The most interesting part of Bernanke’s speech to the KC Fed Symposium is where he discusses the FOMC’s policy options, in the event that weakening conditions warrant more easing.
And if you read it, the basic message is: Yeah, we have some options, and none of them is likely to work very well.
In the following section, he highlights three key possibilities, and in each case he makes a very good point why they might not work.
The bottom line: If youre hopes for a recovery hinge on the Fed, you should rethink that.
A first option for providing additional monetary accommodation, if necessary, is to expand the Federal Reserve’s holdings of longer-term securities. As I noted earlier, the evidence suggests that the Fed’s earlier program of purchases was effective in bringing down term premiums and lowering the costs of borrowing in a number of private credit markets. I regard the program (which was significantly expanded in March 2009) as having made an important contribution to the economic stabilisation and recovery that began in the spring of 2009. Likewise, the FOMC’s recent decision to stabilise the Federal Reserve’s securities holdings should promote financial conditions supportive of recovery.
I believe that additional purchases of longer-term securities, should the FOMC choose to undertake them, would be effective in further easing financial conditions. However, the expected benefits of additional stimulus from further expanding the Fed’s balance sheet would have to be weighed against potential risks and costs. One risk of further balance sheet expansion arises from the fact that, lacking much experience with this option, we do not have very precise knowledge of the quantitative effect of changes in our holdings on financial conditions. In particular, the impact of securities purchases may depend to some extent on the state of financial markets and the economy; for example, such purchases seem likely to have their largest effects during periods of economic and financial stress, when markets are less liquid and term premiums are unusually high. The possibility that securities purchases would be most effective at times when they are most needed can be viewed as a positive feature of this tool. However, uncertainty about the quantitative effect of securities purchases increases the difficulty of calibrating and communicating policy responses.
Another concern associated with additional securities purchases is that substantial further expansions of the balance sheet could reduce public confidence in the Fed’s ability to execute a smooth exit from its accommodative policies at the appropriate time. Even if unjustified, such a reduction in confidence might lead to an undesired increase in inflation expectations. (Of course, if inflation expectations were too low, or even negative, an increase in inflation expectations could become a benefit.) To mitigate this concern, the Federal Reserve has expended considerable effort in developing a suite of tools to ensure that the exit from highly accommodative policies can be smoothly accomplished when appropriate, and FOMC participants have spoken publicly about these tools on numerous occasions. Indeed, by providing maximum clarity to the public about the methods by which the FOMC will exit its highly accommodative policy stance–and thereby helping to anchor inflation expectations–the Committee increases its own flexibility to use securities purchases to provide additional accommodation, should conditions warrant.
A second policy option for the FOMC would be to ease financial conditions through its communication, for example, by modifying its post-meeting statement. As I noted, the statement currently reflects the FOMC’s anticipation that exceptionally low rates will be warranted “for an extended period,” contingent on economic conditions. A step the Committee could consider, if conditions called for it, would be to modify the language in the statement to communicate to investors that it anticipates keeping the target for the federal funds rate low for a longer period than is currently priced in markets. Such a change would presumably lower longer-term rates by an amount related to the revision in policy expectations.
Central banks around the world have used a variety of methods to provide future guidance on rates. For example, in April 2009, the Bank of Canada committed to maintain a low policy rate until a specific time, namely, the end of the second quarter of 2010, conditional on the inflation outlook.4 Although this approach seemed to work well in Canada, committing to keep the policy rate fixed for a specific period carries the risk that market participants may not fully appreciate that any such commitment must ultimately be conditional on how the economy evolves (as the Bank of Canada was careful to state). An alternative communication strategy is for the central bank to explicitly tie its future actions to specific developments in the economy. For example, in March 2001, the Bank of Japan committed to maintaining its policy rate at zero until Japanese consumer prices stabilised or exhibited a year-on-year increase. A potential drawback of using the FOMC’s post-meeting statement to influence market expectations is that, at least without a more comprehensive framework in place, it may be difficult to convey the Committee’s policy intentions with sufficient precision and conditionality. The Committee will continue to actively review its communication strategy, with the goal of communicating its outlook and policy intentions as clearly as possible.
A third option for further monetary policy easing is to lower the rate of interest that the Fed pays banks on the reserves they hold with the Federal Reserve System. Inside the Fed this rate is known as the IOER rate, the “interest on excess reserves” rate. The IOER rate, currently set at 25 basis points, could be reduced to, say, 10 basis points or even to zero. On the margin, a reduction in the IOER rate would provide banks with an incentive to increase their lending to nonfinancial borrowers or to participants in short-term money markets, reducing short-term interest rates further and possibly leading to some expansion in money and credit aggregates. However, under current circumstances, the effect of reducing the IOER rate on financial conditions in isolation would likely be relatively small. The federal funds rate is currently averaging between 15 and 20 basis points and would almost certainly remain positive after the reduction in the IOER rate. Cutting the IOER rate even to zero would be unlikely therefore to reduce the federal funds rate by more than 10 to 15 basis points. The effect on longer-term rates would probably be even less, although that effect would depend in part on the signal that market participants took from the action about the likely future course of policy. Moreover, such an action could disrupt some key financial markets and institutions. Importantly for the Fed’s purposes, a further reduction in very short-term interest rates could lead short-term money markets such as the federal funds market to become much less liquid, as near-zero returns might induce many participants and market-makers to exit. In normal times the Fed relies heavily on a well-functioning federal funds market to implement monetary policy, so we would want to be careful not to do permanent damage to that market.
A rather different type of policy option, which has been proposed by a number of economists, would have the Committee increase its medium-term inflation goals above levels consistent with price stability. I see no support for this option on the FOMC. Conceivably, such a step might make sense in a situation in which a prolonged period of deflation had greatly weakened the confidence of the public in the ability of the central bank to achieve price stability, so that drastic measures were required to shift expectations. Also, in such a situation, higher inflation for a time, by compensating for the prior period of deflation, could help return the price level to what was expected by people who signed long-term contracts, such as debt contracts, before the deflation began.
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