Earlier this week the Federal Reserve ignited a firestorm in the global markets by admitting that the U.S. economy is facing downside risks. Although it continues to sugar coat the unpleasant reality, never has such a stunningly obvious statement resulted in so much turmoil.
Once again we are seeing the knee-jerk market reaction to seek refuge in the perceived safety of the U.S. dollar and U.S. Treasuries. However I expect investors will soon discover that such assets are firmly in the eye of the storm. As the tempest moves on, those enjoying the dollar's current stability may soon find themselves battered by a category five monster.
Market disappointment was compounded when the Fed failed to follow up its dire outlook with a new round of quantitative easing (QE). Instead, through a policy entitled "Operation Twist" the Fed promised to sell $400 billion of short-term Treasuries and use the proceeds to buy an equivalent amount of long-term Treasuries. The markets evidently perceived this "balance sheet neutral" policy as too timid.
From my perspective, the Twist really amounts to another Fed "Hail Mary" pass that will fall short of the end zone. But, by putting the squeeze on banks and further restricting credit availability to small business the move will likely do more harm than good.
The policy rests on the false premise moving already historically low interest rates even lower will stimulate the economy into recovery. But low interest rates are part of the problem, not part of the solution.
Even by the government's debased standards, trailing headline inflation is already hovering above 4%, and, at current rates, 30-year Treasuries are negative by 100 basis points. This distortion is inflicting untold damage on the economy. Pushing rates further into negative territory seems only to invite more problems in the future.
With the Twist, the Ben Bernanke wing of the increasingly divided Fed is offering debtors the short-term gain of low long rates in exchange for its own long-term pain of limited balance sheet flexibility and diminished power to deal with surging inflation. By selling on the short end (thereby pushing up short term yields) and buying on the long end (thereby pushing down long-term yields), the Fed will flatten the yield curve. But to attain these insignificant benefits, the plan exposes the Fed, and the economy, to great risks.
First the "benefits": Mortgage rates are already at generational lows and have recently lagged the declines seen in long dated Treasuries. Is it reasonable to believe that mortgage rates will go much lower as a result of this policy? Even if they do, what would be the net economic benefit of a new refinancing wave? Do we really want to encourage consumers once again to use their homes as ATM machines? Even if they do, any short-term boost in consumer spending would be transitory and counter-productive to a genuine recovery. The last thing we want to encourage is more spending, particularly on the imported products that would likely be purchased by those who refinanced.
What's more, the program will actually increase borrowing costs for small businesses. By increasing the cost of short-term borrowing and lowering returns on long-term loans, it will severely pressure the profitability of the beleaguered financial sector. In other words the borrower's gain is the lender's pain. In such conditions, should we expect banks to provide more credit to small business? In fact, the move will be a devastating blow to bank balance sheets and further enfeeble a financial sector on life support. Business credit will instead be diverted to dead end consumer spending, resulting in less business activity to grow the economy and create jobs.
Now the costs: The Fed severely underestimates the danger of loading up its own balance sheet with long dated securities. Not only does the move expose the Fed to severe losses when interest rates inevitably rise, but it drastically reduces its ability to withdraw liquidity to fight inflation. Short-term securities provided flexibility as they could be sold into a falling market with little price risk, or if need be, held to maturity. Such options do not exist with bonds maturing in 6-30 years. So when inflation continues to rise, as I'm sure it will, the Fed will be powerless to slow it without crushing the bond market and causing yields to soar.
In any event, the markets did not want the Twist program, they wanted additional liquidity injections in the form of QE III. In this respect, the market is like a heroin junkie. It needs ever-greater doses of money to continue moving higher. When it gets its fix, it will rally.
But a growing popular mistrust of stimulus is currently pressuring the Fed to forestall the launch of QE III. But a few more whiffs of financial turbulence could cause the Fed to fold. When the market rally ensues the Fed will claim victory. But the celebration will be hollow. The nominal gain in stock prices will likely be eclipsed by dollar declines and a more rapid gain in gold, oil, or other commodity prices. The result for investors will be higher nominal portfolio values but lower real purchasing power and a reduced standard of living.
But many of those who oppose QE3 do so because they believe the economy doesn't need more stimulus not because the stimulus itself is causing the economic weakness. As a result when the economy deteriorates, support for QE III could grow. In the end QE3 will likely be far more popular than another bank bailout (possibly to be called TARP II), which may be on the table if the Fed fails to rescue the banks it may be pushing over the edge with the Twist.
But our zombie economy does not need to be perpetuated by more QE. It must be allowed to die so that a living, breathing, self-sustaining economy can replace it. By feeding our addiction now the Fed is impeding the recovery. QE may goose the markets and provide a short-term boost to spending, but it will also increase debt and grow the government. This process exacerbates the structural imbalances underlying the U.S. economy, making what may be the inevitable crash that much more spectacular.