Fed's Fisher Attempts To Defend His Ongoing Policy Dissent

by: Tim Duy

Federal Reserve President Richard Fisher yesterday attempted to defend his ongoing policy dissent. He gives plenty of material to work with, beginning with his version of research ahead of an FOMC meeting:

Before every FOMC meeting, I survey a select group of 30 or so private business and banking operators, imparting no information about monetary policy but listening carefully to their perspectives on developments in the economy as seen at the ground level. For weeks leading up to the meeting, there was speculation in the financial markets and in the press that an Operation Twist was being contemplated. I received an earful of opinions on these rumors.

A big red flag right away. He claims to listen to survey contacts on the state of the economy, but does he tell us what they said about the economy? No, of course not. Instead, he emphasizes that he heard a lot of opinions about rumors. Pay very close attention to what Fisher is saying. He is saying he does not attempt to make policy on the basis of economic fact. He believes policy should be made on the basis of random speculation. I guess it is too much work to look beyond that random speculation. He continues:

What I gleaned from those conversations was as follows:

Embarking on an Operation Twist would provide an even greater incentive for the average citizen with savings to further hoard those savings for fear that the FOMC would be signaling the economy is in worse shape than they thought.

The economy is in worst shape than the FOMC believed just months ago. Is it Fisher’s contention that the Fed’s best policy is to attempt to hide this fact? Apparently so – good luck establishing a credible monetary policy when the stated intent is to lie about the actual state of the economy.

They might view an Operation Twist as setting the stage for a new round of monetary accommodation--a QE3, if you will. Such a program was considered redundant by business operators given their surplus of undeployed cash holdings and bankers’ already plentiful excess reserves.

Actually, apparently market participants came to exactly the opposite conclusion and, realizing the path to QE3 was longer than initially believed, bid down long-term inflation expectations. More:

In addition, such a program might frighten consumers by further driving down the yields they earn on their savings and/or lead to long-term inflation that would erode the value of those savings;

I don’t know how you drive yields down any further, as the average savings account is paying nearly zero percent. And the second sentence doesn’t follow from the first – if rates are near zero, it is only because the environment is decidedly non-inflationary. See the point above. Again, the lack of significant action on the part of the Federal Reserve is dragging down inflation expectations and real interest rates. Only in Fisher’s fantasy land is the opposite happening. More objections:

The earning power of banks, both large and small, would come under additional pressure by suppressing the spread between what they can earn by lending at longer-term tenors and what they pay on the shorter-term deposits they take in;

I think this point gets overplayed. The prime-lending rate has been locked up at 3.25% since the beginning of 2009. The spread between the prime lending rate and short-term deposit rates:

Fisher1

Sure enough spread between the two has hovered around 300bp since 1990, holding true to the rule of thumb that the prime rate is 300bp plus the fed funds rate. Another example - the 24 month personal loan rate was 12.41% in 2006 when 1 month CD rates were 5%. Now the same loan rate is 11.47%, for a much wider spread. Same story with credit card rates, which have only come down a fraction of the amount of short rates. All of which makes me doubt this concern that Fed policy is deterring lending activity by crushing yields on Treasury debt (although I can see where it erodes the earnings on any Treasury debt held by the banking sector). Indeed, the opposite is occurring. Lending activity is on the rise for at least one segment of the market:

Fisher2

Apparently someone is lending money, although admittedly the consumer market is more challanging. If anything, the necessity of the banking community to earn a spread places a lower limit on lending rates, which explains the 3.25% prime rate which in turn would limit the uptake of loans (and justifies the use of higher inflation expectations to bring down real rates).

The ability to lend, however, is not only determined by the rate spread, but also by the demand from credit-worthy borrowers – and that demand has been sorely lacking as households deleverage. See also this note from the Wall Street Journal suggesting Operation Twist was a subsidy for banks. A final point is that looking through FDIC reports, the net interest margin has hovered within 25bp of 3.5% for the last decade. In 2Q11 it was 3.61% and in 2Q05 it was 3.49%.

