Last Wednesday, the Federal Reserve shocked markets with a surprise decision to refrain from beginning to taper back the pace of its bond-buying program known as quantitative easing.
In the press conference following the decision, Fed chairman Ben Bernanke cited the recent rise in long-term interest rates — spurred by Bernanke’s previous press conference in July, during which he seemed to endorse it — as a reason for the delay. Rates had risen too far, too fast, and they were presenting a threat to sustainable economic growth.
Nomura chief economist Richard Koo calls this a “QE ‘trap’ of [the Fed’s] own making,” writing in a note to clients that the Fed’s decision last week is a clear sign that a “vicious cycle of rising rates and economic weakness has already emerged.”
The yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury note rose as high as 3.0% in the weeks before the Fed announced its decision not to taper.
“Instead of falling back to 2.0% or lower following the Fed’s decision to delay tapering, the 10-year Treasury yield has settled at around 2.5%, which means the next rise in rates could easily take the 10-year yield into 3.0%-plus territory,” says Koo. “I worry that this kind of intermittent increase in rates threatens the recoveries in interest- rate-sensitive sectors such as housing and automobiles. That could lead to renewed hesitance at the Fed and prompt it to temporarily shelve or postpone tapering.”
That’s how the vicious cycle starts.
“While rates might then decline, reassuring the markets for a few months, talk of tapering would probably re-emerge as soon as the data showed some improvements, pushing rates higher and serving as a brake on the recovery,” says Koo. “Then the Fed would again be forced to delay or cancel tapering. In my view, recent events have greatly increased the likelihood of this kind of ‘on again, off again’ scenario, something I warned about in my last report. To be honest, I did not expect it to occur so soon.”
Now that it’s here, though, Koo writes that the Fed is facing the true cost of QE:
Given that this would never have been a problem if the central bank had not engaged in quantitative easing, I think the US is now facing the real cost of its policy decision.
Had the Fed not implemented QE, long-term rates would not have risen so early in the rebound, and the economic recovery would have proceeded smoothly. Now, any talk of ending QE pushes long-term rates higher and throws cold water on the economy, making it more difficult to discontinue the policy.
That raises the possibility that by buying longer-term securities the central banks of the US, the UK and Japan have placed themselves in a QE “trap” of their own making and will be unable to escape for many years to come. I have previously described QE as a policy that is easy to begin and hard — even scary — to end. The recent drama over tapering signals the start of the less-pleasant second part.
“Amid all the talk of ending QE, I think hyperinflation is a less likely outcome than a QE ‘trap’,” says Koo. “As soon as the economy picks up a bit, the authorities begin to talk about tapering, which sends long-term rates sharply higher and nips the recovery and inflation in the bud, effectively preventing them from winding down the policy. In this kind of world the economy never fully recovers because businesses and households live in constant fear of a sharp rise in long-term rates.”