Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Fed Moves to Monetize

The Federal Reserve shocked the financial markets yesterday. The Fed released the results of its just-ended Federal Open Market Committee meeting and the response was immediate—stock market indices went up—and the value of the dollar went down!

The reason—the Open Market Committee approved a plan to purchase up to $300 billion of longer-term Treasury securities over the next six months. This is in addition to a plan to increase the Fed’s purchase of up to an additional $750 billion of agency mortgage-backed securities.

The stock markets took this surprise as a positive sign that the Fed was being true to what Chairman Ben Bernanke had indicated in recent speeches and interviews—“the Federal Reserve will employ all available tools to promote economic recovery.” (Oh, he also added “and to preserve price stability.”) Good news—right? Well, the stock market seemed to be “mixed” today.

The foreign exchange markets took another view and the value of the dollar dropped sharply, and the selloff was “widespread” according to the Wall Street Journal. Bad news—right? Well, the value of the dollar continued to decline today.

It is a complex story. I have been one that has continuously expressed concern over the long term prospects for the dollar in foreign exchange markets. See for example my post “The Obama Stimulus Plan and the Dollar: Is There a Connection ( The concern is over the huge United States budget deficit and how this deficit is to be financed in future years. The long-run view of such large deficits is that a substantial portion of them will have to be monetized by the central bank. The fundamental effort of all Keynesian fiscal policy is to inflate or reflate the economy.

There are some complicating factors to this simple story. Through all the financial and economic turmoil of the past six months the dollar has not declined in value but has actually strengthened. If participants in the financial markets are so concerned about the deficits of the United States government and the possibility that the Federal Reserve will monetize a bunch of the debt, why has the value of the dollar gone in the direction it has? Why hasn’t the value of the dollar tanked, instead?

For one, the United States dollar is the “world” currency and it still is the currency of choice in times of uncertainty and turmoil. Thus, the strength of the dollar has, to a large extent, been the result of a “flight to safety” on the part of many investors in the world. It will, undoubtedly, continue to be a “safe haven” for much of the world’s wealth for a long while into the future.

Second, because most of the whole world is in some kind of a recession and are following similar fiscal and monetary policies, it becomes difficult to discern which currencies throughout the world are going to be the worst off. If changes in the value of currencies are a result of changes in the relative prospect for future inflation in different countries, then the exchange rates will ultimately be dependent upon just how each of these countries handles the pressures created by their own stimulus packages.

As for the United States dollar, the most important factor determining its value in the near term is going to be the “safety” factor. Still, other factors, like the aggressive posture of the Federal Open Market Committee cannot be ignored. And, this seems to be what is happening right now in foreign exchange markets. I would argue that even though this latter movement might be a short-run phenomenon, a person concerned with the future health of the United States economy should not ignore what the foreign exchange market might be telling us.

I continue to go to this statement of Paul Volcker: “a nation’s exchange rate is the single most important price in the economy.” (Paul Volcker and Toyoo Gyohten, “Changing Fortunes: the World’s Money and the Threat to American Leadership,” (New York: Times Books, 1992), p. 232.) Consequently, what is happening or will happen to this price should be of major concern to investors. This price will carry with it the view of the world investment community about how the United States is conducting its fiscal and monetary policies.

This is something that the Obama administration and the Federal Reserve System need to pay attention to. The most recent example of ignoring information like this came during the years of the Bush administration. In 2001 a tax cut was passed by the government that took the government budget from a surplus to a deficit position. This was followed by increasing expenditures that went to support several military engagements around the world. The fundamental market response to this was that the value of the dollar began to decline early in 2002.

In addition to this the Federal Reserve System kept short term interest rates at very low levels (the effective Federal Funds rate was below 2% from early in 2002 until the beginning of 2005) for an extended period of time which resulted in negative real rates of interest during this interval. Participants in foreign exchange markets continued to put pressure on the value of the dollar into the summer of 2008. Even though officials in the Bush administration and the Federal Reserve System claimed that they were watching the value of the dollar and maintaining its value was an important goal, little or nothing was done about this decline and the market value continued to sink.

The value of the dollar is something that we need to continue to watch closely. The concern over the monetary and fiscal policies of the Obama administration is not misplaced. A warning shot was issued this week by the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao when he indicated that he was a “little bit worried” about the safety of the U. S. Treasury bonds that his government owns. The reaction of the foreign exchange market to the Fed’s announcement about their plan to buy up to $300 billion of longer-term Treasury securities is another. And, there is also the concern of some analysts that the real financial and economic issue facing the United States is one of “too much debt” and that this debt overload is exacerbating the economic slowdown. As the historian Niall Ferguson, author of “The Ascent of Money” (see review at, has stated, “the solution to the problem of having too much debt around is not creating more debt.”

Is the decision of the Federal Open Market Committee to purchase up to $300 billion of longer-term Treasury issues the next step in the monetizing of the debt? Will the release of this information contribute to a further decline in the value of the dollar? There are, of course, a lot of “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” at this time. Obviously, it is a very risky time. However, in my view, eventually the value of the dollar will continue to erode. History has shown that this is what eventually happens in situations like the one we are in.

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