A Recap of the 32nd Annual Monetary and Trade Conference

April 24, 2014

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Recently a group of experts assembled at Drexel University to discuss the future course of U.S. monetary policy and its implications for our global neighbors. GIC and LeBow’s Annual Monetary and Trade Conference focused on the phase-out of “quantitative easing” and its implications for financial markets and real economic. The first session provided an update on the current state of the economy and expected growth for 2014-15. Growth is expected to continue to be sub-par (as it has been since the recovery started in 2009), with real GDP growing between 2.5 and 3 percent. Inflation would remain below 2 percent, and the unemployment rate would remain stubbornly high. Bright spots in the economy would continue to be energy (where all the growth has been in the private sector, not on government controlled land and the President continuing to withhold approval of the Keystone pipeline project and delay permits for more drilling, exploration and natural gas and oil exporting) and housing, where starts continue to lag expectations. Consumer spending on cars will be solid, but sluggish in other areas. Overall, this is not a strong outlook with the recovery now 59 months old – the average for a post-war recovery.

The causes of this anemic growth were discussed, top on the list being the uncertainty produced by the inability of Congress and the President to make any progress on top issues, the avalanche of regulations, the Affordable Care Act, tax hikes and a loss of confidence in government (only one in 10 consumers think government policy is “good,” over 50 percent think it is “bad” [Reuters/University of Michigan]). Owners of small businesses (who produce half of private GDP) remain very pessimistic, with far more owners expecting the (or “their”) economy to deteriorate than improve in 2014 and record low numbers thinking it is a good time to expand, a third blaming the “political climate” directly. All of the “scandals” emanating from Washington are not inspiring confidence in government.

These and other more specific issues (including lingering effects from the financial crash for many consumers) are holding back the recovery, but the Federal Reserve has no tools to “fix” them beyond urging the fiscal authorities to act responsibly. But the Fed apparently decided to do what it could to “offset” the negative impacts of policies it could not fix. Thus several rounds of “quantitative easing” and “operation twist” followed the Feds initial foray into markets to guarantee the liquidity of the banking system. All together, these programs will take the Fed’s asset portfolio from $800 billion (mostly Treasury bonds) to around $4.5 trillion by the end of this year.

The Fed has now committed to ending the official QE3, “tapering” its monthly purchases from $85 billion each month to $0 in $10 billion increments. This does not mean that in the course of conducting normal monetary policy that the FOMC is precluded from purchasing more bonds which could, on balance, result in a further expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet if deemed necessary based on incoming data. Absent that, the Fed’s termination of QE3 will remove over a trillion dollars of demand for Treasury bonds and mortgage backed securities this year, a rather substantial reduction in demand. Taken alone, one might expect bond prices to fall and interest rates rise as a result. However, the supply of bonds is dramatically being reduced by a huge shrinkage in the federal deficit, by $600 billion or more (last year, the Fed purchased the equivalent of about 70 percent of new Treasury bond issuance). This would moderate the potential rise in interest rates, especially with the Fed’s “promise” to keep short rates low for a long period of time. Indeed, most forecasts for the rate on the 10 year Treasury anticipate only modest increases, moving toward 4 percent by year end.

The Fed’s policies do have major impacts on the rest of the world as well as here in the U.S. Low interest rates (which have reduced consumer interest income by half a trillion dollars) have encouraged investors to use this cheap money to find higher returns in other countries. Many of the targets of these fund flows are smaller countries with less well developed financial markets. The capital inflows to these countries induced by Fed policies have altered exchange rates and flows of exports and imports. China and Japan changed their holdings of Treasury securities very little, but transactions in Treasury securities were very volatile from the Caymans, a base for U.S. money investments. Other major central banks are conducting their own “QE” policies as well, all heavily impacting global liquidity. Their success or failure will have a significant impact on the U.S. and our policy choices will impact their economies.

Will or can monetary policy return to “normal?” With a $4 trillion dollar portfolio, it is hard to see how. Just “re-investing” the earnings means substantial bond buying. Letting the portfolio run off, as many suggest as the simplest way to reduce the portfolio (To what level? To the pre-recession $800 billion or more because the economy is larger?) implies a reduction in bond buying as bond and mortgages mature and pay off. Discretionary policy must be framed around these possible scenarios of continued purchases or portfolio reductions. The Fed’s attempts to be “transparent” have produced many uncertainties and will probably continue to do so in the future. The Board of Governors has been appointed by one President, so diversity in views will certainly be muted. Many have criticized the Fed for continuing to purchase trillions of dollars of bonds with little evidence that it has made any difference for employment and unemployment, their “objective.” Supporters argue the counter-factual: it would have been worse had the Fed not undertaken QE2 and QE3. Something economists can argue about for years.

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