True enough, a few basis point lower spread is meaningful. But what is more important at this point is to see even higher loan growth to profit on that margin. And that is what the Fed is trying to induce. If the Fed allows the economy to slow and loan demand to falter, a slightly higher margin might not be sufficient to prop up earnings, not to mention the impact of additional loan-loss provisions that would come into play. In short, lots of dymanics on this issue. More from Fisher:

Pension funds would have to reassess their potential returns, with the consequence that public and private direct-benefit plans would have to set aside greater reserves that might otherwise have gone to investments stimulating job creation

Yes, low interest rates place an additional burden on pension funds, just as low rates squeeze the returns for savers. But is it the Fed driving rates lower, or is the Fed just following the economy. I think it is more the latter than the former. If the Fed was actually pursuing an aggressive monetary policy, the economy would firm and long rates rise. The problem is that, contrary to the belief at Constitution Ave., the Fed's commitment to supporting economic activity is only half-hearted. And does Fisher really believe everything would be better if the Fed hiked rates by 200bp? Would pension funds really be better off if we knocked 25% off of equity valuations? More:

Expanding the holdings of the Fed’s book of longer-term debt would likely compound the complexity of future policy decisions. Perversely, the stronger the economy, the greater the losses the Fed would incur as interest rates rise in response and the prices of those longer-term holdings depreciate. The political incentive to hold rates down might then become stronger precisely when we want to initiate tighter monetary policy. This concern, of course, would be a good news/bad news issue: The good news is that it would stem from a stronger economy; the bad is that might hurt our maneuverability and, in doing so, might undermine confidence in the Fed to conduct policy independently.

This concern over the Fed’s balance sheet is way overblown. First, San Francisco Federal Reserve economist Glenn Rudebusch addressed this issue earlier this year, concluding that:

Such interest rate risk appears modest, especially relative to the Fed's policy objectives of full employment and price stability

Second, then Governor Ben Bernanke already dismissed this concern in 2003, and noted very clearly it would be a mistake to allow such concerns to prevent the central bank from acting. The Fed should simply reach an agreement with Treasury to take this concern off the table entirely, otherwise Fisher and his ilk will just continue to use it as an excuse to justify inaction. And, quite frankly, rather than basing policy on "opinions on these rumors," wouldn't a real policymaker attempt to explain why such opinions are unfounded? He continues:

One other factor gave me pause and that was, and remains, the moral hazard of being too accommodative. For years, I have been arguing that monetary policy cannot solve the problem of substandard economic performance unless it is complemented by fiscal policy and regulatory reform that encourages the private sector to put to work the affordable and abundant liquidity we are able to create as the nation’s monetary authority.

The argument here is that the Fed is enabling a dysfunctional fiscal process by attempting to aid the economy. In other words, according to Fisher, the Fed needs to let the economy collapse to prove a point about fiscal policy. That sounds great around the coffee table, but in reality, such wanton disregard for economic welfare only promises to leave behind a mountain of collateral damage.

Finally, Fisher channels former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volker:

Paul Volcker, who has the scars on his back from his Herculean effort to rein in inflation in the 1980s, wrote of this in the New York Times on Sept. 18. He reminded us that once unleashed, inflation combines with stagnation to make stagflation, the most painful of all combinations for the poor, for workers, for job seekers, for bond and stock holders and for businesses trying to navigate the economy.

I addressed this last week. Ultimately, for all his antics, this is what Fisher is about - hard money. He might claim that:

…while I remain on constant watch for signs of inflationary impulses, I believe the most urgent issue is job creation and the reduction of the scourge of unemployment.

...but in reality he sees nothing but economic apocalypse in 3% inflation. He cannot wrap his mind around one simple fact – the 1970’s began with 2.5% unemployment. We are currently facing unemployment above 9%. Apples and oranges. But Fisher is simply too intellectually lazy to attempt to differentiate between apples and oranges. For him, policy begins and ends with a single idea: Hard money is just morally good. And he will base policy on any "opinions on these rumors" that sound like they support his ideological conviction.