Ben Bernanke, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve of United States, the American central bank, announced on June 19, that the Federal Reserve would go slow on money printing in the days to come.
Speaking to the media he said “If the incoming data are broadly consistent with this forecast, the Committee(in reference to the Federal Open Market Committee) currently anticipates that it would be appropriate to moderate the monthly pace of purchases later this year…And if the subsequent data remain broadly aligned with our current expectations for the economy, we would continue to reduce the pace of purchases in measured steps through the first half of next year, ending purchases around mid-year.”
The Federal Reserve has been printing $85 billion every month and using that money to buy American government bonds and mortgage backed securities. By buying bonds, the Fed has managed to pump the newly printed dollars into the financial system.
The idea was that there would be no shortage of money going around, and as a result interest rates will continue to be low. At low interest rates banks would lend and people would borrow and spend, and that would help in getting economic growth going again.
The trouble is that quantitative easing, as the Federal Reserve’s money printing programme, came to be known as, has turned out to be terribly addictive. And anything that is addictive cannot be so easily withdrawn without negative repercussions.
As Stephen D King writes in When the Money Runs Out “Bringing quantitative easing to an end is hardly straightforward. Imagine, for example, that a central bank decides quantitative easing has become dangerously addictive and indicates to investors not only that programme will be put on hold…but it will come to a decisive end. The likely result is a rise in government bond yields…If, however, the economy is still weak, the rise in bond yields will surely be regarded as a threat to economic recovery.”
This is exactly how things played out before and after Bernanke’s June 19 announcement. With Federal Reserve announcing that it will go slow on money printing in the days to come, investors started selling out on American government bonds.
Interest rates and bond prices are inversely correlated i.e. an increase in interest rates leads to lower bond prices. And given that interest rates are expected to rise with the Federal Reserve going slow on money printing, the bond prices will fall. Hence, investors wanting to protect themselves against losses sold out of these bonds.
When investors sell out on bonds, their prices fall. At the same time the interest that is paid on these bonds by the government continues to remain the same, thus pushing up overall returns for anybody who buys these bonds and stays invested in them till they mature. The returns or yields on the 10 year American treasury bond reached a high of 2.6% on June 25, 2013. A month earlier on May 24, 2013, this return had stood at 2.01%.
An increase in return on government bonds pushes up interest rates on all other loans. This is because lending to the government is deemed to the safest, and hence the return on other loans has to be greater than that. This means a higher interest.
The average interest rate on a 30 year home loan in the United States jumped to 4.46% as on June 27, 2013. It had stood at 3.93% a week earlier.
Higher interest rates can stall the economic recovery process. It’s taken more than four years of money printing by the Federal Reserve to get the American economy up and running again, and a slower growth is something that the Federal Reserve can ill-afford at this point of time. In fact on June 26, 2013, the commerce department of United States, revised the economic growth during the period January-March 2013, to 1.8% from the earlier 2.4%.
These developments led to the Federal Reserve immediately getting into the damage control mode. William C Dudley, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the most powerful bank among the twelve banks that constitute the Federal Reserve system in United States, said in a speech on June 27, 2013 “Some commentators have interpreted the recent shift in the market-implied path of short-term interest rates as indicating that market participants now expect the first increases in the federal funds rate target to come much earlier than previously thought. Setting aside whether this is the correct interpretation of recent price moves, let me emphasize that such an expectation would be quite out of sync with both FOMC(federal open market committee) statements and the expectations of most FOMC participants.”
What this means in simple English is that the Federal Reserve of United States led by Ben Bernanke, has no immediate plans of going slow on money printing. There will continue to be enough money in the financial system and hence interest rates will continue to be low.
After Dudley’s statement, the return on the 10 year American treasury bond, which acts as a benchmark for interest rates in the United States, fell from 2.6% on June 26, 2013, to around 2.52% as on July 3, 2013. The market did not take remarks made by Dudley (as well as several other Federal Reserve officials) seriously enough. Hence the return on 10 year American treasury bond continues to remain high, leading to higher interest rates on all other kind of loans.
It also implies that the market will not allow the Federal Reserve to go slow on money printing. As King writes “It (i.e. money printing by central banks), is also, unfortunately, highly addictive. If the economy should fail to strengthen, the central bank will be under pressure to deliver more quantitative easing.”
V. Anantha Nageswaran put it aptly in a recent column in the Mint. As he wrote “Financial markets will force the Federal Reserve to delay any attempt to restore monetary conditions to a more normal setting. Further, as and when such attempts get under way, they will be half-hearted and asymmetric as we have seen in the recent past. Since the Federal Reserve has tied the mast of the economic recovery to a recovery in asset prices, any decline in asset prices will unnerve it. Hence, the eventual outcome will be an inflationary bust due to the prevalence of an excessively accommodative monetary policy for an inordinately long period.”
If interest rates do not continue to be low then the recovery in real estate prices, which has been a major reason behind the American economic growth coming back, will be stalled. To ensure that real estate prices continue to go up, the Federal Reserve will have to continue printing money. And this in turn will eventually lead to an inflationary bust.
In fact, Jim Rickards, author of Currency Wars, feels that the Federal Reserve will increase money printing in the days to come. As he recently told www.cnbc.com “They’re not going to taper later this year. They’ll actually going to increase asset purchases because deflation is winning the tug of war between deflation and inflation. Deflation is the Fed’s worst nightmare.” Deflation is the opposite of inflation and refers to a situation where prices are falling.
When prices fall people postpone purchases in the hope of getting a better deal in the future. This has a huge impact on economic growth.
Hence it is more than likely that the Federal Reserve of United States will continue to print money in order to buy bonds to ensure that interest rates continue to remain low. If interest rates go up, the economic growth will be in a jeopardy. As King puts it “The government will then blame the central bank for undermining the nation’s economic health and the central bank’s independence will be under threat. Far better, then, simply to continue with quantitative easing (as money printing is technically referred to as).”
This means that a strong case for staying invested in gold still remains. Rickards expects the price to touch $7000 per ounce (1 troy ounce equals 31.1 grams).
(The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com)
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)