Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Why the Fed Changed Its Mind About the Taper

My favorite Keynesian, Harvard Professor Martin Feldstein, considers what might be going down:
One possibility is that Bernanke and the other FOMC leaders – especially Vice Chair Janet Yellen and New York Fed President Bill Dudley – never intended to start tapering. Their earlier statements sought merely to reassure FOMC members who wanted to end QE that the leadership was listening to their arguments and taking them seriously. Doing that prevented QE’s opponents from voting against the majority FOMC position, something that would suggest policy disarray at the Fed and a lack of respect for Bernanke. If this explanation is correct, Fed leaders can be expected to continue with an undiminished program of buying long-term securities into next year.

A second possible explanation is that Bernanke and other Fed leaders were indeed anticipating that they would begin tapering QE in September but were startled at how rapidly long-term rates had risen in response to their earlier statements. Bernanke spoke about his surprise in this regard at his June press conference, when rates were up only about 50 basis points. By September, they were up 125 basis points, to nearly 3%. The markets obviously were not convinced by Bernanke’s statements that a slower pace of asset purchases would still represent an easy-money policy. In this way, the Fed had already achieved a significant rise in rates without having to taper QE. Even if the economy were robust, this increase would dampen housing and other activities that are sensitive to long-term rates.

The third scenario is that economic activity was clearly slowing, with the future pace of activity therefore vulnerable to even higher interest rates. The annualized GDP growth rate in the first half of 2013 was just 1.8%, and final sales were up by only 1.2%. Although there are no official GDP estimates for the third quarter, private-sector assessments anticipate no acceleration in growth, putting the economy on a path that will keep this year’s output gain at well under 2%. In addition, the Fed’s preferred measure of inflation was much lower than its 2% target. The annual price index for personal consumer expenditure, excluding food and energy, has been rising for several months at a rate of just 1.2%, increasing the possibility of a slide into deflation.

Putting all of this together suggests that the Fed is likely to continue the current pace of QE through the end of this year and into 2014. Although Bernanke pointed in his September press conference to the possibility that the tapering might begin before the end of 2013, he conditioned this on the economy performing up to the FOMC’s expectations. If that is interpreted to mean that the FOMC’s members must be satisfied with the rate of real GDP growth, the Fed is highly unlikely to start tapering QE this year, because growth would have to accelerate to about 3% in the final quarter.

And yet, while all of this points to continued asset purchases at the current pace into 2014 (and perhaps beyond), there is one reason why some small tapering might occur in December: Bernanke is scheduled to retire in January. Since he introduced the “unconventional monetary policies” of QE and forward guidance, he might want to show before he steps down that he has put the Fed back on a path to conventional policies. But a single step in that direction would not have a significant impact on the level of interest rates and the pace of economic growth.

I continue to believe that the benefits of QE are no longer significant and that the low level of interest rates is driving investors and banks to take undesirable risks. In these circumstances, the Fed should move swiftly to end its long-term asset-purchase program.


  1. Hilarious how he contradicts himself in that last paragraph. This is the clown who argued that .25% interest rate on reserves is keeping inflation low.

  2. From second paragraph: "By September, they were up 125 basis points, to nearly 3%. The markets obviously were not convinced by Bernanke’s statements that a slower pace of asset purchases would still represent an easy-money policy."

    Should say: "... markets were convinced that a slower pace of asset purchases would pull considerable price support away from long-term bonds."

  3. martin feldstein is not a keynesian. He's a friedmanian monetarist

    1. A Friedman monetarist is a Keynesian.

    2. A friedmanian monetarist believe in a limited government, low taxes and free trade.
      A keynesian believe in a big government, high taxes and monetary socialism