Fed President Gives Some Hints About What It Would Take To End QE3

From San Francisco Fed President John Williams: The Economic Outlook and Challenges to Monetary Policy. A few excerpts:

In considering what maximum employment is, economists look at the unemployment rate. We tend to think of maximum employment as the level of unemployment that pushes inflation neither up nor down. This is the so-called natural rate of unemployment. It is a moving target that depends on how efficient the labour market is at matching workers with jobs. Although we can’t know exactly what the natural rate of unemployment is at any point in time, a reasonable estimate is that it is currently a little over 6 per cent.5 In other words, right now, an unemployment rate of about 6 per cent would be consistent with the Fed’s goal of maximum employment. In terms of the Fed’s other statutory goal—price stability—our monetary policy body, the Federal Open

Committee, or FOMC, has specified that a 2 per cent inflation rate is most consistent with our dual mandate.

So, how are we doing on these goals? As I said earlier, the economy continues to grow and add jobs. However, the current 8.1 per cent unemployment rate is well above the natural rate, and progress on reducing unemployment has nearly stalled over the past six months. If we hadn’t taken additional monetary policy steps, the economy looked like it could get stuck in low gear. That would have meant that, over the next few years, we would make relatively modest further progress on our maximum employment mandate. What’s more, the job situation could get worse if the European crisis intensifies or we go over the fiscal cliff. Progress on our other mandate, price stability, might also have been threatened. Inflation, which has averaged 1.3 per cent over the past year, could have gotten stuck below our 2 per cent target.

For the FOMC, this was the sobering set of circumstances we were staring at during our most recent policy meeting. Faced with this situation, it was essential that we at the Fed provide the stimulus needed to keep our economy moving toward maximum employment and price stability. So, at our meeting, we took two strong measures aimed at achieving this goal.

First, we announced a new program to purchase $40 billion of mortgage-backed securities every month. This is in addition to our ongoing program to expand our holdings of longer-term Treasury securities by $45 billion a month. Second, we announced that we expect to keep short-term interest rates low for a considerable time, even after the economy strengthens. Specifically, we expect exceptionally low levels of our benchmark federal funds rate at least through mid-2015.

And on the economic outlook:

Thanks in part to the recent policy actions, I anticipate the economy will gain momentum over the next few years. I expect real gross domestic product to expand at a modest pace of about 1¾ per cent this year, but to improve to 2½ per cent growth next year and 3¼ per cent in 2014. With economic growth trending upward, I see the unemployment rate gradually declining to about 7¼ per cent by the end of 2014. Despite improvement in the job market, I expect inflation to remain slightly below 2 per cent for the next few years as increases in labour costs remain subdued and public inflation expectations stay at low levels.

Of course, my projections, like any forecast, may turn out to be wrong. That’s something we kept in mind when we designed our new policy measures. Specifically, an important new element is that our recently announced purchase program is intended to be flexible and adjust to changing circumstances. Unlike our past asset purchase programs, this one doesn’t have a preset expiration date. Instead, it is explicitly linked to what happens with the economy. In particular, we will continue buying mortgage-backed securities until the job market looks substantially healthier. We said we might even expand our purchases to include other assets.

This approach serves as a kind of automatic stabilizer for the economy. If conditions improve faster than expected, we will end the program sooner, cutting back the degree of monetary stimulus. But, if the economy stumbles, we will keep the program in place as long as needed for the job market to improve substantially, in the context of price stability. Similarly, if we find that our policies aren’t doing what we want or are causing significant problems for the economy, we will adjust or end them as appropriate.

With this forecast, QE3 will continue for some time.

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