Larry Elliott: It is hard to see how the Fed can start to scale back its quantitative easing program this year. Nobody is sure any longer what the Fed is really up to. What will it take for the Fed to start winding down the stimulus?…
The dust was still settling on Thursday after the Federal Reserve delivered one of the biggest surprises to financial markets in many a year. This was a return to the central banking practices of the past when policymakers liked to keep people guessing about their intentions. These days central bankers pride themselves on their transparency.
But nobody is sure any longer what the Fed is really up to. Clearly it got cold feet about announcing even the most modest reduction in the amount of stimulus provided to the US economy through its long-term asset purchase programme, but both the decision and the way it was announced raised more questions than they answered.
Why was there no warning to the markets that the Fed was worried about the slowdown in growth? Why, in the absence of such a warning, did it not go ahead with a tokenist reduction in the stimulus, of say $5bn (£3.17bn) a month, that would have made good the commitment to start tapering but had no material impact on growth? What will it now take for the Fed to start winding down the stimulus?
But although the Fed’s communications strategy now lies in tatters, some conclusions can be drawn from the postponement of the taper. Firstly, policy is going to remain loose for longer than the markets envisaged. It is hard to see how the Fed can start to scale back its quantitative easing programme this year, and the prospect of the process being completed in 2014 – as originally envisaged – is as good as dead.
Secondly, the Fed is even more doveish than the markets thought. When Ben Bernanke first floated the idea of the taper back in May, the notion was that the trigger for the taper would be falling unemployment. But despite a continued moderate improvement in the labour market, the Fed still feels the time is not ripe to act. It took fright when speculation about the taper led to rising bond yields, making mortgages more expensive. It looked askance when share prices fell. And it is worried about the possible consequences of the looming budget showdown between Democrats and Republicans in Washington. So when the time came to act, it blinked.
Thirdly, the Fed has provided a respite – albeit probably temporary – to emerging markets that had seen their currencies fall against the dollar in anticipation of a gradual withdrawal of the stimulus.
Finally, the muted second day reaction to the decision was the reaction to one final unanswered question: does the Fed have the remotest idea how to unwind the stimulus? As Stephen Lewis of Monument Securities put it: Bernanke has given the “impression of being astride a tiger he dare not dismount.”
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