Do investors risk monetary easing, inflation and Operation Twist?
*The Economist , June 9, 2012
”Yet hopes that 2012 would be the year when America’s economy at last shook off its lethargy seem dashed. Employers and investors face increasing uncertainty in every big economy. China, India and Brazil have slowed sharply. The euro zone is dangerously close to collapse. Goldman Sachs reckons that the spillover of European stress into American financial markets will knock 0.2 to 0.4 percentage points off growth this year.
Meanwhile, tax increases and spending cuts equal to 5% of GDP a year are programmed to take effect around December 31st. Most analysts assumed this ‘fiscal cliff’ would not be a worry until 2013. But economists at Bank of America, in a recent report, think it could become a significant drag relatively soon. The fiscal hit is huge, the date is set, and no resolution is in sight before the election on November 6th . This all gives firms a powerful incentive to postpone hiring and investment until the resolution is known. The bank sees a one-in-three chance of recession between now and mid-2013.
In the past week both Bill Clinton and Larry Summers, Mr Obama’s former principal economic adviser, have urged early action to avoid the cliff. Without such action, the only source of support is the Federal Reserve. When the economy faltered in 2010 and 2011 it responded, first, with a second round of bond purchases paid for by creating money (‘quantitative easing’ or QE), then by buying long-term bonds in exchange for short-term ones, a move called ‘Operation Twist.’ Buying bonds pushed their prices up and yields down. The Fed has also promised to keep interest rates near zero at least through 2014. And, until recently, it was not inclined to do any more than that. However, the present weakness in employment, the growing risks coming from Europe, and the fiscal cliff all suggest the Fed will give serious thought to easing monetary policy at its meeting on June 19th and 20th. Janet Yellen, the Fed’s vice-chairman, said on June 6th that although she still expects a gradual decline in unemployment and stable inflation, there are ‘significant downside risks to the economic outlook, and hence it may well be appropriate to insure against adverse shocks.’
How the Fed might ease again remains unclear. It could promise to maintain interest rates near zero beyond 2014, its current commitment. Ms Yellen, however, suggested that that would have only a limited effect. Several officials favour more QE, the Fed’s most powerful tool, though some fret about potential side effects, such as rising commodity prices and a political backlash. The Fed could extend Operation Twist: the stash of one-to-three-year bonds it could trade for longer-term issues has dwindled, but it still has plenty of three-to-six-year paper. On the other hand, Macroeconomic Advisers, a consultancy, warns that selling such bonds could put upward pressure on consumer loan rates.
Then there is the question of what more bond-buying would achieve. Long-term Treasury yields are already down to 1.7%, near the lowest ever recorded. Yet while its tool-kit may be less powerful, at least the Fed seems able and willing to use it.”
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