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Peter Morici Archives | Email alerts

Sept. 8, 2021, 11:21 p.m. EDT

Powell risks his legacy if he doesn’t start tapering soon

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Peter Morici

The Federal Reserve should move quickly to taper purchases of Treasury and mortgage-backed securities, or it risks losing its independence from the whims of politicians and financial markets.

In August 2020, the Fed announced that it would  give priority to “maximum employment”  and no longer act pre-emptively to stem inflation. It would accept a  period of inflation greater than 2%  to compensate for undershooting that target in the 2010s, but the Fed has been vague about how much overshooting is tolerable.

Since April, the  annualized pace of month-over-month CPI inflation  has been 8.7%. That  should not be attributed merely to a rebound in pandemic depressed prices  for airplane tickets, rental and used cars, hotel rooms and the like. Supply-chain problems—such as those  for   computer   chipssevere shortages of workers in manufacturing  and  transportation , climate-change impacts on  agricultural productivity , problems in  global transportation , and the  costs of shifting to carbon-free technologies —will persist.

Rising inflation

Reflecting these,  private economists’ inflation forecasts keep rising .

The Fed’s  policy change  is  anchored in the view that it tightened too quickly  in the past and denied workers the opportunity to enjoy a sellers’ labor market and bargain for higher pay.

The Fed raised interest rates  from June 2004 to June 2006 and from December 2015 to December 2018. During both episodes, the unemployment rate continued to fall.

By June 2019, unemployment reached 3.6% but  Powell let President Donald Trump bully him  into  stopping the tightening process . Now economists at the Biden White House have a preference for accommodative policies , and Powell is up for reappointment.

If he leans against  growing sentiment among members of the Federal Open Market Committee  to announce a plan to taper by the end of the year, the appearance of pressure from West Wing economists and their supporters will be salient. 

Now read: Powell’s tough choice: curb inflation or appease the Biden administration

Bernanke & the taper tantrum

In 2013,  Chairman Ben Bernanke raised the idea of scaling back the Fed’s holdings of mortgage-backed securities . The 10-year Treasury rate /zigman2/quotes/211347051/realtime BX:TMUBMUSD10Y +5.54% jumped, a  stock-market rout was feared , and Bernanke proceeded to  add more than another $1 trillion to the Fed balance sheet , not the reverse.

Monetary policy is supposed to work by the Fed regulating interest rates through the bond market but as the “taper tantrum” illustrated, financial-market reactions can strongly influence what the Fed does.

Opinions run in both directions as to whether the Fed’s easy-money policies  exacerbate wealth inequality by boosting equity and home prices  or  reduce it . One thing is clear, stock /zigman2/quotes/210599714/realtime SPX +1.53% and housing markets have thrived at higher rates than the present Treasury yield of less than 1.5%.

Easy-money policies are no longer needed to create favorable labor market conditions.  Employers have 10 million jobs they can’t fill .

Rock-bottom mortgage rates  may be creating a bubble in housing markets  but do little to increase the supplies of scarce  building lotsmaterials  and  skilled tradesmen  and boost the pace of new home construction.

Pulling back on those purchases of mortgage-backed securities would raise mortgage rates and limit bidding wars for new homes, but reducing excess demand would have more constraining impact on housing prices than new home construction and employment.

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