHINGTON, DC
From The Economist print edition


The Fed’s policy panel, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), announced that it had cut its target for the federal funds rate to between zero and 0.25%, the lowest on record; it indicated it would stay there “for some time”; and having used up its conventional monetary firepower, it promised an unconventional strategy, such as the buying of mortgage-related securities and, possibly, Treasuries to lower long-term borrowing costs.


There was in fact less novelty than first met the eye. The actual funds rate, which is charged on excess reserves banks lend to each other overnight, had already fallen to below 0.2% (see chart), well below target, in part because the banking system is awash with unneeded reserves. (The FOMC is now aiming at a range rather than a level because of the difficulty of hitting the latter.) The Fed had already announced plans to buy up to $100 billion of debt directly issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the now-nationalised mortgage agencies, and $500 billion of their mortgage-backed securities (MBSs). Ben Bernanke, the Fed’s chairman, had said Treasury purchases were under consideration.

But drowning out the specifics was the thundering tone of the Fed’s long statement. “The Federal Reserve will employ all available tools to promote the resumption of sustainable economic growth and to preserve price stability,” it said.

Unconventional monetary policy is often called “quantitative easing” because its effect is felt through the quantity rather than the cost of credit. Through an array of lending programmes, the Fed’s balance-sheet has soared from below $900 billion to more than $2 trillion, and is about to grow further.


Will these tactics work? In an exhaustive study of unconventional monetary-policy options in 2000, five Fed staff economists concluded, “These tools have their limitations, and there is considerable uncertainty regarding their likely effectiveness.” The impact of the Fed’s actions to date even on short-term interbank rates is inconclusive; its ability to influence much larger, globally integrated bond markets is even less certain. Still, Vincent Reinhart, who studied such policy options while at the Fed and is now at the American Enterprise Institute, a think-tank, believes they will work if they are big enough. “There is some size of the central bank’s balance-sheet that will restart financial markets.”

The Fed seems to believe its actions matter more for psychology than in influencing the supply of and demand for long-term debt. A senior official says the Fed is not explicitly attempting to lower long-term rates; instead it wants to narrow the unusually wide spread between yields on MBSs and Treasuries. By reassuring investors that a committed buyer is in the market, it hopes to reduce the illiquidity premium pushing yields up.

Psychology does seem to matter. The Fed has not yet bought any MBSs, but their yields have dropped from 5.45% to 3.9% since it proposed doing so. One-quarter of a percentage point of that came after this week’s announcement. If this is sustained, the conventional 30-year mortgage rate should fall to around 5%, says Nicholas Strand of Barclays Capital, from over 6.5% in early November. Still, over two-thirds of the drop in MBS yields resulted from falls in Treasury yields. Even though the Treasury now explicitly supports Fannie and Freddie, MBS spreads remain wide, owing in part to reduced buying by the companies themselves and by foreign investors, Mr Strand says.

Illustration by S. Kambayashi

Amid falling consumer spending and soaring unemployment there are some hints that policymakers’ actions are making a difference. Home sales are stable and the drop in mortgage rates should help them. A bottom in housing is probably necessary to start the healing process elsewhere in the economy. Share prices have risen since late November.

The Fed’s gung-ho leadership may also nudge other central banks towards easing more aggressively. The dollar fell sharply, particularly against the euro, after the Fed’s action. That may weaken the European Central Bank’s reservations about cutting rates again. Similarly, if the weaker dollar takes pressure off sterling, the Bank of England may be more willing to ease again.

The dollar’s drop may also reflect some fear that the Fed will be slow to reverse course, leading to inflation. That, however, is a worry for another day. Falling petrol prices triggered the largest monthly drop in American consumer prices on record in November. With unemployment likely to increase further, the immediate concern is that inflation could fall too low.


Fiscal stimulus: easier said than done

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Days of open wallet

Dec 11th 2008 | WASHINGTON, DC
From The Economist print edition



Barack Obama is promising a vast new public-works programme as his solution to America’s economic woes


NO SOONER had the worst job losses in a generation been reported (on December 5th, a Friday), than Barack Obama stepped up his calls for an ambitious fiscal stimulus package, taking to the airwaves twice over the weekend to do it. Not only would his plan prop up the sinking economy, he said, but it would equip America with more productive and efficient infrastructure, aiding future growth. His remarks gathered infinitely more attention than those of the actual president, who confined himself to vague optimism and a hard-to-substantiate claim that the frozen financial system is starting to thaw.

