The Federal Reserve in recent days announced its latest effort to boost the lagging U.S. economy. Whether this latest move will have much impact is open to debate.
More than three years of largely unprecedented monetary policy initiatives to 1) avoid an even deeper economic contraction during 2008 and 2009 and 2) to provide stimulus for renewed economic growth during 2010 and 2011 have shown limited success. Yes, the Great Recession from December 2007 to June 2009 was enormously painful and the longest in 70 years, but a downward spiral into another depression was avoided.
Yes, the American economy has registered growth since June 2009. However, the growth pace has been anemic, disappointing, substandard, and frustrating, especially when considering all of the various forms of stimulus at play in recent years.
The Federal Reserve enacted two major programs during the past two years to stimulate the economy. The Fed's intent was to both inject more "money" into the economy to stimulate lending and investing … and to push medium- and long-term interest rates lower in order to make mortgage refinance or new home finance opportunities more attractive.
These programs, now affectionately referred to as QE1 and QE2 (quantitative easing), saw the purchase of more than $2 trillion in U.S. Treasury securities, U.S. Agency securities, and mortgage-backed securities.
Such purchases were essentially financed with newly created money. Many critics of the Fed have been savage in their opinions … and now see a major surge in inflation just around the corner.
It seems clear that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke was more concerned 1-2 years ago about the potential ravages of deflation upon the economy, rather than "more traditional" inflation. One could suggest that his concern would now be somewhat balanced between the two 'flations. Even so, a number of media stories about rising deflation anxiety, tied to the substantial slowing of the global economy, have appeared in recent days.
In addition, the Fed's most important interest rate — the federal funds rate — has been at a record low target level of 0.00 to 0.25 percent since December 2008. The Fed has also taken the unprecedented step of suggesting that rate will stay at its current low level until at least mid-2013.
The Fed's latest policy initiative does not involve the creation of new money to be invested into U.S. Treasury securities. Instead, it involves shifting $400 billion of the current investment holdings of the Fed to longer-dated securities (many with maturities of 10-30 years), with the intent … you guessed it … of pushing long-term interest rates — including mortgage rates — lower still.
Such transactions are currently scheduled to take place between next month and June 2012. One positive result of such a program should be the ability of larger U.S. companies to refinance their own long-term debt or issue new debt at extraordinarily attractive interest rates. Such a result could (hopefully) lead employment higher.
The Fed will sell $400 billion of securities with maturities of less than three years and reinvest the proceeds into securities with maturities longer than six years. As a component of the program, the Fed plans to buy $116 billion of U.S. Treasury bonds with maturities of 20 to 30 years. Such a sum would represent more than 80 percent of the net government issuance of new 30-year bonds over the same period according to The Wall Street Journal.
A similar program was first tried in the early 1960s, with the intent of keeping long-term interest rates at extremely low levels. Results were mixed at that time.
Ironically, the combination of 1) the prior QE programs, 2) frustration about weak U.S. economic growth and the possibility of another recession, 3) slowing growth in China, and 4) major anxiety about a rapidly slowing European economy dragged down by sovereign debt worries has already led long-term interest rates to 60-year lows.
Thirty-year fixed-rate conventional mortgages averaged 4.09 percent during the past two weeks, with various lenders quoting 3.875 percent in recent days. Such rates were at 4.60 percent as recently as early July. A refinance boom?
Confidence levels of businesses owners and consumers have been severely damaged this year. Widespread anxiety about the direction of government and ongoing horrific budget deficits has simply led employers to sit on their collective hands, with consumers doing essentially the same.
Millions of homeowners are stymied in their ability to refinance because home values have declined, on average, more than 30 percent since peaking in 2006. Millions more have lost jobs or have seen incomes decline to levels wherein they simply won't qualify to refinance.
In addition, much more complex documentation required now for almost any lending option — especially for a mortgage — limits the number of people who can take advantage of historically low interest rates. The new Dodd-Frank financial legislation — more than 2,300 pages of new rules and regulations still being interpreted by the powers that be, has made a mess of the refinance industry.
The phrase "we're from the federal government and we're here to help you" hammers us once again.
The three main policy-making bodies in the nation's capital are the Administration, the Congress, and the Federal Reserve. One could argue (and I will) that the Administration has largely misplaced or misused the "credibility" it began with in early 2009.
Massive amounts of new and proposed regulations — including but not limited to the health care and financial sectors — have largely sapped the will of American businesses to expand their hiring. Sitting on the sidelines to see how such an anti-business agenda shakes out is currently in fashion. In addition, trillion-dollar budget deficits for as far as the eye can see don't help either.
The Democratic Senate and the Republican House of Representatives frustrate all with their inability to make decisions in the nation's best interests. Meanwhile, consumers also prefer to sit on the sidelines, shaken in their belief in an ever-increasing standard of living for each new generation.
Make no mistake. The Fed and its Chairman have their critics. Three of the 10 voting members of the Fed's Open Market Committee voted against the latest decision, preferring to move to the sidelines. The fact that the Fed could enact this and other aggressive programs, and still maintain inflation-fighting credibility, is a story in and of itself.
The Fed is the most credible of the three major "political" entities — with not a whole lot of competition.
Jeff Thredgold is the chief economist for Zions Bank and founder of Thredgold Economic Associates, a professional speaking and economic consulting firm. Visit www.thredgold.com.