May 16, 2021

Off the Charts: Dire Warnings About Fed Strategy Did Not Come to Pass

While the first such program had started at the height of the credit crisis in 2008, the new program came when the economy was growing, and it was subjected to immediate and withering criticism, particularly from conservatives fearful it would set off inflation and unimpressed by the Fed’s belief that action was needed to spur job growth.

A group of 43 economists, including former aides to Republican presidents and presidential candidates, published an open letter to the Fed’s chairman, Ben Bernanke, saying the program should be “reconsidered and discontinued.” The planned bond purchases “risk currency debasement and inflation, and we do not think they will achieve the Fed’s objective of promoting employment,” the economists wrote.

The Fed did not back down, and Republican efforts to pass legislation removing the Fed’s mandate to seek full employment were not successful. The next year, the Fed moved on to what became known as QE3, also known as Operation Twist, an effort to bring down long-term interest rates by purchasing longer-term Treasuries. That move was criticized by Republican leaders even before it was announced. “We have serious concerns that further intervention by the Federal Reserve could exacerbate current problems or further harm the U.S. economy,” the Congressional leadership said in a letter sent to Mr. Bernanke while the Fed was meeting.

Now, the Fed is again under attack, as officials discuss the possibility of slowing the pace of bond purchases later this year, and of possibly ending the program as early as 2014. That talk has caused interest rates to rise and led to warnings of large losses for bond investors, amid complaints that it is still too early to proclaim that the recovery has gathered strength.

Losses for bond holders are sure to happen at some point, assuming interest rates return to more normal levels, and this week’s downward revision of first-quarter economic growth may provide a warning that the Fed’s growth expectations, which are more robust than those of many economists, may be too rosy. Navigating an end to quantitative easing, whenever that becomes necessary, may yet prove to be tricky.

But as the accompanying charts indicate, the Fed’s critics of 2010 and 2011 have not proved to be prescient. Far from bringing disaster, QE2 appears to have helped the economy.

It is remarkable how close many markets are now to where they were when the Fed announced the new program on Nov. 3, 2010. The recent rise in 10-year Treasury bond rates has left the yield just a little lower than it was as the program began. The price of gold spiked to record highs in 2011, but is now down about 10 percent from its pre-QE2 level.

In 2010, there were complaints from developing countries that the Fed was trying to drive down the value of the dollar, something Fed officials denied even while conceding the program could temporarily have that effect. Now the dollar index — based on the value of the American currency against six major foreign currencies — has recovered all the lost ground.

Inflation has been quiet, and perhaps more important from a central bank perspective, inflationary expectations remain subdued. Such expectations can be inferred by comparing yields of inflation-protected Treasury securities to ordinary Treasuries of the same maturity. The chart shows what the markets expect inflation will be in five years.

For a time last year, the markets were expecting deflation — a far cry from the runaway inflation that was feared by Fed critics in 2010. Now, the expectation is for inflation of a little over 1 percent — or less than the expectation when the QE2 program was begun.

The decline in unemployment since the Fed began QE2 has been steady but hardly inspiring, and there are still fewer people working than there were before the credit crisis began in 2008. But consumer confidence has been rising recently and the stock market, despite some recent Fed-induced jitters, remains more than 30 percent above its level when the program began.

Floyd Norris comments on finance and the economy at

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