There seems no doubt that resistance from politicians and investors to a seriously big package is melting. The December 5th figures showed that America lost 533,000 jobs in November, the biggest monthly loss in absolute terms for 34 years, though at 0.4% of the workforce, it was a bit less bad—only the worst since 1980. The unemployment rate rose to 6.7% from 6.5%, and would have risen far more if so many unemployed workers hadn’t given up looking for work. Losses were especially severe in construction, retailing and manufacturing. Macroeconomic Advisers, a forecasting firm, estimates that the economy will shrink at an annual rate of 5.5% this quarter and 4.25% next. A fiscal stimulus of $500 billion over two years would come too late to alter that but could bring the recession to an end by mid-2009 and hold the unemployment rate to 8.5%, the firm estimates. Without such a stimulus, the recession would stretch into the third quarter and unemployment would hit 9.5%.


For once, politicians and economists agree the deficit should not be a worry. The credit crunch and the collapse in the stockmarket mean households are trying to consume less and save more. But for them to do so collectively, some other sector must consume more and save less. Corporations are not going to do it: they are cutting investment and hoarding cash in the hope of staving off a liquidity crisis or even bankruptcy. Demand is not going to come from the rest of the world: many other countries are in recession. Even in China, which is still growing fast, demand for foreign goods is contracting sharply: by 18% year-on-year, according to figures released on December 10th. So that leaves the federal government.

Mr Obama has not yet provided any precise details of the sort of fiscal plan he will seek to drive through Congress once he takes the reins at noon on January 20th, although speculation has centred on a package worth some $300 billion a year (or 2% of GDP), comprising hiring credits for employers, permanent tax cuts (or credits) for workers and a public-works programme which, he pledged, would be the biggest since Dwight Eisenhower created the interstate highway system in the 1950s. (That project, at $400 billion in today’s dollars, cost four times as much and took three times as long as planned.)

investment-gdp-chartState and local governments account for most public investment (see chart). Their spending on highways and schools for baby-boomers lifted such investment above 3% of GDP in the 1950s and 1960s. But the federal government pays for much of it, and so gets a significant say in how the money is spent.

The conundrum is that it is hard to spend both rapidly and wisely. America’s transport infrastructure is in need of overhaul (see article), and many worthy projects exist that could boost energy efficiency or alternative fuel sources. But there may not be enough of them to absorb large sums quickly. Often such projects are kept on the drawing board not by lack of money but by politics and planning. Adapting the electricity grid, for example, to use more alternative energy may require new transmission lines for which approval can take years. In September the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimated it would take two years to spend just 60% of $37 billion in infrastructure funds in a stimulus bill passed by the House of Representatives (but not yet acted on by the Senate).

State and local governments say they have thousands of “shovel-ready” projects that could be started as soon as federal money becomes available. The Conference of Mayors, seizing the moment, released an 803-page report this week listing 11,000 projects which, they claim, would create more than 800,000 jobs over the next two years. But the economic merit of many is dubious. Their list includes $1.5m to coax prostitutes off the streets of Dayton, Ohio, and $200,000 for a dog park in Hercules, California. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former economic adviser to John McCain, says many unfunded projects are “ready to go because they were drawn up, reviewed and rejected” by government. Mr Obama has promised not to spend money the “old Washington way” but those ways are hard to change.

Mr Obama also considered an early implementation of the $500-per-worker or $1,000-per-household tax cut (or, for those who don’t pay enough income tax, a payment) which he promised during the campaign. But tax cuts provide limited bang for the deficit buck: only about 30% of last summer’s $110 billion in tax rebates were spent. The impact could probably be larger now, partly because more households are strapped for cash, but also because a permanent boost to income is more likely to be spent than a one-off rebate.

Even so, such rebates will raise the deficit sharply relative to how much they boost growth. And that highlights another problem. The budget deficit could top $1 trillion, or 7% of GDP, this fiscal year. That may be necessary in the short run, but could be dangerously destabilising before long. Rudolph Penner, a former CBO director, predicts that the federal debt (excluding debt owed to other parts of the federal government) will soar from 38% of GDP this year to 55% at the end of 2010, the highest since the early 1950s, when the country was still in hock from fighting a war.

Japan offers a cautionary tale on the risks of infrastructure-based stimulus. A spree of public-works projects designed to spur growth left construction equal to an unwieldy 20% of GDP, compared with 10% in America, and drove the national debt to one of the highest levels relative to GDP in the OECD. America’s construction industry is not as politically powerful, inefficient and corrupt as it historically has been in Japan, and Japan worsened its slump by increasing the sales tax to deal with the debt. Still, Mr Obama should take note if he wants to get his stimulus right.

Written by gregip

December 11, 2008 at 4:57 pm

Posted in Uncategorized