As important as when the Fed might taper its asset purchases is why it might do so. Uncertainty about the Fed’s QE reaction function, BofAML argues, is a significant contributor to recent market volatility. There are several scenarios that could explain why a number of Fed officials have started talking about tapering: they have become more optimistic on the outlook; they are more worried about potential QE costs; they have decided to taper earlier for largely technical reasons. The first of these likely would be the least disruptive for markets, and the last the most. Clear Fed communication could mitigate some of the volatility, but, as BofAML notes, the current lack of consensus on the FOMC likely means uncertainty will likely persist.
The good news taper
Several Fed officials have sounded more optimistic on the outlook recently, including noted doves (and current voters) Charles Evans (Chicago) and Eric Rosengren (Boston). Other core Fed officials, such as Chairman Bernanke and New York’s Bill Dudley, sound less convinced in recent remarks and seem to have reluctantly acknowledged that tapering before long is not outside the realm of possibility. If we get a sustainable improvement in the job market data and inflation converging back toward target, that outcome should leave the markets relatively comfortable with the Fed beginning to modestly pull back its accommodation. In that case, markets should be able to transition from Fed-led liquidity support to a better growth-led recovery story.
The bad news taper
The ride could be bumpier if markets conclude the Fed has grown more concerned about QE costs and is ending QE prematurely. We don’t see these concerns motivating the voting majority to taper early: Bernanke and Dudley, for example, admitted to monitoring for financial instability but concluded that the benefits of continued QE outweigh the costs. For some market participants, the current talk of tapering is at odds with the still weak outlook, leading them to conclude that the Fed isn’t acknowledging its true degree of concern over QE costs. Others disagree with the Fed’s current assessment of risks, and expect the Fed will eventually have to tighten policy much sooner than they have indicated. In either case, the process will be more volatile: tapering seen as premature is likely to spur risk-off behavior and increases the odds that the Fed will eventually decide to scale back up their purchases should the data worsen.
The not-so-timely technical taper
A view gaining some traction is that the Fed is discussing tapering because it actually has a lower threshold than indicated, perhaps for some technical reason. There are several variations to this view: the Fed wants to introduce volatility; it wants to “send a message” to the markets; it wants to test a small taper to see the response. Such scenarios would be quite tricky for market participants: they not only fail to clearly identify the Fed’s longer-term reaction function, but also presume the Fed, in part, is hiding its true motives.
The Fed does not typically work this way - not only do these stories run counter to the greater transparency under Bernanke, but they tend to undermine the Fed’s ability to satisfy its dual mandate. Thus our temptation is to fade these stories, but we cannot completely rule out some kind of early, small, technical adjustment to QE. The Fed is limited by a lack of consensus over QE, but they arguably could clarify their reaction function better than they have to date.