The Federal Reserve, in announcing the results of this week’s meeting of the Open Market Committee, surprised the market by revealing it will begin purchasing US Treasury notes and bonds with the principal income it receives from its vast holdings of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mortgage securities. This practice – wherein the Fed buys up US government securities and injects cash into the public market as payment for these securities – is a form of monetizing the debt. The last time the Fed did this on a big scale was back in the 1960s when it attempted to mop up the excess Treasury securities that were flooding the market as a result of Lyndon Johnson’s efforts to finance the Vietnam War. That Fed program was viewed at the time as a failure, since the cash the Fed put back into the economy in exchange for the securities was a big reason – perhaps the major reason – why price inflation accelerated from the late 1960s until a decade later, when Paul Volcker managed to squelch inflation once and for all with forbiddingly high interest rates.
The market was expecting some sort of monetary stimulus, but not this. The expectation was that the Fed would renew its “quantitative easing” program involving Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac securities – a program designed to push down long term mortgage rates. That program was successful inasmuch as mortgage rates are at record lows, but it left the Fed with well over a trillion dollars of these securities on its balance sheet. Fed officials have lately been pondering publicly how to get rid of these securities, and apparently have concluded they can’t under present market conditions without forcing mortgage rates back up again, which would only hurt the housing market. Instead, these officials have concluded that the Fed has no choice but to hold on to these securities until they mature, which is well over 10 years from now for the portfolio.
The Fed receives billions of dollars of principal and interest payments every year on this portfolio, and what to do with this cash has always been open for discussion until now. But using principal proceeds from these securities to monetize the government debt is fraught with risk. For one, should the housing market start to weaken again and foreclosures rise from current levels, the Fed will be sitting on billions of dollars of credit losses on its portfolio. This could eat up most if not all of the profit it would otherwise earn on this portfolio. Second, older investors have memories of the nasty inflationary consequences the last time the Fed monetized the debt, and the market has become very skittish about the risk of inflation, and maybe even hyperinflation ala Weimar Germany, that could result from the enormous fiscal and monetary stimulus put into the economy since 2007.
In terms of these risks, the best thing the Fed has going for it at the moment is that the pricing problem facing the current economy is not inflation, but deflation. A growing number of economists, and even some Fed governors, are worrying outright about deflation, but at least in a deflationary environment the Fed is given a lot more leeway to monetize the debt and build up its balance sheet as a consequence. The Fed press release today did not mention deflation per se, but the FOMC no longer described the economy as “progressing”, as it did in June. Instead, the Fed sees an economy with substantial slack, a stagnant housing market, repressed earnings power for workers, and very low inflation.
The bond market was happy to buy Treasuries on this news, concentrating in the 2 to 10 year maturities, in anticipation of higher prices (and thus lower yields) once the Fed begins actively purchasing. So far, in other words, the bond market sees no risk of inflation, much less hyperinflation, and is content to see yields continue to head to record low levels. Such excessively low yields on government bonds have only been seen in deflationary economies like Japan has experienced for nearly two decades. This is in essence what the bond market is forecasting for the US economy.
The stock market, which has been on a tear since early July, took this news in stride, but time and past experience is weighing heavily on this stock rally. When bond yields fall to record lows, this has never boded well for equities. In a deflationary economy, stock prices are one of the main victims, and the US stock markets have so far shown no significant adjustment downwards to reflect deflation. Stocks may have some serious “catching up” to do.
At the least, we can say we are no longer in that environment in the spring when Fed governors were talking seriously about how they were going to remove all their monetary stimulus now that the economy has recovered. Instead, we are witnessing yet another round of monetary stimulus, a recognition by the Fed that their previous efforts have failed to ignite a sustainable recovery.