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Fed Runs Risk of Doing Less Than Investors Expect

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The New York Times

Investors have concluded that the Federal Reserve will announce new measures to promote economic growth after a meeting of its policy-making committee ends Wednesday. Long-term interest rates have moved as if the Fed had already spoken.

The central bank is often described as facing the choice of whether to do more to improve the economy. But the anticipatory behavior of investors means the Fed really faces a slightly different choice, one it has confronted often in recent years: whether to risk doing less than expected.

The overriding argument for action is the persistent weakness of the American economy, which has left more than 25 million Americans unable to find full-time work.

The Federal Reserve chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, who has made a series of unusual efforts to revive growth, has not discouraged speculation that he is ready to try again.

“I think the Fed has no choice but to act,” said Krishna Memani, director of fixed income at Oppenheimer Funds. “If the Fed were not to do anything having built market expectations to a pretty decent level, I think the markets would react quite negatively to that.”

But the Fed also faces mounting pressure against additional action, including strident criticism from Republican presidential candidates and divisions in the policy-making committee. Moreover, the options available to the central bank have less power to generate growth, a greater chance of negative consequences, or both, than those it has already tried.

Some close watchers of the central bank say investors’ behavior could let the Fed offer a token gesture now, postponing any larger move at least until its next meeting in November. After all, the Fed is reaping the benefits of action without the costs.

“There is no reason for the Fed to rush,” Lou Crandall, chief economist at Wrightson/ICAP, wrote in a recent note to clients predicting such an outcome. “It is in the Fed’s interest to milk the anticipation effect as long as possible.”

The move markets are anticipating is a new effort to reduce long-term interest rates, which would allow businesses and consumers to borrow more cheaply. Yields on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note fell to a record low of 1.88 percent at the start of last week, reflecting the Fed’s earlier efforts to lower rates and investors’ pessimism about the economy.

The hope is that an additional reduction in rates will provide a little more encouragement for companies to build factories and hire workers and for consumers to buy cars and dishwashers.

The Fed has held short-term rates near zero since December 2008, by increasing the supply of money.

To further reduce long-term rates, the Fed bought more than $2 trillion in government debt and mortgage-backed securities, reducing the supply available to investors and thereby forcing them to pay higher prices — that is, to accept lower interest rates.

The Fed could seek to amplify that effect by adjusting the composition of its portfolio, selling short-term securities and using the proceeds to buy long-term securities, which it predicts would further reduce rates.

An analysis by the forecasting firm Macroeconomic Advisers estimated that such an effort by the Fed could raise gross domestic product by 0.4 of a percentage point over the next two years, and create about 350,000 jobs. That is comparable to estimates of the impact of the central bank’s most recent aid campaign, the QE2, or quantitative easing, purchases of $600 billion in Treasury securities, which concluded in June.

Mr. Bernanke announced in August that the Federal Open Market Committee, the policy-making board, would meet for two days, extending its scheduled one-day meeting this week to include both Tuesday and Wednesday, to consider that and other options.

The Fed could take smaller steps, like promising to maintain current efforts longer. It may also consider options that could deliver a more powerful jolt to the economy, like increasing the size of its investment portfolio again. But more aggressive measures have little internal support.

The Fed, Mr. Bernanke said, is “prepared to employ these tools as appropriate to promote a stronger economic recovery in a context of price stability.”

He still commands a solid majority of his 10-member board despite the emergence of the largest bloc of internal dissent in two decades. Three members voted against the decision last month to declare an intention to hold short-term interest rates near zero for at least two more years, replacing a stated intention to maintain the policy for an “extended period.”

The central bank has also become a target of conservative politicians, with several Republican presidential candidates denouncing its efforts to increase growth. But even Mr. Bernanke’s internal critics dismiss these attacks.

“I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about what any one candidate says about us,” Richard W. Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, told Fox Business Network in a recent interview. “The issue is to get it right.”

Of greater concern is the possibility that the Fed is nearing the limits of its powers. Interest rates are already depressed and, like a board mounted on a spring, pushing down gets harder as the floor gets closer.

Studies also have found the Fed’s success in reducing rates has not yielded the full measure of predicted benefits. Mortgages and small business loans may be cheap, but because lenders remain cautious, they are not easy to get.

The research firm Capital Economics said recently any renewed effort by the central bank would be unlikely to overcome those obstacles.

“We don’t expect it to have any dramatic impact on the wider economy because many households will still not qualify for loans at those lower rates,” it said.

The Fed also would face an increased risk of losing money on its investments.

And only so many Treasuries are available for sale. If the Fed sold all of its securities maturing in the next four years and bought only securities maturing in more than 17 years, maximizing its impact, it would end up with 70 percent of the available long-term inventory. That could interfere with the normal operations of insurance companies and other traditional buyers.

Laurence H. Meyer, a former Federal Reserve governor who now leads Macroeconomic Advisers, said he expected the Fed to conclude that the potential benefits outweighed these issues, but that it needed more time to hammer out details.

“We expect them to come out of the committee meeting feeling that they’ve decided and have a consensus to move in November,” he said.

Mr. Meyer suggested that the Fed could mollify the markets by announcing what amounts to a preview, by investing the proceeds of maturing securities — about $20 billion each month — in longer-term debt.

Such a move might not do much to move the economic needle, because the amounts involved would be minute by the standards of monetary policy, but it could be enough to preserve the valuable conviction that the Fed will do more soon.

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Written by appraisalmanagementnews

September 26, 2011 at 1:45 pm

Posted in Federal Reserve

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