The press release that follows the Fed's FOMC meeting today may offer clues about how the central bank will proceed now that it's out of conventional monetary policy ammunition. Then again, maybe not. We're all trapped in a gray zone of trial and error about what to do next and the Federal Reserve is also now faced with grasping at straws.
Typically, an afternoon FOMC press release attracts interest for an update on where short-term interest rates are headed. Today, and probably for some time to come, everyone already knows the answer. The Fed controls short rates, starting with the all-powerful Fed funds, but with the effective Fed funds at roughly 0.16%, the mystery about what comes next is, like the price of money, virtually nil.
Yet Bernanke and company may yet surprise us by dropping fresh clues about how the Fed plans to practice unconventional monetary policy from here on out — quantitative easing, to use the phrase of the dismal science. The details are a work in progress, although the immediate goal is still clear: stabilize general price levels.
We won't belabor the issue of deflation today, in part because we've discussed it often in recent months, including here and here. Let's just say that the D risk is still very much with us, and so the Fed has a fair amount of work to do in the months ahead.
The market appears to understand this, at least by way of monitoring Fed funds futures. For the year ahead, all the contracts are expecting Fed funds to remain under 60 basis points, and quite a bit lower for the immediate future.
Long rates remain in a holding pattern as well. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury Note is in the 2.5% range and it may go lower yet, depending on what the next round of inflation reports reveal, although those won't arrive for several weeks.
Meantime, there's plenty of guesswork about the Fed's next move. "With rates going nowhere for some time, the market's focus will be on whether the Fed will be looking to buy government (or corporate) securities in the near future," Sacha Tihanyi, an analyst at Scotia Capital, opines via AFP.
John Authers in today's FT argues that the critical variable is housing prices. What can the central bank do on that front? "The Fed can give details on quantitative easing — the ugly phrase for the art of buying bonds so as to push down the yields they pay, and stimulate the economy with lower rates, especially for mortgages," he writes.
If there is a single key variable to determine when the crisis in the US banking system can be brought under control, it is house prices. The further they fall, the higher the likely default rate on the mortgage-backed securities that banks now hold on their balance sheets.
Unfortunately, the news on housing prices is still discouraging, even after several years of a falling market. One of the latest bits of housing data shows that prices fell again last month even as sales perked up. Existing home sales rose 6.5% in December, albeit driven by distressed sales at bargain prices, the National Association of Realtors reports. Nonetheless, the median national price of existing homes in the U.S. still dropped by a hefty 15.3% last month.
Even if the Fed is successful in fending off deflation, which we expect it will be, that by itself isn't a cure for what ails the economy. "Ben Bernanke is rightly concerned about deflation right now," Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute explains in The Christian Science Monitor. But that's merely step one in a multi-step recovery program. "Getting inflation back into the system … is not going to be sufficient," Lachman notes.
Convincing banks to lend and consumers and businesses to borrow is arguably the next big step beyond containing the deflation risk. Solving the latter will be easy by comparison. The real challenge will come later this year in trying to promote growth. But first things first, and so we await today's Fed commentary.