Greg Ip

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

Posts Tagged ‘Ben Bernanke

Understanding unorthodox economic policies

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Plan C

Nov 27th 2008
From The Economist print edition



As their economy slides, America’s policymakers are turning to unconventional devices. Our first article looks at the bold new steps taken this week by the Federal Reserve and the Treasury. Our second examines policy in Europe

Illustration by James Fryer


THE Federal Reserve’s interest-rate target is at 1%. The recession is deepening. And the question is being asked repeatedly: when will America’s economic policymakers start using truly unconventional measures to stimulate the economy?

The answer is that they already have. Without making any formal declaration, since early September the Fed has expanded its balance-sheet rapidly to counter the credit crunch. Under the guise of successive new programmes, each with a less memorable acronym than the last, the Fed is substituting its balance-sheet for that of the contracting private financial system to keep the American economy from being starved of credit. This week the central bank and the Treasury unveiled their latest big initiatives.


America’s financial system is undergoing a radical reassessment of what are acceptable levels of capital, leverage and interest rates. Some institutions have failed; those that have not are intent on reducing their leverage (ie, their volume of loans for each dollar of capital). The Fed has no hope of stopping this: it is merely trying to slow it down, by providing a home for the assets that the financial sector is shedding. The alternative would be plunging asset values, a complete withdrawal of credit and economic catastrophe.

Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Fed, has repeatedly promised to use “all of the powers at our disposal” to get credit flowing again. This week’s initiatives are another demonstration of what he means. The Fed and the Treasury agreed to guarantee $306 billion-worth of assets belonging to Citigroup (see article). They then created a $200 billion facility to purchase asset-backed securities. Most radically, the Fed promised to buy up to $500 billion-worth of mortgage-backed securities (MBSs) guaranteed by government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs), including the now nationalised mortgage agencies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and up to $100 billion-worth of their direct debt. The effect was immediate: yields on the securities plunged by 40 basis points, and the 30-year mortgage rate fell from a shade over 6% to 5.8%.


Paying the Fed

The MBS purchases are significant; for the first time they turn the Fed into a direct lender to consumers. Many homeowners, though they do not know it, will be sending their monthly mortgage payments to the Fed. The Fed will finance these programmes with newly created reserves: that is, it will print money. Its balance-sheet, which has ballooned from $900 billion to $2.2 trillion since August, could grow by another $800 billion, making it a larger lender than any commercial bank.

It is tempting to look to Japan for a map of where the Fed may be heading next. Faced with sinking asset prices, insolvent banks, moribund growth and deflation, the Bank of Japan (BoJ) eventually lowered its policy rate to zero in 1999. In 2001 it announced “quantitative easing”: through large-scale purchases of government bonds, it would fill the banks with excess reserves that it hoped they would lend out, stimulating loan growth.

These routes are open to the Fed. It could cut its federal funds rate target from 1% to zero, though that would make it hard for some parts of the money market to function. It may not do much good, since the actual funds rate is already trading well below the target. To give it more impact, the Fed could commit itself to keeping the funds rate at zero for some time or until the economy or inflation meet some predetermined conditions. Such a commitment could drag down long-term Treasury-bond yields. Academics have concluded that Japan’s quantitative easing had little benefit except to buttress expectations that its policy rate would be zero for a long time. Alternatively, the Fed could target long-term rates via purchases of Treasuries, as it did from 1942 to 1951. That strategy could gain in appeal if big government deficits start to press bond yields higher.

Yet these options are not the most appealing for the Fed. The reason is that while it, like the BoJ, is now involved in a form of quantitative easing, it is doing so with completely different goals and in a very different environment.


One way to see this is to compare Japan in April 1995, when the BoJ’s policy rate was 1%, with America in October (see chart 1). Core inflation was slightly negative in Japan at the time, against 2.2% in America last month. That means real interest rates were significantly higher and conventional monetary policy less stimulative in Japan than in America today, says Tom Gallagher of ISI Group, a broker-dealer, who made the comparison.


Frozen by fear

Where America fares worse is in credit conditions. In 1995 Japanese corporate-bond yields were just 16 basis points higher than government-bond yields; the spread in America last month was 350 basis points. In a nutshell, Japan’s problem was deflation and moribund investment; America’s is rising fear of default, illiquidity and the need of so many lenders to reduce leverage, which collectively are choking off private credit and blunting conventional monetary policy. Although the federal funds rate target is far below the 5.25% of last summer, mortgage rates are only a little lower (see chart 2). Corporate borrowing rates are much higher.


