In a move that some are calling QE3, the Federal Reserve announced yesterday that it will engage in a policy called "the twist" -- selling short-term bonds and buying long-term bonds in hopes of artificially reducing long-term interest rates. If successful, this policy (we are told) will incentivize more borrowing and stimulate growth.
I've freely admitted before that it is difficult to identify the right monetary policy, but it certainly seems like this policy is -- at best -- an ineffective gesture. This is why the Fed's various efforts to goose the economy with easy money have been described as "pushing on a string."
Here are two related questions that need to be answered.
1. Is the economy's performance being undermined by high long-term rates?
Considering that interest rates are at very low levels already, it seems rather odd to claim that the economy will suddenly rebound if they get pushed down a bit further. Japan has had very low interest rates (both short-run and long-run) for a couple of decades, yet the economy has remained stagnant.
Perhaps the problem is bad policy in other areas. After all, who wants to borrow money, expand business, create jobs, and boost output if Washington is pursuing a toxic combination of excessive spending and regulation, augmented by the threat of higher taxes.
2. Is the economy hampered by lack of credit?
Low interest rates, some argue, may not help the economy if banks don't have any money to lend. Yet I've already pointed out that banks have more than $1 trillion of excess reserves deposited at the Fed.
Perhaps the problem is that banks don't want to lend money because they don't see profitable opportunities. After all, it's better to sit on money than to lend it to people who won't pay it back because of an economy weakened by too much government.
The Fed announced that through June 2012 it will buy $400 billion in Treasury bonds at the long end of the market—with six- to 30-year maturities—and sell an equal amount of securities of three years' duration or less. The point, said the FOMC statement, is to put further "downward pressure on longer-term interest rates and help make broader financial conditions more accommodative." It's hard to see how this will make much difference to economic growth. Long rates are already at historic lows, and even a move of 10 or 20 basis points isn't likely to affect many investment decisions at the margin. The Fed isn't acting in a vacuum, and any move in bond prices could well be swamped by other economic news. Europe's woes are accelerating, and every CEO in America these days is worried more about what the National Labor Relations Board is doing to Boeing than he is about the 30-year bond rate. The Fed will also reinvest the principal payments it receives on its asset holdings into mortgage-backed securities, rather than in U.S. Treasurys. The goal here is to further reduce mortgage costs and thus help the housing market. But home borrowing costs are also at historic lows, and the housing market suffers far more from the foreclosure overhang and uncertainty encouraged by government policy than it does from the price of money. The Fed's announcement thus had the feel of an attempt to show it is doing something to help the economy, even if it can't do much. ...the economy's problems aren't rooted in the supply and price of money. They result from the damage done to business confidence and investment by fiscal and regulatory policy, and that's where the solutions must come. Investors on Wall Street and politicians in Washington want to believe that the Fed can make up for years of policy mistakes. The sooner they realize it can't, the sooner they'll have no choice but to correct the mistakes.
Let's also take this issue to the next level. Some people are explicitly arguing in favor of more "quantitative easing" because they want some inflation. They argue that "moderate" inflation will help the economy by indirectly wiping out some existing debt.
This is a very dangerous gambit. Letting the inflation genie out of the bottle could trigger 1970s-style stagflation. Paul Volcker fires a warning shot against this risky approach in a New York Times column. Here are the key passages.
...we are beginning to hear murmurings about the possible invigorating effects of “just a little inflation.” Perhaps 4 or 5 percent a year would be just the thing to deal with the overhang of debt and encourage the “animal spirits” of business, or so the argument goes. The siren song is both alluring and predictable. ...After all, if 1 or 2 percent inflation is O.K. and has not raised inflationary expectations — as the Fed and most central banks believe — why not 3 or 4 or even more? ...all of our economic history says it won’t work that way. I thought we learned that lesson in the 1970s. That’s when the word stagflation was invented to describe a truly ugly combination of rising inflation and stunted growth. ...What we know, or should know, from the past is that once inflation becomes anticipated and ingrained — as it eventually would — then the stimulating effects are lost. Once an independent central bank does not simply tolerate a low level of inflation as consistent with “stability,” but invokes inflation as a policy, it becomes very difficult to eliminate. ...At a time when foreign countries own trillions of our dollars, when we are dependent on borrowing still more abroad, and when the whole world counts on the dollar’s maintaining its purchasing power, taking on the risks of deliberately promoting inflation would be simply irresponsible.
Last but not least, here is my video on the origin of central banking, which starts with an explanation of how currency evolved in the private sector, then describes how governments then seized that role by creating monopoly central banks, and closes with a list of options to promote good monetary policy.
And I can't resist including a link to the famous "Ben Bernank" QE2 video that was a viral smash.