The Fed’s launch of QE3 looks more than a tad desperate. If you believe the central premise of the Fed’s action, that propping up asset price gains would have enough effect on consumptions to lift the economy out of stall speed, it would seem logical to sit back a bit and let the recent stock market rally and the (supposed) housing market recovery do their trick. But the Fed has finally taken note of the worsening state of the job creation in an already lousy employment market and has decided it needed to Do Something More.
So the Fed is going to push the housing button harder, with $40 billion a month of mortgage backed securities purchases, along with a continuation of Operation Twist. Thi’s is less aggressive than past turns on the QE spigot; Ambrose Evans-Pritchard called it “calibrated”. The central bank depicted the commitment as open ended, but since it also promised to keep rates super low “at least through mid-2015,” Mr. Market expects the QE tap to remain on at least that long.
Now arguably, this move is a hedge against the slowdown in China, Europe, and the contractionary effect of failing to shrink the fiscal cliff. But QE weakens the dollar and gooses commodity prices (as confirmed by big moves in gold, silver, and oil on Thursday). The last thing Europe needs now is a stronger euro. With food prices already up sharply (note that while the USDA is now forecasting that the corn harvest will be only slightly below last year’s levels, rice output has also fallen) and previous rounds of QE having led to bitter complaints of its effects on commodity prices, any additional pressure on staples like food and fuel prices aren’t just unwelcome, they are politically destabilizing.
But the elephant in the room is what, if anything, these measures will achieve in terms of real economy impact. “Let them eat stocks and housing” has not been terribly successful. Even with super low rates, it has also taken massive sequestering of inventories for the housing market to have the appearance of stabilizing. We have low household formation due to young adults facing high unemployment, low paying jobs with generally short job tenures, and heavy student debt burdens. On top of that, we have generational headwinds as boomers hit retirement age and want or need to downsize. Keeping money on sale is not going to induce banks to lend more if they can’t find enough qualified borrowers. And the consumer deleveraging story is not as positive as the statistics would lead you to believe. A lot of it is involuntary, meaning driven by foreclosures. In addition, retirees also curtail their spending thanks to the fall in interest income they’ve suffered under ZIRP.
But another big issue is that the Fed looks to have painted itself in a corner. Is the US going to have 3.5% mortgage interest rates forever? If the central banks does manage to create a bit more inflation, how does it think it will exit? A mere 1% increase in interest rates, from 3.5% to 4.5%, increases mortgage payments on a 30 year fixed rate mortgage payments by 13%. That will translate into a meaningful dent in housing prices. And where does the Fed go if a financial crisis or other shock occurs?
The Fed failed to see the crisis coming, failed to push for restructuring of consumer, particularly mortgage, debt, and is now in full bore “if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail” mode. And in the crisis, the Fed was slow to act and then overdid when it finally roused itself (remember “75 is the new 25”?) it looks as if the Bernanke Fed is incapable of looking at its own history.