The change in the perception of credit risk since the crisis began is similar to the change in the perception of terrorism risk after September 11th 2001. What investors once deemed safe levels of capital and liquidity they now consider dangerously thin. Before, banks “had just-in-time capital available, just-in-time funding…a lot of liquidity,” Vikram Pandit, Citigroup’s chief executive, said this week, “We’ve gone from that to, if you really need sizeable funding, you have got to go to a central bank. If you need to raise a lot of debt, you need an FDIC guarantee.” (The FDIC, or Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, is a bank regulator.) Citi’s assets, which peaked at $2.4 trillion a year ago, were down to a little over $2 trillion by the end of September. With the Treasury’s injection of equity this past week, Citigroup’s core capital is now almost 15% of total assets, once an astronomically high ratio but one that many banks will now be expected to attain.

The pressure on investment banks to reduce leverage is even greater, because they rely more on fickle wholesale funding and less on stable, federally insured deposits. As a firm that depended heavily on proprietary trading and underwriting, Morgan Stanley boasted $33 of assets for each dollar of capital a year ago. By the end of October, the leverage ratio was below 16, according to the company. To get it there it both raised new capital (from sources including the federal government) and shrank its balance-sheet, to “significantly less” than $800 billion by the end of October from more than $1 trillion in May. “Clearly we’re in a world of reduced leverage,” Colm Kelleher, the firm’s chief financial officer, told investors recently.

The deleveraging of firms like Morgan Stanley and Citigroup creates problems for borrowers throughout the economy because the yields on the assets they sell rise. Borrowers must fight for a shrinking supply of new credit. Those that get it must pay far more. The rest cancel investments, lay off employees and hoard cash.

Initially Mr Bernanke sought to ease the pressure to deleverage by offering to finance banks’ holdings of illiquid securities on easy terms. But investors began to question the ability of bank capital to withstand a wave of recession-related defaults. The Treasury’s Troubled Asset Relief Programme (TARP) aims to quell those fears by injecting equity into banks so that they can reduce their leverage without shrinking their balance-sheets.

However, there are limits even to this. The Treasury has stuck to purchasing preferred equity to minimise the risk of loss and avoid having any say in running the bank. But the high interest rate the Treasury receives on such stock reduces banks’ profits. And rating agencies and regulators consider preferred stock a less permanent and therefore inferior form of capital to common equity.

Simon Johnson, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, thinks the Treasury should start purchasing common equity instead, as the British government has done. With banks’ market values so low, that would leave the government with large stakes, and perhaps majority ownership of some banks. Mr Johnson suggests creating an arm’s length control board to oversee the government’s ownership, free of political meddling.

Still, helping banks recapitalise only partly mitigates deleveraging. Many large buyers of debt assets have simply disappeared, such as “structured investment vehicles”, or SIVs, that used short-term financing to buy up asset backed securities, often from banks seeking to free up capital. At one point they held up to $400 billion in assets. But, unable to roll over their funding, they have been either reabsorbed by banks or closed. In October one of the last big SIVs, Sigma Finance Corporation, with $27 billion in assets, collapsed. Its liquidation by creditors is thought to have contributed to the plunge in prices of asset-backed securities which has made it impossible for new securities backed by student, credit-card and car loans to be issued.

When the average person hears the term “asset-backed securities” he may well think of some of the crazier structures built on the rickety base of subprime mortgages. That would be wrong. Securitisation is decades old, mundane and vital. Banks and other lenders routinely pool their student, car, small-business and credit-card loans, and residential and commercial mortgages into securities and sell them to investors, leaving room for them to make new loans. The deleveraging of banks may be inevitable and healthy, but the disappearance of the securitisation market is not. Without it, “millions of Americans cannot find affordable financing for their basic credit needs,” Hank Paulson, the treasury secretary, said on November 25th. The facility he and the Fed unveiled that day will buy up to $200 billion of newly issued, top-rated asset-backed securities. The TARP will absorb the first $20 billion of losses; the Fed will lend the rest. It may eventually purchase commercial and residential MBSs that are not guaranteed by a GSE.

The facility may thus eventually do what TARP was meant to: relieve banks of their illiquid assets. But it does so by in effect leveraging each TARP dollar many times over via the Fed’s balance-sheet. “Policymakers seem to have concluded that leverage got us into this mess and leverage can get us out,” quipped Stephen Stanley, an economist at RBS Greenwich Capital. “Is it just me, or can you see a future for these guys running a hedge fund?”

The Fed’s decision to purchase MBSs is in some ways even more radical: it represents a direct foray by the Fed into lending to consumers: Though it has had the authority to buy the MBSs and debt of Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac since 1966, it has not done so since 1997 for fear of conferring government backing to ostensibly private companies. Those concerns disappeared when the Treasury in effect nationalised the companies in September.

Illustration by James Fryer

The Treasury and the agencies themselves had been buying MBSs but in spite of that the yields continued to rise, in part because of the government’s mixed signals on whether it stood behind the companies. The Fed’s announcement carries clout because of the size. There is no reason why the Fed need stop at $500 billion; between them, Fannie and Freddie have $4 trillion of MBS outstanding and $17 billion of their own debt. In going further, the Fed would in effect take over the roles of the mortgage agencies itself. And in theory, it could find creative ways to do the same for the corporate-bond market. Mr Bernanke is willing to try almost anything.

