From "Horseshift! (With Reference to Gordian Knots)" - the prepared remarks by the Dallas Fed's Dick Fisher released moments ago, in which the Fed president with GLD holdings, gets folksy with the Fed's balance sheet.
Years of Extraordinary Measures
For six of my eight years at the Fed, we have been working to bring the nation’s economy out of recession. The fiscal authorities have for the most part been AWOL during this time, having left the parking brake on during their absence. This has placed the onus on the Bernanke-led Federal Reserve. We have undertaken extraordinary measures, first to get the economy out of the emergency room after the financial system seizure of 2008-09, and more recently, to goose up the private sector to expand payrolls. Toward this end, the Fed cut interest rates to their lowest levels in the nation’s 237-year history by initially cutting the base rate for overnight interbank lending—the “fed funds rate”—to near zero, and then by purchasing massive amounts of U.S. Treasuries and bonds issued or backed by U.S. government agencies (obligations of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Sally Mae, and mortgage-backed securities).
This later program is referred to as quantitative easing, or QE, by the public and as large-scale asset purchases, or LSAPs, internally at the Fed. As a result of LSAPs conducted over three stages of QE, the Fed’s System Open Market Account now holds $2 trillion of Treasury securities and $1.3 trillion of agency and mortgage-backed securities (MBS). Since last fall, when we initiated the third stage of QE, we have regularly been purchasing $45 billion a month of Treasuries and $40 billion a month in MBS, meanwhile reinvesting the proceeds from the paydowns of our mortgage-based investments. The result is that our balance sheet has ballooned to more than $3.5 trillion. That’s $3.5 trillion, or $11,300 for every man, woman and child residing in the United States.
The theoretical mechanics behind QE are straightforward: When the Fed buys Treasuries and MBS, it pays for them, putting money into the economy. A key intent of this unprecedented program was to drive down interest rates to such a degree that businesses would achieve a financial comfort level that would induce them to put back to work the millions of Americans that were laid off in the Great Recession. Thus far, only 76 percent of the jobs lost during 2008-09 have been clawed back in the more than three and a half years of modest to moderate payroll gains. This 76 percent figure does not include the 3 million or so jobs that would normally be created to absorb growth in the working-age population.
The Challenge of Untying the Monetary Gordian Knot
The challenge now facing the FOMC is that of deciding when to begin dialing back (or as the financial press is fond of reporting: “tapering”) the amount of additional security purchases. In his press conference following our June FOMC meeting, speaking on behalf of the Committee, Chairman Bernanke made clear the parameters for dialing back and eventually ending the QE program. Should the economy continue to improve along the lines then envisioned by Committee, the market could anticipate our slowing the rate of purchases later this year, with an eye toward curtailing new purchases as the unemployment rate broaches 7 percent and prospects for solid job gains remain promising.
Kindly note that this does not mean that the Committee would envision raising the shorter term fed funds rate simultaneously; indeed, the Committee has said it expects this pivotal rate to remain between 0 and ¼ percent at least as long as the unemployment rate remains above 6.5 percent, intermediate prospects for inflation are reasonable, and longer-term inflationary expectations remain well anchored.
Having stated this quite clearly, and with the unemployment rate having come down to 7.4 percent, I would say that the Committee is now closer to execution mode, pondering the right time to begin reducing its purchases, assuming there is no intervening reversal in economic momentum in coming months.
This is a delicate moment. The Fed has created a monetary Gordian Knot. You can see the developing complexity of that knot in this sequence of slides tracing the change in our portfolio structure with each phase of QE.
Whereas before, our portfolio consisted primarily of instantly tradable short-term Treasury paper, now we hold almost none; our portfolio consists primarily of longer-term Treasuries and MBS. Without delving into the various details and adjustments that could be made (such as considerations of assets readily available for purchase by the Fed), we now hold roughly 20 percent of the stock and continue to buy more than 25 percent of the gross issuance of Treasury notes and bonds. Further, we hold more than 25 percent of MBS outstanding and continue to take down more than 30 percent of gross new MBS issuance. Also, our current rate of MBS purchases far outpaces the net monthly supply of MBS.
The point is: We own a significant slice of these critical markets. This is, indeed, something of a Gordian Knot.
Those of you familiar with the Gordian legend know there were two versions to it: One holds that Alexander the Great simply dispatched with the problem by slicing the intractable knot in half with his sword; the other posits that Alexander pulled the knot out of its pole pin, exposed the two ends of the cord and proceeded to untie it. According to the myth, the oracles then divined that he would go on to conquer the world.
There is no Alexander to simply slice the complex knot that we have created with our rounds of QE. Instead, when the right time comes, we must carefully remove the program's pole pin and gingerly unwind it so as not to prompt market havoc. For starters though, we need to stop building upon the knot. For this reason, I have advocated that we socialize the idea of the inevitability of our dialing back and eventually ending our LSAPs. In June, I argued for the Chairman to signal this possibility at his last press conference and at last week’s meeting suggested that we should gird our loins to make our first move this fall. We shall see if that recommendation obtains with the majority of the Committee.
We needn’t be condemned to the glue factory. As I said, American companies publicly held and private—large, medium and small—have taken advantage of the cheap and abundant money made available by the Fed’s hyper-accommodative monetary policy to create lean and muscular balance sheets. In response to the deep recession and the challenges of fiscal and regulatory uncertainty, they have rationalized their cost structures and ramped up productivity, leveraging IT, just-in-time inventory management and new production structures to the max. I believe American businesses today are, far and away, the most efficient operators in the world. We have countless businesses in every sector of goods and service production that are the equivalents of the Secretariats, Man o’ Wars, Citations, Seabiscuits or any great thoroughbred that has ever graced the track. They just need to be let out of the starting gate.
That gate is controlled by Congress, working with the president. If they would just let 'em rip, we would have an economy that would soar. We would experience what, tongue firmly but confidently in cheek, I would call “horseshift”: from being the stuff of an economic glue factory to becoming the wonder-horse that would outpace the rest of the world, putting the American people back to work and renewing the wonder of American prosperity. If you and your fellow citizens from whatever state you hail from insist upon it, it will be done.
But why "let them rip" when Congress and the president can continue the charade, and pretend they are doing their political roles of sticking to their ideologies (i.e., no consensus on anything) when at the end of the day it is the Fed whose all enabling monetary policy provides the necessary impetus to keep the economy if not growing, then at least keep it from imploding (for now) even if it means record daily S&P highs and unseen splintering between America's uber rich and everyone else.
In other words good luck with all that.... folksy or not.