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Friday, September 02, 2011

How Will the Fed Respond to Today's Bad News on Employment?

There is a lot of discussion on how the Fed will react to the jobs report in its meeting this month, e.g. here and here. My view is that if the Fed is moved to action by the report -- and it is not at all certain that they will be -- they will do the least they possibly can while still looking like they are doing something about the problem.

What is the least they can do while still satisfying the demand for action? One option is to change the average duration of the assets they hold on their balance sheet by trading short-term for long-term assets (i.e. lengthen the average duration of the portfolio). This could bring down the long end of the yield curve a bit -- not much as there isn't all that much room for long-term rates to fall -- and perhaps stimulate economic activity. However, it's hard to see how a fall in long-term interest rates of such a small magnitude will produce a change in investment and a change in the consumption of durables such as cars and refrigerators of the magnitude that is needed. If there is a response from consumers and businesses to a small drop in the long-term rate, it will be far, far short of what we need.

Another option would be to cut the rate the Fed is paying on reserves held in banks. Ben Bernanke has stated this would disrupt the overnight federal funds market, so I think this is unlikely, but it could be cut, say in half from its current level of 0.25%, or even to zero. Any change in this rate can be reversed quickly if needed, so it's not a very risky option -- that's why I think it is one potential response -- but again I don't think it would do a lot of good. The problem isn't the supply of loans, it's the demand, and this wouldn't do much to stimulate new demand.

The Fed has already used up another option that doesn't require much actual action -- committing to low interest rates for an extended period of time -- but so far that hasn't seemed to have helped much. The options after that such as QE3 or adopting (and then trying to hit) a higher inflation target require much more action from the Fed and are likely to be resisted.

But things are much worse than the Fed thought they would be, the green shoots they keep pointing to whither away as soon as they depend upon them, and it's time -- way past time actually -- to quit hoping things improve and take the possibility of an extended period of stagnation seriously. I blame fiscal policymakers more than the Fed, fiscal policy is our best hope for job creation and we should have had a large job creation program in place long ago. But we need both policy barrels pointed at this problem, it's too large to solve without both policies working together, and it's time for the Fed to quit hoping a miracle saves them from the hard decisions they need to make and to move forward with more aggressive policy.

[Also posted at MoneyWatch.]

    Posted by on Friday, September 2, 2011 at 10:08 AM in Economics, Monetary Policy, MoneyWatch, Unemployment | Permalink  Comments (16)


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