Yet these strategies do carry risks. One is inflation. Having expanded its balance-sheet so rapidly, the Fed may not have the foresight or courage to shrink it fast enough once the crisis passes, and the extra liquidity could fuel an overheating economy. But with unemployment perhaps heading for 9%, from 6.5% now, that risk seems remote.

Another risk is that the Fed and the Treasury have taken on more commitments than they can credibly keep. With budget deficits that could top $1 trillion a year, plus trillions of dollars more in guarantees to mortgages and bank debt, some investors may question America’s ability to shoulder all this debt. They could react by selling the dollar, although with the entire world in recession, the lack of appealing alternatives makes that less plausible.

More likely, they could just back away from Treasury bonds until the yields rise enough to compensate them for the higher risk of default. Ireland represents a cautionary tale: since it guaranteed the debts of its banking system, credit-default swaps have widened sharply on its sovereign debt, implying rising concern that the Irish government may one day default. America is a much bigger country and its currency happens to be the world’s premier reserve currency. So it can print as much as it likes. For now, anyway.


Quantitative easing, Fed style

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Not yet the last resort

Oct 9th 2008
From The Economist print edition



The Fed tries its own version of quantitative easing

Illustration by Jac Depczyk


WHEN, on October 3rd, America’s Congress eventually approved the Bush administration’s $700 billion plan to buy troubled mortgage assets, lawmakers earned not only the gratitude of Ben Bernanke, but also a promise from him. The Federal Reserve, its chairman declared, would do its part with “all of the powers at our disposal”.

He has certainly kept his word. On October 6th the Fed doubled, to $900 billion, the planned size of the loans it auctions to banks. A day later it said it would for the first time in its history make unsecured loans to companies, including banks, by buying commercial paper that they are unable to refinance. In theory, this tactic could be used to allow the Fed to make any kind of loan, including to state and local governments and in the interbank funds market. And a day after that it joined other leading central banks in cutting interest rates, lowering its target for the federal funds rate from 2% to 1.5%. It is unlikely to stop there. The rate could end up at zero.

The rate cut was a conventional response to the growing risk of a deep recession. The other steps take the Fed farther into uncharted territory. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by gregip

October 9, 2008 at 7:35 pm

A $700 billion bail-out: will it work?

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America’s bail-out plan

The doctors’ bill

Sep 25th 2008 | WASHINGTON, DC
From The Economist print edition

 Original link


The chairman of the Federal Reserve and the treasury secretary give Congress a gloomy prognosis for the economy, and propose a drastic remedy



AMERICAN congressmen are used to hyperbole, but they were left speechless by the dire scenario Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, painted for them on the night of September 18th. He “told us that our American economy’s arteries, our financial system, is clogged, and if we don’t act, the patient will surely suffer a heart attack, maybe next week, maybe in six months, but it will happen,” according to Charles Schumer, a Democratic senator from New York. Mr Schumer’s interpretation: failure to act would cause “a depression”. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by gregip

September 25, 2008 at 10:34 pm

Mission creep at the Fed

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The credit crunch one year on

Aug 7th 2008 | WASHINGTON, DC
From The Economist print edition

In a special section marking the anniversary of the credit crunch, we start with the Federal Reserve. Its creative response to the crisis may have staved off catastrophe, but may also have put its independence at risk

Getty Images


WHEN he was still in academia, Ben Bernanke once argued that Franklin Roosevelt’s greatest contribution to ending the Great Depression was not a specific policy, but his “willingness to be aggressive and to experiment…to do whatever it took to get the country moving again.” That would fairly describe how Mr Bernanke has battled perhaps the biggest financial crisis since FDR’s time, which erupted one year ago this week.

The chairman of the Federal Reserve has cast aside any notion that central bankers should be boring. He has slashed interest rates; rolled out a dizzying array of new lending programmes; backed the debt of Bear Stearns, a failing investment bank; agreed to lend to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, America’s troubled, quasi-private mortgage agencies; argued for fiscal stimulus and mortgage write-downs; and proposed an expansion of the Fed’s regulatory domain. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by gregip

August 7, 2008 at 10:22 pm

Is Greenspan unique? No, central Banking Itself Has Been Elevated

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By Greg Ip

1151 words

19 September 2005

The Wall Street Journal



(Copyright (c) 2005, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

LAST MONTH, an Australian newspaper proposed a novel candidate to succeed Alan Greenspan as Federal Reserve chairman: Ian Macfarlane. Though an unknown in the U.S., Mr. Macfarlane has something no other candidate can boast: a track record that rivals Mr. Greenspan’s. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by gregip

September 19, 2005 at 10:31 pm