– Bernanke set to begin Fed’s tapering of QE – but is the US economy ready? (Guardian Sep. 15, 2013):
After years of the Fed pumping $85bn a month into financial markets, the strength of the American recovery will be tested
As Barack Obama gears up to announce Ben Bernanke’s successor, the Federal Reserve chairman is expected to make the deeply symbolic gesture this week of announcing the beginning of the end of quantitative easing – the drastic depression-busting policy that has led the Fed to pump an extraordinary $85bn (£54bn) a month into financial markets.
It will signal the Fed’s belief that the US economy is on the mend, but it could also frighten the markets and hit interest rates. So what exactly is Bernanke doing, why now – and how might it affect the UK and other countries?
What will the Federal Reserve do?
After on Tuesday and Wednesday’s regular policy meeting, the Fed is widely expected to announce that it will start to “taper” its $85bn-a-month quantitative easing (QE) programme, perhaps cutting its monthly purchases of assets such as government bonds by $10bn or $15bn.
Is that good news?
It should be: it means the governors of the Fed, led by the chairman, Bernanke, believe the US economy is strong enough to stand on its own, without support from a constant flow of cheap, electronically created money – though they still have no plans to raise base interest rates from the record low of 0.25%, and they expect to stop adding to QE over a period of up to a year. “We really want to see a situation where central banks should not be pumping money into markets. It’s not a healthy thing to be doing,” says Chris Williamson, chief economist at data provider Markit.
Why are they doing it now?
Economic data is pointing to a modest but steady recovery. House prices have turned, rising by 12% in the year to June. Unemployment has fallen to 7.3%, its lowest level since the end of 2008, albeit partly because many women and retirees have left the workforce.
Since QE on such a huge scale carries its own risks – it can distort financial markets, for example – the Fed is keen to withdraw it once it thinks an upturn is well underway. However, some recent data, including worse-than-expected retail sales figures on Friday, have raised doubts about the health of the upturn.
There’s another reason too: Bernanke’s term as governor ends in January next year, and he may feel that at least making a start on the process of tapering – marking the beginning of the end of the policy emergency that started more than five years ago – would be a fitting end to his tenure.
How will the markets react?
With a shrug, the Fed hopes, since it has carefully communicated its intentions. Scotiabank’s Alan Clarke said: “I think it’s pretty much priced in … Speculation began months ago, the market has already moved and we are still seeing some very robust data. The foot is on the accelerator pedal just a bit more lightly.”
However, a larger-than-expected move could still cause ripples – and a decision not to taper at all would be a shock, though some analysts believe it remains a possibility. Paul Ashworth, US economist at Capital Economics, said: “I don’t think they’ve actually decided on this ahead of time.”
What will investors be looking for?
First, the scale of the reduction in asset purchases. No taper at all might suggest Bernanke and his colleagues have lingering concerns about the health of the economy; a reduction of $20bn a month or more would come as a shock. The tone of the statement, and the chairman’s subsequent press conference, will also be scrutinised, with markets hoping for reassurance that even once tapering is underway, there is no immediate plan to raise interest rates: Bernanke has previously said he doesn’t expect this to take place until unemployment has fallen to 6.5% or below. Williamson said: “I think they will accompany the announcement with a very dovish statement designed not to scare people that the economy is too weak but to reassure stimulus won’t be taken away too quickly.”
What does it mean for the UK?
Long-term interest rates in UK markets have risen sharply since the early summer, at least in part because of the Fed’s announcement on tapering, and that shift, which has a knock-on effect on some mortgage and other loan rates, is likely to continue as the stimulus is progressively withdrawn.
If tapering occurs without setting off a market crash or choking off recovery, it may help to reassure policymakers in the UK that they can tighten policy once the recovery gets firmly under way, without sparking a renewed crisis. David Kern, economic adviser to the British Chamber of Commerce, said: “it will strengthen for me the argument against doing more QE in the UK.”
How will the eurozone be affected?
It could cut both ways: a strengthening US economy is a welcome market for Europe’s exporters, and if the value of the dollar increases against the euro on the prospect of higher interest rates, that will make eurozone goods cheaper.
However, the prospect of an end to QE in the US has also caused bond yields in all major markets to rise, pushing up borrowing costs – including for many governments. That could make life harder for countries such as Spain and Italy that are already in a fiscal tight spot.
What about emerging markets?
Back in May, Bernanke merely had to moot the idea of ending QE to send emerging markets reeling. A side-effect of the unprecedented flood of cheap money under QE has been that banks and other investors have used the cash to make riskier investments in emerging markets. The prospect of that tap being turned off has already seen capital pouring out of emerging markets and currencies, potentially exposing underlying weaknesses in economies that have been flourishing on a ready supply of cheap credit.
“It has triggered all sorts of significant movements around the world out of emerging markets. It’s had big ramifications for India and other parts of Asia,” said Clarke.
Central banks in Brazil and India have been forced to take action to shore up their currencies; Turkey and Indonesia also look vulnerable. Many of these markets have looked calmer in recent weeks, but the concrete fact of tapering could set off a fresh panic.